New U.K. leaders have upper class edge

Stephen Beard May 24, 2010

New U.K. leaders have upper class edge

Stephen Beard May 24, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: Britain’s new coalition government announced $9 billion worth of budget cuts today. It’s just the first of what promises to be a series of announcements this year aimed at getting the U.K.’s red ink under control. Austerity budgets are no fun anywhere, much less in a country where class differences aren’t far from the surface. For the first time in almost 50 years, the British government is dominated by members of the upper crust. “Toffs,” as the Brits like to say.

From London, Marketplace’s Stephen Beard reports.

STEPHEN BEARD: The new government is planning — among other things — radical change in the U.K.’s constitution.

The Deputy Prime Minister is Nick Clegg.

NICK CLEGG: I’m talking about the biggest shake-up of our democracy since the great reforms of the 19th century.

If all goes to plan parliament will be transformed. The voting system and party funding overhauled.

Practically a revolution claims Prime Minister David Cameron.

DAVID CAMERON: It can be an historic and seismic shift in our political landscape.

But the new leaders don’t seem on the face of it like revolutionary material. Cameron is a direct descendant of King William IV. Clegg is the grandson of a Russian baroness. The new finance chief is a member of the Anglo Irish aristocracy.

Dennis Skinner is a proudly working class member of parliament.

DENNIS SKINNER: It really is incredible that they’re claiming to be the party of change.

Skinner represents the town of Bolsover. He was dubbed the “Beast of Bolsover ” for his savage parliamentary attacks on the wealthy and privileged. He’s not impressed with the bluebloods now in power.

SKINNER: Their ideas have all emanated from the class with which they’re associated. And it looks like they’re going to hit the working class really hard.

Of course, Britain has changed enormously since Noel Coward gently lampooned the ruling classes in the 1930’s. Over the past 50 years most prime ministers have had humble origins. Margaret Thatcher was the daughter of a shopkeeper, John Major, the son of a circus performer. So finding toffs like Cameron and Clegg at the pinnacle of British politics is highly unusual today.

Economist Andrew Hilton is also unhappy about it.

ANDREW HILTON: I resent deeply the fact that I am now ruled by a cabinet largely made up of that 2 percent of the population that actually can go to private school. I hate it.

A class in Ancient Greek, an exclusive private school called Westminster. This school gave Nick Clegg one of the best educations money can buy. Cameron went to Eton. Both Clegg and Cameron went on to elite universities and then into comfortable jobs in PR and lobbying.

Dennis Skinner believes they have little or no empathy with the poorest and most disadvantaged. Those who could suffer the most from the public spending cuts.

SKINNER: Once they start cutting expenditure here, left, right and center, they’re going to eat into those benefits that assist those at the bottom of the pile.

Class warriors like Dennis Skinner, it must be said, are increasingly rare. After all, almost 60 percent of the electorate voted for Cameron and Clegg’s respective parties. On the street most people say they don’t care about the new leaders’ pedigree.

MAN: I was in the army for 22 years. I’m used to working with officers from the upperclass so it doesn’t bother me at all.

WOMAN: It’s modern Britain. Yes, they are from a privileged elite, from a minority. But I think we just need to judge as we find, wait and see.

But Britain’s old obsession with class could reemerge if the new government’s reforming zeal falters and if the public spending cuts really begin to bite.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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