All Australians know Britain is chock-full of snobs. But what you Aussies may not realise is that the British snobs are losing. At least for now.
Last weekend, the glorious rule of British snobbism took a major blow with the election of the supremely un-snobby Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the British Labour Party.
In case you didn’t follow the story, here’s a quick summary: Jeremy Corbyn is a stalwart of the socialist ‘Old Labour’ Party. He believes in a big welfare state, nationalisation of monopoly services such as power distribution and railways, and taxing the rich more. And he is fiercely anti-austerity.
Corbyn entered the leadership race as the token lefty, there to add a bit of folksy plausibility to the Oxford/Cambridge-educated Blairite humanoids who were supposed to win.
But then things went very wrong. Corbyn’s straight-talking, anti-establishment, cheap-suit-and-open-neck-shirt approach struck a cord with ordinary Labour members, and he ended up winning a landslide victory. And now the leader of the opposition – the UK’s answer to Bill Shorten – is basically a Marxist.
To the London establishment, Corbyn’s success is worrying. They never saw it coming, and now it has come, they are panicking. This panic was exacerbated when Corbyn, a passionate republican, failed to sing God Save the Queen at an official do. There was uproar.
Throughout Corbyn’s campaign, journalists and commentators have treated Corbyn with a sneering contempt. His treatment on this episode of BBC Panorama is a case in point. This radio program is another. Both presenters look down their nose at Corbyn for no other reason than that he has refused to play their game, and has dared to question the orthodoxies that rule British political debate.
An Australian parallel might be the rise of Jacqui Lambie (though Corbyn is undoubtedly much better informed than she is). But if anything, Lambie’s rise shows just how egalitarian Australian culture is, where Corbyn’s rise exposes a deep rift between the UK’s ruling class, and the rest. And this rift isn’t just between the ruling elite and the grass-roots left. The right-wing UK Independence Party is also popular with ordinary people, who see the party’s leader Nigel Farage as refreshingly straight-talking.
The Economist‘s rather hyperbolic verdict of Jeremy Corbyn is a good reflection of the establishment’s position:
“To see where Mr Corbyn’s heart lies, you have only to look at the company he has kept. He admires the late Hugo Chávez for his legacy in Venezuela. No matter that chavismo has wrecked the economy and hollowed out democracy. He indulges Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian kleptocracy in Russia and blames NATO for provoking its invasion of Ukraine. He entertains Hamas, which has repeatedly used violence against Israel and admires Syriza, the radical left party that has governed Greece with almost unmatched incompetence. Yet he is stridently anti-American, anti-Israel and anti-NATO and quietly anti-European Union (apparently, it’s a free-market conspiracy—see article). He even scolded China’s Communist Party for its free-market excesses.”
This sort of exaggeration borders on scaremongering, and shows just how rattled the establishment is.
Corbyn’s ascendancy, and that of his right-wing counterpart Nigel Farage, is a manifest demonstration that the incredibly pro-big business, neoliberal ideology that has ruled British politics since the 1980s – powerfully backed up by good old English snobbism – has quite possibly had its day.
But it’s not just about economics. It’s also about a more general approach to politics, as comedian Grainne Maguire says:
“Young people are very cynical, very jaded about politicians. They see them as all the same, very corporate, very careerist. And then Jeremy comes along. He seems like he’s got integrity, he’s not talking down to people, and he’s got actual opinions, and I think people really connect with that.”
Corbyn’s success could be a flash in the pan. But even if it is, hopefully it will serve as a reminder that English (yes, English, not British) snobbism is alive, well, and a complete waste of time. And perhaps it will help bring in a more egalitarian culture.
In other words, it might make the UK a bit more like Australia. Hooray.
Disclosure: The author of this article is an English snob.
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