David Skelton: Is a new form of snobbery reshaping British politics?

By Brian Wheeler
BBC News

  • Published
England fan wearing a Boris Johnson maskImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Can Boris Johnson retain his working-class fans?

Snobbery is a very British vice - but according to the author of a new book it is no longer about looking down on people for having the wrong accent or manners.

The "new snobbery" is a form of condescension practised by university-educated "progressives" - directed at people they consider ignorant and bigoted, David Skelton argues.

He believes it is the biggest fault line in British politics, and could lead to the Conservative Party staying in power for the foreseeable future.

Skelton is one of the most influential centre-right thinkers in the country, whose previous book, Little Platoons, contained the seeds of Boris Johnson's flagship "levelling up" policy.

He is also a native of north-east England, having grown up in Consett, a former steel town in the Pennine foothills, which like other former Labour strongholds elected a Conservative MP in 2019.

For Skelton, the crumbling of Labour's fabled "red wall" had been a long time coming.

"I felt that the status quo in both parties had rather taken for granted, rather ignored, the kind of people I went to school with - and the kind of people who, before the phrase became commonplace, were being 'left behind' by politicians of both parties."

But it took the 2016 Brexit referendum - and its bitter aftermath - to bring things to a head.

Image caption,
Hyacinth Bucket epitomised old-school snobbery for sitcom lovers

"Working-class voters in places like Consett, places in the North East and Yorkshire, the Midlands - post-industrial places that had been long forgotten, just flexed their muscles for the first time.

"The response, I thought, was really disheartening."

'Identity politics'

He is referring to the savage war of words between Leavers and Remainers that played out on social media in the weeks following the referendum.

"The number of times I heard people described as stupid or under-educated or bigoted," he says, was "really annoying for me, because these are my friends, these are my family who are anything but bigoted and the very opposite of it."

According to Skelton, Leavers were subjected to abuse from people "generally wealthier and better educated than them - or with a higher level of academic education".

In his book, he argues that this is a new form of snobbery, more "insidious" than traditional forms because it "questions people's ability to participate in the democratic process".

Image caption,
The class system inspired satirists in the 1960s

Labour supporters and members of the People's Vote campaign for another referendum were particularly susceptible to it, he claims.

He concedes that you would be hard-pressed to find examples of Labour politicians or activists - increasingly drawn from the city-dwelling professional classes - openly sneering at the working classes, beyond a few well-shared social media posts.

But he argues it is there in the tone of what they say and the issues they choose to prioritise. There is a chapter in his book on "wokeism" and "identity politics", which he argues, is policed by a small, privileged elite.

Like other writers, on both the left and right, Skelton points the finger at a misguided version of meritocracy, which gives people fortunate enough to have had a good education licence to look down on those who haven't.

'Savage cuts'

In fact, his definition of the working class - always a slippery concept in post-industrial Britain - is people who did not go to university.

The professional classes, including politicians and journalists, have long been dominated by graduates, often from privileged private school backgrounds. Even those from more humble origins leave their home areas and friendship groups behind, in search of a better income and more acceptable opinions, argues Skelton.

He does not call for fewer young people to go on to higher education - but does argue for a reversal of the "savage" cuts in funding for further education and a higher social status for frontline workers.

He also bemoans the destruction of secure, skilled jobs that gave communities like Consett a sense of pride and meaning.

In this respect, his book, The New Snobbery, is very similar to another recent book, The Dignity of Labour, by Labour MP Jon Cruddas, who I interviewed in May.

Thatcherite policies

Skelton is an admirer of Cruddas's work, and like him sees salvation in the return of high-quality, well-paid jobs in manufacturing.

Many, including Cruddas, would argue that these jobs and the communities they sustained were destroyed by the Conservatives in the first place,

In the 1980, the closure of the steel plant in Consett, with the loss of 3,700 jobs, became a byword on the left for brutal, uncaring Thatcherite policies.

Skelton says the "headlong rush" towards deindustrialisation - and the switch to a service-based economy - in the 1980s and 1990s was a mistake.

Image source, David Skelton
Image caption,
David Skelton says voters will not wait forever for "levelling up"

He claims that under Boris Johnson there has been "a change in mindset and certainly a change in rhetoric" at the top of the Conservative Party. Hardline Thatcherite economics are increasingly out of favour - and "levelling up" is the latest buzzword, with promises to spend money on neglected parts of the country.

The jury is still out on whether levelling up will amount to much more than some showpiece infrastructure spending and a few thousands civil service jobs sent north. Detailed policies are promised for the autumn.

Skelton warns that "a lasting change can only happen if working-class voters become central to everything the (Conservative) party says and does". This may involve upsetting vested interests, and donors, he adds.

The jury is also out on whether that will come to pass, but Boris Johnson does not have forever to consolidate his newfound support among the victims of the new snobbery, says Skelton.

"Frankly, the Tories are not going to have a majority of 80 for long if they don't deliver for the voters who brought about that majority in the first place.

"These voters are patient, but they don't have endless reserves of patience."