Downward mobility is the new British trend and the Sloane Rangers lead the wayby / February 19, 2015 / Leave a comment
Click below to see original images from the Official Sloane Ranger Handbook, all drawn by Natacha Ledwidge:
A Tuesday in January and it’s BBC Radio Sheffield, their morning phone-in. They want me to comment on the spat between Chris “Captain Underpants” Bryant MP, Labour’s new Shadow Culture Secretary, and James Blunt, the poppet-sized Harrovian pop star. In a long newspaper interview, Bryant had wondered aloud why people like the Etonian actor Eddie Redmayne or Blunt seemed to get all the attention and rewards now. Where are today’s Albert Finneys and Glenda Jacksons, he’d asked; we can’t just go on producing more Downton Abbeys. Blunt, who clearly had a short fuse and hadn’t read the whole piece, came back in no time, calling Bryant “a classist gimp” who was motivated by the politics of jealousy. Nobody knew the trouble he’d seen; people had been horrible and said he was too posh to succeed in pop. But they weren’t bothered by that in success-loving America, it was Britain’s culture of envy—and so forth.
Earlier that day, slender Evan Davis had been on Radio 4 trailing his next programme on The Bottom Line. It wasn’t his usual Silicon Valley entrepreneurs or British productivity problems. Instead he told us he was off to Davos to hear about the global issue of the moment: inequality. Later that morning—I was multi-tasking, writing, reading, listening—Winifred Robinson, the presenter of Radio 4’s consumer programme You and Yours, came on. I was expecting something about gas bills or insurance payouts, so I was taken aback when she asked “are you worried about rising social inequality? Call in and tell us.” Of course we were, we thought about nothing else, we wannabe policy wonks and thoughtful commentariat-types. But I wasn’t expecting it from Winifred. It’ll be on Gardener’s Question Time next.
Inequality is the hot subject. We’ve had it from big academic grandees—Joseph Stiglitz in the United States, Frenchie Thomas Piketty, whose Capital in the 21st Century was a surprise worldwide bestseller last year. Social geographer Danny Dorling’s The 1% gave Brits all the numbers they needed. It’s been everywhere. There was the BBC’s Tatler series just before Christmas and their Rich season just after. There were a couple of duds there, but a strong two-parter from Jacques Peretti, The Super Rich and Us, argued that there was no such thing as “trickle-down” from the London super-rich to the rest of us and that successive Chancellors had used the super-rich as window dressing for the British economy.
Suddenly the Rich, the Very Seriously Rich, were everywhere in media land. There was the dramatic imagery of central London’s big houses taken over by global plutocrats, and all those astonishing statistics about the richest 1,000 people in the country having more wealth than the poorest 40 per cent of households.
That put us back to a positively Edwardian divide, so they all said, one where people you’d never heard of and who certainly didn’t look the Edwardian part—trainers-and-t-shirt tech billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg and Eastern European mineral magnates who looked like bouncers—owned the world. The sums were dizzying, particularly the London ones. There are 104 billionaires in London—more than any other city—and the relativities were amazing. They were spelt out in the new—to non-economists—language of the Gini co-efficient (which measures the income distribution among a national population; the higher a country’s Gini number, the more unequal it is).
And all this on the back of the greatest recession since 1930. The unprecedented-in-our-lifetime recession. The world recession. The not-over-it-yet recession. Report after report, and the flood of concerned new books confirmed that Dorling’s richest 1 per cent, after a momentary post-2008 stumble, simply got richer at a lick, while the rest got poorer, or at least straight-lined.
The story is local and global. This January, Oxfam weighed in too with the unforgettable big picture story that “Oxfam expects the wealthiest to own more than 50 per cent of the world’s wealth by 2016. The world’s 85 richest people,” they said, were about to be “worth as much as the poorest 3.5bn of the world’s population.”
After what had seemed like decades of an intellectual moratorium on big picture discussion of class and inequality, it was everywhere (I’d been told by broadcasters before 2008 “that’s so not today’s issue,” when I’d wanted to look at the rich as anything but lifestyle options, and immediately after 2008 it was off the table).
More uncomfortable still, after John Major and then Tony Blair’s constant “End of History” theme of a nation at ease with itself, was that a newly classless society was the unavoidable conclusion of all this social polarisation and the end of post-war social mobility was a particularly Anglosphere problem. We were increasingly more like the wildly unequal winner-takes-all US than western Europe or Japan, said the experts.
The historian David Cannadine’s masterly 1998 book Class in Britain described how the British obsessed and talked about class more than other nations, in a richer and more confusing language. Brits, he said, mixed up the historic language of hierarchy and “degree”—an endless medieval procession of difference from royalty to serfs—with the “triadic” 19th-century language of “upper, middle and lower” and the simpler Marxist division of “them and us”—bourgeois and proletariat. We used the Fahrenheit and centigrade, the metric and the imperial of class, all in practically the same sentence. It was colourful language, but the substantive differences, so Cannadine seemed to be saying, between us and our European neighbours weren’t that great. But now, 17 years later, almost everyone seems to be saying they are.
I’ve been following the rise of the rich in Britain since the 1980s, when I noticed people I knew a bit starting to make what Caryl Churchill called, in her 1987 play, Serious Money. New money. That was when a million meant something. They’d typically sell their businesses in the emerging “creative industries” sectors—advertising, design and public relations—for a couple of mill, and the promise of more, or “float” on the new “unlisted securities market” (precursor of the Alternative Investment Market) and crystallise capital, rather than just earn high lifestyle salaries with massive expenses (high earners’ answer, in the 1970s, to an 83 per cent top rate of tax). Property development was another great engine of wealth, as we limbered up for the 80s boom—and the 1989/90 bust. But at the beginning of the decade, it was all about minority sightings, a trickle—and strictly about London. The rest of the country was still boarding up factories and shedding jobs, and the real early 80s tonics to the nation were strictly symbolic: victory in the Falklands War and the royal wedding.
“Did the rising Middletons pore over the Sloane Ranger Handbook and then the Good Schools Guide?”
In September 1982, Ann Barr’s and my Official Sloane Ranger Handbook was published by Ebury Press. It hit a national nerve. The first edition sold out and they re-printed several more before Christmas. We’d called it—tongue-in-cheek (mine at least)—“the first guide to what really matters in life.” But to judge by the response, a lot of people took it very seriously. When we did signings, RP-speaking buyers in The Kit, men in covert coats, women with Diana-like velvet breeches, would tell us which schools they’d sent/were going to send their little darlings to (it goes without saying, these were the parents of the 7 per cent, and the stories were only ever about public schools). Then there’d be a significant pause. We realised after a while they were waiting for our endorsement, so we gave it, with knobs on! They’d chosen brilliantly, we’d say their children would over-achieve/be happy and make nice friends for life (this growing anxiety made a market for The Good Schools Guide that followed in 1986, initially edited by Harpers & Queen—now re-branded Bazaar—contributors Amanda Atha and Sarah Drummond).
The Sloane Ranger Handbook was an expansion of a piece I’d written in Harpers & Queen a few years earlier, which had been a big hit in its own little world. The book went far wider. It dominated the charts—the Publishers Weekly ones—over the next two years, along with our 1983 follow-up, the Sloane Ranger Diary. There were clearly “aspirant” people out there, some with lovely new money, who really wanted a Guide To Life. This was the Brideshead moment (the Granada dramatisation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel had been on ITV in 1981), when nostalgia and aspiration, hard-core toffs and rising middle classes, were conflated and confused in the blur of mid-market “posh is back” coverage.
This was also the year, 1982, when Kate Middleton, the future Duchess of Cambridge (Downe House, Marlborough College, University of St Andrews, History of Art) was born. Did the rising Middletons pore over the Sloane Ranger Handbook and then the Good Schools Guide?
Read more on social mobility:
The Sloane culture we described then was a rather secret garden, neither the grandest toffs, nor the aspirant commercial middle-middles, but something else in between. We concentrated on the stuff of anthropology, the Sloane mindset and rituals, the Sloane language, with its coded messages and acronyms, the Things Understood. We explained the characteristic understatements (“rather boringly my entire family has been wiped out in an avalanche”) and overstatements. All amazingly illustrated, listed and boxed up (I’m convinced Ann invented Buzzfeed with her brilliant boxes, like “10 Sloanes who became north London intellectuals”). It explained accurately, I think, the group’s deepest feelings and most symbolic acts. But the newspaper and TV coverage, of course, was overwhelmingly about champagne flutes, luxury brands, Ascot and smart celebrity polo. Increasingly, it became an identity people tried on for size; an identity with proxies in brands and behaviour, rather than beliefs.
People were forever asking us to spell it out: who really were the Sloanes anyway, if not toffs (to be fair, our cover model was Diana, Princess of Wales)? In his review in the London Review of Books, which ran under the title “Henry and Caroline,” the academic sociologist “Garry” Runciman—now the third Viscount Runciman, author of Relative Deprivation and a copper bottomed intellectual toff—explained it all. Sloane Rangers were strictly a stand, a group united by the way they saw the world and related to it, rather than a class interest group (Margaret Thatcher, of course, couldn’t be doing with the language of class at all, it was a “Marxist concept,” she said). Runciman went on to make interesting comparisons between the Sloane Ranger Handbook and Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). Hardly scholarly ourselves, we were flattered beyond measure. And it gave us the answer too—the great Runciman says they’re a “stand.”
The list of Sloaney jobs for men, seemed to confirm our private definition—that Sloanes were the loyal and devout second bananas of the Establishment; they were the useful people who carried on the great upper middle-class love affair with the toffs and the most assimilated plutocrats. The people who went to Cirencester Agricultural College and then ran great toff’s estates for them, the merchant bankers in The Death of Gentlemanly Capitalism (Philip Augar described the end of all that in his 2008 book on the fate of the British merchant banks). And they were the wine merchants and smart estate agents, the army officers, the intake of “nice” law firms of the Farrers and Withers kind. All, as Galsworthy had said of the Forsytes, pretty much indistinguishable from the top toffs to an outsider’s eye.
But hindsight suggests the early 80s were the beginning of the end for trad Sloanes. The going became altogether tougher for them as the 80s toughs got going. Over the following 30 years, two new overlapping power groups developed in Britain, groups which demoted true-believer Sloanes from that second social tier to the status of a residual, rather exotic, middle-class sub-group (or a tribe of unicorns). Or, to use the proper language, “Sloanes were part of the trend towards increasingly downward social mobility of the last 20 years.”
Downward social mobility is the other part of the inequality issue. Its history is complicated and easily misread. Basically, the story is that of the postwar upward social mobility that followed the Butler Education Act of 1944, the expansion of the university population from the 1960s onwards and the development of a whole range of new jobs at or near the top of the private and public sectors, jobs occupied by meritocrats. There was “room at the top,” then. During the 1980s, however, as the postwar forces that had driven a flattening of income inequality retreated, so there was less room being created at the top, but a larger group at risk from the changing structures of work and wealth. In other words, there were more people facing downward mobility for the first time in decades. John Goldthorpe of Nuffield College, Oxford, has been the academic expert on social mobility since the 1960s (see box, p58). He told Prospect in 2013 that he’d tried, in the late 90s, to explain the trends in absolute and relative social mobility to Tony Blair, who clearly didn’t understand them, though his bright-eyed policy-wonk helper, Geoff Mulgan, did.
Most of the old Sloane groups were originally somewhere in the top 5 per cent—it’s difficult to quantify a stand—and some of them at the ragged lower edge of the 1 per cent, where the household income threshold is more than £3,000 a week now.
“The Sloane population of the City was winnowed out—now they were competing with other types and other breeds from other places”
The combination of 80s Tory government and home-grown New Money—much of it smart, tough and well-educated—looked at first to most old Sloanes (instinctive Tories) like just what the doctor ordered. But they set about destroying the fixed points of the Sloane world—particularly the Old City at Big Bang (1986) and after. And then New Money started cherry-picking the trophies that Sloanes valued. The attractive London houses in SW3, 1, 7, 10, 6 and 5 (in that order), the prettiest rectories and miniature statelies in the best counties, the best university places. Big Bang reshaped the City and set the foundations for 21st-century financial London. There was a storm of acquisitions before and after 1986 in which a roll-call of familiar Old City names like Rowe and Pitman disappeared. Then their buyers were gulped down by still bigger fish. The familiar merchant wankers of a thousand Sloane jokes—the delicious histories, the panelled rooms and word-is-my-bondism—were replaced by global investment banks with soaring atrial offices in Broadgate and, later, Canary Wharf. The new players were American, French, German, Swiss and Japanese banks. The top bananas were toughs and technocrats from absolutely everywhere—people who didn’t know or care about subtle semantic class indicators or the significance of milk-in-first and who didn’t care if their suits looked a bit Charlie. People who didn’t know the Sloanes’ dads. The new bosses wanted “top talent,” wherever it came from.
Some Sloanes proved amazingly able and adaptable. But—and cue Harry Enfield as Tim Nice-But-Dim sleeping in a cardboard box outside the Lloyds building here—the Sloane population of the City was winnowed out. Now they were competing with other types and other breeds from other places (the transformation of the City in the 80s was the start of the process that turned South Kensington into a major French metropolis by 2010; today, the biggest single group in French Ken’ work in financial services). The survivors had to toughen up, and style-down that bit, beginning the process that Ann Barr had described in Harpers & Queen as “Rich Caroline, Poor Caroline,” in which a pair of Sloane girls from identical backgrounds with identical expectations found themselves married to men with shockingly different trajectories. Poor Caroline married a Henry with a traditional Sloaney job, one out of London. Rich Caroline married a City star in vertical take-off and started to adapt to an altogether un-English standard of life, somewhere between Eurotrash and Manhattan. Higher maintenance, hair and make-up, proper designer clothes, a house completely done over, a decorator. All these demands and tensions started to pull the Old Sloane world apart. By the end of the 80s what remained of the Victorian Season—the rituals Sloanes had thought were theirs—was bought up for corporate hospitality. Even so, when Philip Beresford compiled his first Sunday Times “Rich List” in 1989, “two-thirds of the money was inherited” and the Queen, credited with £5.2bn, was at the top of the heap. By 2000, however, the whole thing had turned round and “three-quarters of the money was self-made.” (Royal money had been reclassified after furious Palace protests. The Queen was down to a more modest position on the basis of her “private” money.)
By the 90s the Sloane style couldn’t have been more unfashionable. The accent, the language, the dress code, the “miniature stately home” interior styles were all wrong, wrong, wrong in the world of mild mockney, the “information super-highway” and mid-century modern. Sloane seemed archaic and unprofessional—only for the magic world of Richard Curtis rom-coms—in the new high-maintenance world of Big Money London.
And by 2000, the second great wave was underway. London was becoming the first international city of the global super-rich. Since then, London’s prime and “super-prime” property—particularly the best, biggest houses and flats in Knightsbridge, Belgravia, Mayfair and the top slice of Chelsea—were bought out by an extraordinary mixture of Russian oligarchs, Middle Easterners, new petrodollar types from Nigeria, Indians, Malaysians and, latterly, Chinese. These were people with money that dwarfed those 80s and 90s American bankers. People with hundreds of millions. People with billions. Driving up the prices of London property and driving all but the richest, most adaptable Sloanes further south and north—and some out of London altogether.
But however extravagantly different this new group was, they wanted what they’d heard of for their children, the famous public schools and the university places. The Headmasters’ Conference schools and Oxbridge colleges are shy about the precise numbers of overseas students, but some broke ranks. In 2014, Andrew Halls, Headmaster of King’s College School, Wimbledon, acknowledged that price inflation was driving out “local lawyers, accountants and military officers” in favour of a new kind of parent. They were educating the children of oligarchs now.
In his brilliant book Broke: Who Killed the Middle Classes?, David Boyle describes how the “middle classes”—and his perspective is much more Sloane than Pooter—put a touching faith in Thatcher, the City and a range of forces that would hollow out their world, and leave them mostly poorer in real terms, except for the minority of winner-takes-all top professionals, City men, corporate lawyers and top 250 board members who’d scooped the pool. But they know that no one except their mums are going to feel remotely sorry for them.
There were, however, two areas where Sloanes seemed to survive, even thrive. The first was in the substrate of 21st-century butlers: the couth and confident Sloanes who serve the New Rich in London; the Belgravia estate agents; the concierge services (most spectacularly, Ben Elliot’s luxury concierge service Quintessentially); the architects and decorators who learnt their taste and solved their problems; the ex-City boys who ran their private offices in Mayfair; the St James’s yacht brokers; the house servants. Just imagine for a moment David Cameron (his only job outside politics was as Director of Corporate Affairs—in other words PR butler—to Michael Green, the 90s TV tycoon) morphing into the younger Stephen Fry as Jeeves.
The Sloane tragedy returns as farce, as pastiche, as tweed-themed menswear brands. Or those couth actors and stand-up comedians—Jack Whitehall, Armstrong and Miller and Marcus Brigstocke have all made a go of it. Daniel Smith, lecturer in sociology at Canterbury Christchurch University, earned his PhD with an analysis of Jack Wills, the clothing brand which trades as “Fabulously British” and “outfitters to the gentry” supplying “British heritage-inspired goods to the university crowd.” (Jack Wills doesn’t look that British to me, it’s more like the American brands Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister or Tommy Hilfiger.)
Smith believes there are lots of opportunities for Sloanes in modern Britain—if they maintain their “social capital.” He feels they should move into marketing, the world of celebrity and PR (but every other Sloane girl in London is a PR already). There are, he says, a lot of small and medium-sized Sloaney brands. Boden, The White Company, Hackett, Cath Kidston, OKA (owned by David Cameron’s mother-in-law) and those people who do the stripey socks. The Sloanes’ future, he believes, lies in “making yourself an aspirational brand.”