Entry from November 20, 2014

"Know thyself" — in the words of the ancient Greek maxim that was inscribed outside the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and once known to all who received the education of a gentleman. It would have been good advice for Matthew Norman, a columnist for London Independent, who apparently did not receive such an education. He writes today with an almost unbelievable smugness and condescension of his own, of the recent death of Sir William Dugdale, an uncle of the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, that he typified his class’s remoteness from everyday life and sympathy with ordinary folk.

In a deeply nebulous way, Sir William’s life hints at the PM’s enduring failure to connect on a gut level with the electorate. Crudely put, the problem is the hoary one of class. But a more nuanced analysis might identify that condescending, patrician attitude towards the rest of us which, however seemly in Sir William’s time, renders his nephew by marriage off-puttingly anachronistic.

What seems particularly to have got up Mr Norman’s nose about the late baronet is this statement in his memoir Settling the Bill (2011) — which the snooty columnist is careful to tell us was privately published. "The thing is, and the Labour Party underestimate it," wrote Sir William, "if you ask the working classes who they want to lead them, they prefer to be led by a duke. I know it’s an unpopular thing to say these days. However, I have learned this from my own experience."

Now he may have been wrong about this. I rather think he was. Or at least out of date — not too surprising in man in his 90th year, as he was at the time. But at least he recognized that it was "an unpopular thing to say." Mr Norman’s own sense of self-irony, by contrast, appears to be completely absent. All the way through his piece he out-Dukes any Duke I know of in his sublime consciousness of his own perfect rectitude, his assurance of being immune from anything serious in the way of contradiction or even disagreement. Who can doubt that this confidence is born of exactly the same kind of class-consciousness that he criticizes in Sir William — and his nephew by marriage, David Cameron?

Belonging as he does to the new aristocracy of the journalistic élite, Mr Norman is so secure in his position that it never occurs to him that he could be wrong or offensive in what he writes. He makes much of the Prime Minister’s faux pas (as he sees it) in telling a particularly obnoxious Labour member of Parliament that it was "time to retire" — which the columnist calls "a shamefully arrogant way to treat a venerable former miner." And yet he himself writes of Sir William, a man who won the Military Cross for his bravery under fire while fighting the Germans in North Africa as "a sort of toffish Zelig" and "this charmingly Flashmanesque figure" — Flashman being, in case you don’t know it, the bully of Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s School Days, first published in 1857, who later featured in a series of novels by George MacDonald Fraser as a notorious and shameless coward.

Here is a man who was a genuine hero but who is to Mr Norman a mere exemplum of why it was quite right for his own class of intellectuals and technocrats to depose the old élite, reject their values — "being patronised by Churchill" as he puts it — and take their place in the seat of patronage. He also criticizes Sir William over the story he relates in his memoir of how, in the columnist’s words, as "a young blade at Oxford," he was once arrested for "Bertie Woosterishly throwing soot bombs over such socialist marchers as Tony Crosland and Roy Jenkins." He omits to mention that those socialist luminaries-to-be were, at the time of their besooting on a May Day march in 1940, showing their fitness to rule by demonstrating, a few days before the fall of France, in support of the invasion of Finland by Hitler’s ally at the time and their fellow socialist, Josef Stalin. Soot, I’d have thought, was a great deal too good for them.

From the obituaries of Sir William that I read, my favorite part came from the one in The Times of London (pay wall) describing how,

at Medjez-el-Bab, outside the main Tunis to Constantine road, his platoon was constantly dive bombed by Stukas. "When the Germans appeared, one defended oneself and eventually a [medal] appeared," he was to say, although his modesty was such that there was no inclusion in his memoir of his citation of an MC for "outstanding bravery under fire," only his mention in despatches.

Of course, it was one of the well-known characteristics of the old ruling class that it would have frowned on any hint of boasting or being overly impressed with oneself as caddish and ungentlemanly behavior. Flashmanesque, in fact. Sir William’s, clearly, was the opposite. I don’t think I can be the only one who really would prefer to be led by a humorous and self-effacing Duke with the manners of a Sir William Dugdale rather than the sort of puffed up, self-important representative of the new ruling classes that Matthew Norman reveals himself to be.

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