The theatregoers were a mixed bunch: a gentleman in silk cravat, a young woman in torn jeans; some guzzled beer from plastic cups, others drained champagne from flutes.
What united the crowd was poshness—not that they all possessed it, but that they all wished to see it pilloried onstage in Posh, a sold-out play at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square denouncing the debauchery and corruption of the British upper classes.
Class is a notorious obsession here, its intricacies understood only by those imprisoned within the system and a farce to those outside. The issue has become even more topical of late, after the May 6 elections that brought to power the Conservative leader, David Cameron, Britain’s poshest prime minister in decades.
The question is: have the British elite—“the toffs”—asserted their power anew after a long spell of public scorn? Or does the rise of Cameron (a distant relation of the Queen) and his coalition partner, Nick Clegg (himself somewhat posh), mean that social rank isn’t relevant anymore?
The columnist Nick Cohen of the centre-left Observer had no doubt. “The sight of Nick Clegg and David Cameron joshing in the grounds of Downing Street had rammed home a truth about Britain that all the talk of ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ obscures. We live in the most class-ridden society in western Europe, and it is becoming more sclerotic and more hierarchical by the year,” he wrote recently. “Look hard at a picture of our new government, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the 20th century never happened.”
Harry Mount, a journalist who is himself of posh stock, took the opposite view. “David Cameron happens to be my second cousin, but I’m not writing this to defend him,” he declared in the conservative Daily Telegraph. “By all means attack him for his policies—or any perceived lack of them. But how banal, how backward-looking, to attack him for what school he went to, what he did when he was 20, or what his ancestors happened to do.”
For the record, Cameron went to Eton and Oxford—the most rarefied combination possible in Britain. And “what he did when he was 20” is an allusion to a notorious photograph that emerged ahead of the campaign.
Taken at Oxford in 1987, the photo shows members of the Bullingdon, a dining club of unrepentant toffs known for excessive boozing, smashing up restaurants and tossing wads of shut-up money at their victims. Unsmiling, haughty, contemptuous, Cameron and his undergraduate crew are pictured in the Bullingdon uniform of black tailcoats, mustard-yellow waistcoats and sky-blue bow ties (cost per outfit: more than 2,000 pounds, or over $3,000, reports say).
Worries that a boorish elite might be resurgent in British politics were exacerbated by the fact that also in the photo is the current Tory mayor of London, Boris Johnson, while another old snapshot of members of “the Buller,” as the club is known, includes one of the most powerful men in the new cabinet, the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne. Other past Buller men include members of Parliament, bankers, media personalities, kings, princes, generals.
Evelyn Waugh wrote of the Buller—thinly disguised as “the Bollinger Club”—in his 1928 novel Decline and Fall: “At the last dinner, three years ago, a fox had been brought in in a cage and stoned to death with champagne bottles. What an evening that had been!” The novel’s hapless protagonist falls into the hands of club members at Oxford, has his trousers pulled down, and is forced to scamper across the quad half-naked. This isn’t pure fiction: members of the Buller are alleged to enjoy “debagging,” or forcibly removing the trousers of foes, particularly those deemed intellectual or artsy.
Most Britons view upper-class twits with fleeting amusement mixed with lingering distaste. As such, young lords and ladies with overly posh accents routinely adjust their glass-shattering tones to pass for middle class or even cockney, just as the lower classes once tried to pass for anything higher. These days, many ex-toffs writhe with embarrassment if discovered as former pupils of that most famously elite of private schools, Eton.
Previously, the glory of being a toff was that one needed never be embarrassed by anything; the curse of being middle class, by contrast, was that one felt embarrassed by everything. (Indeed, the genius of postwar British comedy was rooted in such middle-class embarrassment: consider Fawlty Towers. This also explains why that vein of comedy has dwindled—the middle class isn’t particularly embarrassed anymore. If anyone is abashed, it’s the toffs.)
Cameron, in a BBC interview last year, cringed at the sight of the notorious Buller photo, describing himself as “desperately, very embarrassed” by it. “We do things when we’re young that we deeply regret,” he said.
Yet during the election campaign, his opponent, Gordon Brown of the Labour Party, failed to gain traction from Cameron’s path of privilege.
Ben Macintyre, a historian and a columnist for The Times, argued that “the infinitesimal gradations of class are of anthropological interest, but of no political relevance whatever.”
“The election result,” he wrote, “has offered conclusive evidence that voters know that there are more important considerations than where someone went to school, how they speak and whether they like to kill animals at the weekend.”
So, perhaps poshness wasn’t the point. Led by Tony Blair and Brown, Labour had held power for 13 years—about as long as an electorate will typically tolerate a party. And the financial crisis had so sapped national spirits that the “Cool Britannia” branding had given way to dreary pronouncements about “Broken Britain.”
Crowds still line up to deplore the dissolute, drunk, dissipated upper classes in a play like Posh. But what decided this election—what is shaping Britain today—appears to be less pomp than circumstance.
Tom Rachman is the author of the acclaimed new novel, The Imperfectionists—and the film rights have just been bought by Brad Pitt’s production company Plan