Katie Grant: ‘Posh’ is a badge of honour: wear it with pride

THE word was used as a weapon with which to attack the PM, but ‘poshness’ can be a very good thing, writes Katie Grant

‘Posh Boy”. It’s the taunt de nos jours and I’m going to do something so unfashionable as to be foolhardy: I’m going to defend poshness. The reason is not David Cameron. It’s myself. If he’s posh boy, then I’m posh girl, and I refuse to be ashamed of it.

We need some definitions here. “Posh”, whose origins, as ‘every schuleboy know’, are the apocryphal “port out, starboard home” liner ticket, has been in use since the 1890s. It’s a social statement rather than a social class, as in “we’re going to a very posh do, so we’re going to dress up”. It’s admirable in the Beckhams – Victoria, who is one of my heroines, has lived up to her nickname – and ridiculous in the wannabe posh Hyacinth Bucket, the literary descendent of Murray Posh, the “swell” in the Grossmith brothers’ Diary of a Nobody. There was once a difference between the posh and the aristocratic. Aristocrats would have qualified as “U” in Nancy Mitford’s book, and posh people as “non U”. Poshness always had a kind of striving shininess about it, whereas aristocracy was built on the dust of centuries. Life peers were posh; hereditary peers were aristocratic.

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Twenty years ago, aristocrats were loathed. To say you were upper-class was social death. That’s changed. Aristocrats have been rehabilitated by expulsion from the House of Lords, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire and Downton Abbey. Venom is now reserved for the posh who, along with the Beckhams and the Hyacinth Buckets, now include anybody privately educated (Eton, Winchester, and girls’ equivalents), anybody who looks smart, anybody with a tennis racquet in the hall, children with studiedly old-fashioned names (Archie, Imogen and Clementine) and anybody with a voice like the Queen. It’s the posh, particularly the posh in power, who are now the lowest of the low. When Tory MP Nadine Dorries wanted to insult the Prime Minister, she chose well. Posh Boy is far more damaging than Harry Enfield’s Tory Boy.

I now lay out my own cards. Though lacking the tennis racquet (can’t serve, can’t hit), I have impeccable posh credentials. My father’s family were half grand aristocrats with lots of those heraldic quarterings so beloved of Catholic Orders of This and That, and half Belgian bankers. I’m entirely independently educated (convents from start to finish) and I have a daughter called Clementine. There’s not much point apologising for this, or trying to find salvation through my mother. My parents were second cousins. I’m doomed on every count. Worse, I can’t hide speaking like the queen. To paraphrase Henry Higgins, the moment I open my mouth, somebody despises me.

Should I cringe? Most certainly not. We need more poshness, not less. Posh Boy may be shorthand for the Bullingdon brayer, but poshness, at its best, also embraces the old aristocratic virtues of courtesy, manners and a sense of public duty. As my uncle Perry Worsthorne argues in his In Defence of Aristocracy (note it’s the concept of aristocracy he’s defending, not The Aristocracy) posh schools like Stowe aimed to turn out “quality material for every different walk of life – quality top dogs and quality bottom dogs, quality politicians and quality voters, and even quality revolutionaries”. The duty of an old Stoic was clear: posh boys must use all talents available “for the advantage of the nation as a whole”.

Over the past years, with posh virtues like duty and patriotism ridiculed and derided on every comedy show, including the BBC, the posh have said “stuff it” and begun to behave as posh people ought not to behave. It may be unfashionable to say so, but it seems a double sin to me when old Etonians, for example, fiddle their parliamentary expenses: not only is it a sin against the taxpayer, it’s a betrayal of the values for which a school like Eton stands. I cheer when judges come down hard on the posh boys and girls who took part in last summer’s looting. It’s not good enough for posh children to say “I didn’t choose to be posh, so I can do as I like”. You are posh. Get over it.

One of the great mistakes made by many politicians, teachers and commentators of influence has been to encourage the denigration of poshness, to treat it as an embarrassing deformity, so that, to a child, any manifestation of poshness, for example the RP accent, feels like the mark of Cain. The consequent collapse of morale twists any sense of posh obligation into a kind of angry shame, of which mockney accents are the harmless reaction and looting the serious. To adapt J M Barrie, just as a fairy dies every time a child denies their existence, so another bit of decent Britain withers every time Ms Dorries and other parliamentary cronies shout “Posh Boy” at David Cameron, or when those in positions of influence use “posh” as a term of abuse. It’s Lord Snooty in reverse, and equally hideous.

Britain is fortunate. For all the faults of the aristocracy, and they were legion, the notion of noblesse oblige was a splendid legacy. The triumph of democracy and the slow march of equality have appropriately diluted the “noblesse” but surely not the “oblige”. “Poshness oblige” doesn’t have quite the same ring, but it has the great advantage that, though some are born to poshness, everybody can aspire to it. Unlike aristocracy, poshness doesn’t depend so much on birth or riches as on how you want to live and how you want to bring up your children. I refuse to be intimidated. Of course, not everybody posh contributes positively to society. Lots of posh people are pretty ghastly. But to denigrate an entire state of being for no better reason than inverted snobbery or political dislike is unworthy. Poshness is, on the whole, good for Britain. The next time somebody shouts “Posh Boy” at David Cameron, I suggest he smiles and thanks them for the compliment.