Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Prescott, privilege and class prejudice

I have just finished watching the first part of John Prescott’s programme about class. Although it was at times both fascinating and quite moving, in the end I find Prescott’s chip on his shoulder about class, his visceral resentment of anyone who appears too posh or privileged, hard to sympathise with.

This was particularly so at the moment when he began sounding off at a teenage lad at the Henley Regatta who went to a private school. It turned out that the young man had two-thirds of his fees paid by the state because his father was in the army, at which point Prescott demanded to know why the government paid for the education of officers but not of other ranks. To which the obvious answer is ‘Well you tell us that John. You were in government for 10 years and in a better position than most to change it and you didn’t. You were the one with the power, not the young man you were berating.’

Prescott’s bête noir Simon Hoggart, who regularly made fun of the way the former deputy prime minister tortures the English language, is certainly not the archetypal toff that Prescott seems to imagine. His father, Richard Hoggart, may have been a university lecturer, but he grew up as a working class boy in Leeds and his most famous book The Uses of Literacy is a discussion of working class culture. I have heard Hoggart père speak (he received an honorary degree when I graduated from Leicester University many moons ago) and he doesn’t sound any posher than Prescott.

I suppose part of my irritation with Prescott is that I entirely lack the strong class affiliations that he has. I could with equal accuracy describe my antecedents as middle class (or at least petit bourgeois) business people or working-class factory hands. I could portray my own upbringing either as a privileged existence at prestigious private schools or a difficult one spent living on council estates and attending evening classes at a further education colleage to get into university. Whichever way, I am automatically suspicious of anyone who too obviously wears their class loyalty on their sleeve or who appears to judge people according to class.

One prejudice I do confess to, though, is against people who boast of not reading books, as Prescott appeared to do at one point in the programme. This is not something I have picked up from a supposedly privileged education, but from my four grandparents, and in particular from my maternal grandmother who left school aged about 13 virtually illiterate, yet whose voracious reading habits in the course of a long life have taken in most of the great works of literature. She has always taken a particularly dim view of people who can read but don’t.

Perhaps if Prescott had spent more time reading and less time talking he wouldn’t mangle the English language so much, and it is this latter point that is what really seems to bother him. Interestingly, it emerged that Prescott grew up in a private, semi-detached house and came from a rather less deprived background than that of his wife Pauline. Yet Mrs Prescott now speaks with a less pronounced accent than her husband.

Which puts me in mind of the story told about Henry Kissinger’s elder brother, who had entirely lost the distinctive Austrian accent that was so marked in his younger sibling. When asked why this was, the brother commented, ‘Unlike Henry, I listen to other people’. It would be unfair to say this was wholly true of Prescott. His meetings with the three unemployed young women from London revealed his genuine concern for the poor, an ability listen and to communicate with them on their level. But Prescott clearly judges people according to his perception of which class they belong to, and this is something I find unsavoury from whichever direction it comes. Perhaps that is one reason why I am a Liberal and not a socialist (or, for that matter, Tory.)

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