British public life once teemed with snobs. Where have they all gone?
Are there any real snobs still around?
Old-fashioned snobbery has mostly vanished, at least in the open, but you can still find pockets here and there. Society designer Nicky Haslam, for example, is a colossal snob. He has taken to writing up lists of things he finds “common” and having them printed on tea towels (or “drying-up cloths”). The latest batch of things he deems déclassé includes “swimming with dolphins”, the word “woke” and “red geraniums”, which are “all right in Austria or on Capri”, but never in England – even at Buckingham Palace, they look “terrible”. In the past Haslam has turned his nose up at “going somewhere hot for Christmas”, being on time and Oxfordshire. Dismissing the “ghastly” island of Ibiza, he evoked another great snob, Lord Sefton, looking back sniffily on his experience of the Second World War: “My dear, the noise… and the people.”
Who were the great snobs of their day?
Regency fop Beau Brummell was such a snob, he quit the army when his regiment was ordered to march north. “I really could not go,” he told his pal the Prince Regent. “Think, your Royal Highness, Manchester!” Tory politician Alan Clark was a terrific snob, referring to his colleague Michael Heseltine as “the kind of man who has to buy his own furniture”. When told the mafia boss John Gotti wore $2,000 suits, Clark remarked: “I didn’t know it was possible to buy one so cheaply.” Prince Philip was an epic snob. A lifelong frequent flyer, he once lauded improvements in noise reduction and comfort in modern planes, “provided you don’t travel in something called economy class, which sounds ghastly”.
Why do we use the word snob?
It’s an Oxbridge thing, according to author Alain de Botton. In the 1820s colleges would write “s.nob” (an abbreviation of the latin sine nobilitate) to denote those “without nobility”. In the word’s early use, says de Botton, “a snob was taken to mean someone without high status, but it quickly assumed its modern and almost diametrically opposed meaning: someone offended by a lack of high status in others, a person who believes in a flawless equation between social rank and human worth”.
How can you tell someone’s social rank?
In some places it’s easy: in America, money defines the pecking order; in France, intellectual status. Here, though, it has always been class. It used to be that you were either upper class or you weren’t. But the line was blurred by the rise of English merchants and industrialists in the 19th century, many of whom spent huge sums acquiring coats of arms and concocting spurious family trees. After the Second World War, with a blooming middle class, things got blurrier still. But an Englishman, as George Orwell said, is “branded on the tongue”. Having the right accent and knowing the proper terms for things has always been a crucial dividing line between those with hereditary status and the arrivistes.
What kind of terms?
Nancy Mitford codified parts of the English language in a tongue-in-cheek article in 1955, declaring certain terms “U” (upper class), and others “non-U”. The proper term for the midday meal, to take an easy example, is “lunch”, not “dinner”. You go to the “lavatory” or “loo”, never the “toilet”. The fun bit is that it’s people trying to sound sophisticated who come out as non-U. So “serviette” and “settee” are non-U, while napkin and sofa are U. A U person never says “Pardon?” when “What?” will suffice. Nobody U eats “preserve” at breakfast; they have “jam”. And why bother with “wealthy” when you have the perfectly good “rich”? Mitford’s article sparked an outcry, not least from her old friend Evelyn Waugh. In an open letter denouncing her for lobbing this grenade into British society, he wrote: “There are subjects too intimate for print. Surely class is one?”
What’s happened since?
Something changed in the 1960s, says Cosmo Landesman in UnHerd, with the arrival of youth culture and “the new classlessness”. Suddenly snobbery was looked down on as the preserve (sorry, jam) of curtain-twitching suburban social climbers. “Snobbery was doomed,” says Landesman, “because it had no place in a modern, meritocratic Britain.” Just a decade after Mitford and her chums were laughing at the “unspeakable” proles who used words such as “mirror”, snobbishness had become the butt of the joke. Take Basil Fawlty, endlessly trying to attract “a better class of guest”, or Hyacinth Bucket telling callers they’d reached the “Bouquet residence”. Neither could reasonably have aspired to membership of the old high society, but in the world of petty class consciousness, these things matter. Freud called it the “narcissism of small differences”.
What about in literature?
In English books, snobbery is virtually its own genre: literary greats from Jane Austen to Jilly Cooper couldn’t exist without their core cast of snobs. In Faulks on Fiction, Sebastian Faulks divides all the characters in English novels into four categories: Heroes, Villains, Lovers and Snobs. Inevitably, says critic John Carey, “the snobs come off best”. Think of the inimitable Jeeves, up there with Sherlock Holmes as one of the great fictional brains, and a total snob. “There are moments, Jeeves,” says Bertie Wooster, “when one asks oneself, ‘Do trousers matter?’” “The mood will pass, sir.”
Has snobbery fallen away?
It’s changed. “If there’s one place snobbery is alive today,” says Sunday Times columnist Camilla Long, “it’s on the hard left.” After all, whose insidery language rules and exclusionary scoffing at transgressions are more acute than the Eng lit student with a fresh grasp of critical theory? And where once the industrious middle classes aspired to look as if they’d been born into it, the new snobbery is to deny even middle-class roots. A study in January found that 47% of people with middle-class jobs claimed they were working-class, and 24% of people whose parents also had middle-class jobs made the same nonsense claim, often by referring to a grandparent with the right working-class credentials. In his memoir, Martin Amis describes his children asking him on a car journey: “Why do you say Fri-dee and Mon-dee and Thurs-dee?” With some embarrassment he admits: “I trained myself to do it in my teens because I thought it sounded posh… it used to be cool to be posh.” His sons are incredulous: “Did it?… Christ.”
🎩 William Hazlitt noted that in a society defined by class: “Fashion is gentility running away from vulgarity, and afraid of being overtaken by it.” He added: “It is a sign the two things are not very far apart.”
🎩 “Beware of snobbery,” said Cary Grant. “It is the unwelcome recognition of one’s own past failings.”