AFTER Benedict Cumberbatch’s attack on ‘posh bashing’, Dani Garavelli asks why so many Britons feel they have a right to deride people based on their accent or schooling
JANE Faye comes from a modest background; Glasgow-born, her mother was a nurse, her father a businessman. The first of their families to go to university, they viewed a good education as a pathway to a better life and scrimped and saved to send their daughter to an all-girls private school in Bedfordshire, where they moved when she was four.
She could not compete socially with the pupils whose fathers were Tory landowners and rode out on the hunt – her family bought from charity shops in order to afford the fees. Yet her upbringing left her with a cut-glass accent that can only be described as a wee bit “posh”.
Moving back to Scotland – where class-identity is all-important – she found her manner of talking sneered at by those who viewed it as incontrovertible evidence of wealth and privilege. Studying Scottish literature and linguistics at Glasgow University, she discovered an insidious hostility to anyone whose roots were not conspicuously working-class.
“You would hear it in the pub – the local version of ‘posh-bashing’ which is Hyndland-bashing, or the youth culture version, which is hipster-bashing.” There is even a Facebook Page called I Hate the Pretentious and Extremely Fake Glasgow University Accent, which mocks the way students perceived as middle/upper class speak; it is choc-full of sneering posts and has more than 11,000 followers.
Although Faye – who now runs her own eco-friendly alternative clothing business Gaia Noir – readily admits such class prejudice is not the worst problem facing the world, she still believes it is unfair. “Girls I was at school with really did have names like Constance Hubert-Smyth and dad really had bought them a pony, but just because you have been in that environment doesn’t mean you absorb their values,” she says.
Faye is not alone in her sense of injustice. Last week, Harrow-educated actor Benedict Cumberbatch claimed rampant “posh-bashing” which saw him “castigated as a moaning, rich, public-school bastard, complaining about only getting posh roles” had led him to think about leaving Britain for the US.
His outburst – which coincided with the promotion of his latest TV series Parade’s End – did not garner him huge amounts of sympathy. There were those who felt that, by being rich and public school-educated and by moaning a lot, he’d kind of proved his critics’ point.
Still, his statement and the scale of the response it elicited did throw the spotlight on Britain’s continued obsession with class, and raise the question: is lambasting the posh the last socially acceptable form of prejudice?
In fact, Cumberbatch is not the first to have suggested inverted snobbery is rife. When Ed Stourton was sacked from Radio 4’s The Today programme to make way for Justin Webb in 2009, critics suggested it was because the producers believed listeners could only stomach one “posh” voice at a time.
Not so long ago, of course, an RP accent was an advantage, particularly in broadcasting, where it carried an air of authority; but today the pendulum has swung in the other direction, with regional accents all the rage and “posh” people tending to be dismissed as out of touch with reality.
Earlier this year, Stockport-born Joan Bakewell – whose parents sent her to elocution lessons – said she’d been told her voice was now “too posh” for the corporation, while Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes – a Tory peer – claimed toffs were the last remaining minority considered a legitimate target for mockery.
The current political situation has probably exacerbated the problem; criticism of the present government has focused heavily on the public school backgrounds of key figures, including the Eton-educated David Cameron and George Osborne, and Nick Clegg, who attended Westminster School.
Their privileged background is held up as an affront to those who are suffering as a result of the economic crisis and the austerity measures introduced to tackle them.
North of the Border, at the moment, the problem is probably most prevalent in Edinburgh where the sound of “posh” PRs barking loudly into their smartphones about the latest Festival show rings out along the Royal Mile, making locals’ hackles rise.
But is it really fair to make assumptions about people’s personalities based on their accent or schooling? And even if they are truly upper class is it fair to discriminate against them for what is – in effect – an accident of birth?
The difficulty inherent in any discussion about “posh-bashing” is two-fold. The first challenge is that the word “posh” is entirely relative; for some, “posh people” are toffs, aristocrats, those born into land and/or a title, but for others using long words, eating tapas and holidaying in the south of France might be enough to justify the tag. You only have to see how sniffy some in the upper classes were of Kate Middleton to understand what a nebulous concept it is.
It certainly isn’t about money; some of the richest people around today – think Sir Alan Sugar and the recent lottery winners – are the antithesis of “posh” and any hostility directed towards them is more likely to derive not from their airs and graces, but from the lack of them.
The second challenge is that the issue of class is still so highly charged, it is often difficult to talk about it in a dispassionate way. Cumberbatch’s claim to have been victimised was greeted with such measured responses as: “Please, for the love of everything that’s holy, will you finally stop pulling ignorant crap out of your privileged straight white male ass.”
Since key components of contemporary “posh-bashing” seem to include an antipathy towards la-di-da attitudes, a private school (and university) education and, in Scotland, a vaguely anglified accent, one could deduce posh-bashing is actually driven by a toxic blend of anti-privilege, anti-intellectual and anti-English sentiment.
So “uncool” is it deemed to be “posh” these days that those who were born into privilege play down their roots, hence the profileration of Mockney accents amongst middle-class people in London and the Home Counties.
“Ray Winstone was banging on recently about his working class roots or whatever that means like somehow that makes you more legitimate,” says Scottish TV presenter Tessa Dunlop, herself a victim of “posh-bashing”. “I thought ‘Come on, your daughter Jaime has had a privileged upbringing – does that delegitimise her experience?’
“OK, so it is harder if you come from a tough background, but I don’t think that should allow to you to denigrate perceived success or perceived privilege.”
Born in Kinloch Rannoch, Dunlop – whose book To Romania With Love charts her love affair with a young student whom she went on to marry – grew up in a tied cottage and went to the local state primary, but mixed with the Eton-educated sons and daughters of the Laird of the estate, and the well-educated progeny of teachers who taught at the prestigious Rannoch School, and so developed an RP accent which was not tempered by spending her last two years of secondary at Strathallan, a private school in Perth.
“All my life I have been questioned about my nationality and made to feel I didn’t belong,” says Dunlop, whose mother is English. “If someone said to Hardeep Singh Kohli, ‘You are not Scottish because you’re not white’ that is not socially acceptable, and quite rightly so. He’s inherited his skin colour, his ethnicity. But I inherit a so-called English accent and people openly question it. It is forgivable and acceptable and even applauded with almost a kind of gang mentality to have a go at people who speak with rounded vowels.”
This experience resonates with Jane Faye, whose own experience of class prejudice was based as much on an ingrained suspicion of higher education, particularly non-vocational higher education, as it was on accent.
“There was a definite ‘hierarchy’ to the dislike, both from those in the university system and from general residents of Glasgow, which correlated with perceptions of class,” she says. “Glasgow Uni students and Glasgow School of Art students were disliked more than those from vocational colleges, because these are considered the most traditional and intellectual – or ‘posher’ – establishments,” she says. “Within this, arts faculty students were disliked much more than those in obviously scientific disciplines, mostly because it was thought that only rich intellectuals had the luxury of wasting their parents’ money learning something with no practical value. And a student lower down the class hierarchy would definitely want to be publicly seen mocking one higher up the class hierarchy, to demonstrate that although he actually had a lot in common with this person at the moment, he was definitely a more practical, honest, proud-of-his-roots, hardworking person than this ‘posh’ student.
“It was socially acceptable and very common to hear someone express outright hatred of ‘posher’ student demographics. My then boyfriend’s working-class Falkirk social circle would openly discuss their loathing of arts students, Edinburgh students, students involved in charities, etc, usually whilst I was sitting next to them.”
In Faye’s experience, the greatest offenders were not working-class people, but people in the middle who are insecure about their own social status. “I spent summers cleaning toilets alongside people who had cleaned toilets all their lives – and they were not the ones doing the posh-bashing. They were all right with me. They would say, ‘Oh, you’re well-spoken’ and we got along. It was people who were at university, but insecure about where they had come from that were doing this kind of thing.”
Yet for all the ridicule that “posh” people face, those from a privileged background still wield a disproportionate amount of power. Whether it’s Olympic medallists, Oxbridge undergraduates or company CEOs, posh people’s backgrounds certainly don’t seem to be holding them back. And – as left-wing commentator Owen Jones has previously pointed out – the sector of society exposed to the greatest degree of contempt is not the upper/middle classes, it is the working-class youths, tagged almost univerally as “chavs” – a term the Fabian Society has described as “sneering and patronising”. So acceptable has the term become, Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece, a Liberal Democrat on the Equality and Human Rights Commission, last year tweeted: “Help. Trapped in a queue in chav land. Woman behind me explaining latest EastEnders plot to mate while eating largest bun I’ve ever seen.”
It is the continued domination of the middle and upper classes that makes complaints like Cumberbatch’s so difficult to take seriously. It was impossible not to sympathise with actress Kathy Burke when she answered Helena Bonham Carter’s claim that she had been “punished” for her privileged background, with an open letter which read: “As a lifelong member of the non-pretty working classes, I would like to say to Helena Bonham Carter (wholly-pledged member of the very pretty upper-middle classes): shut up you stupid c***.”
Yet on an individual level, posh-bashing can be hurtful as chav-bashing. “I’m not saying this [posh-bashing] is the biggest problem,” says Dunlop. “It didn’t damage my self-esteem. I would never have let it.
“But if you are asking me, does it exist, I have to say absolutely yes. I have experienced it most of my life and it’s unpleasant, boring and unfair.”