Hearing a Bengali who has lived in England for 45 years and speaks impeccable English say “rishka” for rickshaw when he lapsed into his mother tongue recalled André Béteille’s comment that “the Bengalis, even more than the English, are branded on the tongue”. Subtleties of diction and pronunciation may make a difference in the United States of America too, but this week’s events there highlighted a more robust yardstick of classification.
Generally speaking, poor and middle-class voters favoured Barack Obama, while the rich flocked round Mitt Romney, provoking a Democrat’s charge about “robber barons” trying to capture the government. But, in accusing Obama of waging “class warfare”, the Republicans meant only that he was dangling tax benefits to woo middle-class voters. No revolution need be feared in his second coming though an overwhelming majority of Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, women and young people formed a winning coalition of the disadvantaged, if any American can be called that. Wasps (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) must be seething.
Britain is also courting its disadvantaged. Though Eric Hobsbawm, the Communist historian who died recently, dismissed class conflict in his adopted land as a storm in a British teacup, he was careful not to belittle its significance. Mindful perhaps of Lady Bracknell’s famous warning not to speak disrespectfully of Society because “only people who can’t get into it do that”, he must have been amused by Margaret Thatcher, the grocer’s daughter, denouncing the concept of class as a Communist conspiracy to “group people as bundles and set them against one another”. John Major’s promise of a “classless society” — product of his own insecurity — must have seemed even more futile to a Marxist who knew that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”.
He would have understood, without necessarily approving, the launch this week of the Blue Collar Conservatives to “demonstrate that the Conservatives share the values of ordinary working voters and understand their aspirations”. This attempt to reach out across Britain’s great cultural divide is especially relevant in light of David Cameron’s repeated stumbles on the rock of class. Being the majority, blue-collar workers are of the greatest consequence in any democracy. Traditionally, Britain expected them automatically to follow the lead of their betters. Harold Macmillan — the Duke of Devonshire’s Old Etonian son-in-law, who became Earl of Stockton — attracted more working-class votes in the 1959 general election than middle-class Hugh Gaitskell and his Labour Party. But that logic began to falter when the ideas of the ruling class were no longer also the ruling ideas, and politicians with patrician pretensions crudely reminded police officers they were only plebs.
Predictably, after telling off the police, Andrew Mitchell, the former Conservative chief whip, went to dine and spend the evening at the gracious Georgian building with its elegant circular stairway that houses the Carlton Club. Labour’s Ed Miliband thundered that a yob who similarly abused a policeman would have spent the night in the clink but didn’t actually suggest the yob should instead dine and wine at the Carlton. Perhaps Miliband’s social militancy demanded Mitchell spend the night behind bars. George Osborne, Cameron’s chancellor of the exchequer, almost did so when he was caught in a first-class carriage without a first-class ticket. Instead, his truancy encouraged the wits to suggest first class should be renamed “working class” since political grandees claim to need the space and comfort to work.
Cameron’s third gaffe, which now grips the public, is his exchange of affectionate messages with Rebekah Brooks, former chief executive of the corporation that published the now defunct Sunday paper, News of the World, whose alleged malpractices are being investigated by the Leveson inquiry. She herself is awaiting trial on charges of telephone hacking and conspiracy to pervert the cause of justice. Brooks’s husband is also an Old Etonian like the prime minister and the just-appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. Apparently, Cameron enjoys the freedom of the Brooks stables. Money is not the obvious bond, as it would be in the US. But only a great deal of money can support this high-level camaraderie.
China, where politics can generate even more money than in India, used to be more pragmatic. But man is a hierarchical creature, and class couldn’t be kept out for ever. Lacking any other lineage, the children of party stalwarts became the princelings or tai-zi-dang. If Wen Jiabao’s family really has amassed the $2.7 billion that an American report claims, his heirs will be both rich and highly connected, providing they aren’t caught out. The fate that befell the high-flying Bo Xilai’s wife and probably also awaits Bo now that he has been stripped of immunity shows that when China’s glitterati fall, they fall much harder than in India, Britain or the US.
As a fellow of both King’s College, Cambridge, and the British Academy, and president of Birkbeck College, Hobsbawm was showered with accolades including the Balzan Prize (a million Swiss francs) and Britain’s Companionship of Honour. The Jewish-German refugee who professed faith in the Red utopia to the very end was sufficiently confident of class and Society to reject a knighthood. Like the Indian revolutionaries Hobsbawm met at Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics, he enjoyed the best of all worlds.
His Indian friends epitomized the overlap of class and politics that Hobsbawm called bizarrerie. The Old Etonian sons of the zamindar of Kumaramangalam expected to command law, the civil service and the army. P.N. Haksar “who provided cover in Primrose Hill for the courtship of Indira Nehru with Feroze Gandhi” was “the most powerful man in independent India” at one time. The ultimate bizarrerie was Christmas dinner hosted by “the doe-eyed Renu Chakravarty” at her Calcutta home: “After ham and turkey, provided by Renu’s cousin, secretary of the Calcutta Club, which clearly had not abandoned the menu of the days when no Indian would have been allowed into the building except as a servant, came biryani and finally Christmas pudding, also provided by the Club and chewing pan (betel nut).”
Unpardonable in any observer of Homo Hierarchicus, Hobsbawm was grossly wrong about the Calcutta Club. But he rightly wondered at the miracle of “an extraordinary anglicized, modern-minded ‘Establishment’ of perhaps 100,000 people drawn from highly educated (that is, mainly wealthy) families” governing India for a generation after Independence. They included former British Raj loyalists as well as people who fought for freedom. Hobsbawm cites his “admirable friend and comrade from King’s, the late Indrajit (‘Sonny’) Gupta” as an example. “When the Party put him in charge of leading the tramwaymen’s union in Calcutta, and later the juteworkers of (West) Bengal,” Gupta “subsequently General Secretary of the Communist Party and briefly Minister of the Interior, had as much to learn about the Calcutta working class as any foreigner.”
They were not just untypical of their societies. They were actually strangers to it, “exiled at home” to borrow Ashis Nandy’s telling phrase. Neither Indrajit Gupta nor Renu Chakravarty would ever say rishka for rickshaw. Unfamiliar with the phenomenon of non-resident Indians who are successful abroad but boast humble origins at home, they may not even have recognized the lower- middle-class mispronunciation. If they did, it would be because of the political hoi polloi they had to consort with.
A similar colloquialism once baffled Renu Chakravarty’s mother who lived near the Ekdalia Road and Gariahat Road crossing. When local boys organizing a post-puja feast wanted the loan of some “cup-dish” (that milieu’s slang for cups and saucers), she apologized in all innocence, “You can have cups, but my dishes are needed to serve lunch.” As Hobsbawm says, “class is at least as great a segregator of experiences as distance, culture or language”. He might have added wealth, which underlies all the other distinctions and determined the US electoral outcome.