As a mixed race, single parent, working class, English lad from a Manchester council estate who had won scholarships and awards to become a pupil(trainee) Barrister in London I should have ticked all the diversity boxes that guarantee an easier life up the legal ladder. Unfortunately, I was commencing my career in 1988, decades before the chant #Blacklivesmatter struck fear into anyone white in the legal profession, and the demand of diversity visuals meant that a corresponding diversity appointment or two was de rigueur, irrespective of the appointees merits.
Then the only thing that seemed to matter in the profession was being a damned good Barrister capable of working hard, learning the law, practising it with skill, building relationships with solicitors and winning cases. A meritocratic basis for work. However, like all careers whilst those merit based factors mattered, others social and educational factors were a key part of success or failure; family members in the law; the right Oxbridge College or traditional university education; the right social group and cultural or social knowledge, a powerful mentor or the ability to brown nose with aplomb. Not having any of these would certainly hold you back, but there was one factor that seemed more powerfully restrictive in ensuring a smooth or fruitful career in the law in London. Quite simply, being a working class Northerner, with a clear accent, immediately identified you as being an outsider.
As the first of my family to get a degree and in law the excitement, the honour, the pride of qualifying to practice law as a barrister was immense. My family and, in particular, my grandparents, who had set me on that path with their traditional working class belief in tradition, of the army, law, police and royal family, were brimming with pride. Despite the fear and nerves, lack of social skills or background I didn’t let my background hold me back and in my second six months of practice had began to enjoy the work and life. I had even starting winning small criminal cases.
Then one night I was invited to join a senior barrister from my Chambers in Daly’s Wine Bar, of Fleet Street. As it was opposite the grand Royal Courts of Justice it was frequented by an array of Barristers, QC’s, Juniors and Solicitors. As we drank wine my senior or boss pointed out a celebrity in the legal world, George Carmen QC, playing to his audience at the corner of the busy bar. He turned to me and said time for you to get an education and led me straight to wards the great man. As we approached, my guide shouted in a large voice “greetings Sir George” . Carmen turned and welcomed him warmly, whilst sipping champagne with gusto. As we stood, Carmen looked at me and said “Who’s this?”, “Ah George this young man is another of you Northerners. He’s already winning cases and I believe he has the strange honour of sharing your birthday”.
As this animated conversation, which resembled a joust of oratorical champions, continued around me I felt an invisible pressure explode within me and I awaited my entry into the game. What would I say, how could I impress, what were the social triggers I needed to include. Nothing could prepare me then for what the Great George Carmen shortly said to me. Having listened to me reply to his question of what area of law I was enjoying, he cut me off mid sentence and with a commanding bellow that all the nearby guests would clearly hear he said. “Boy, If I can provide you with advice that will ensure your career in the law is long and fruitful. Lose that accent. Learn clear diction, young man” . With that he turned to his guests and swigged more Champagne from his filled flute. Our audience had been abruptly ended and, for Carmen, he had dispensed wisdom to the youngling.
I still recall how stunned I felt and utterly humiliated I had been made. In order to be a great barrister, like the lorded George Carmen QC, I would need to lose my Northern accent as he had done. That was a key factor for legal success. My developing legal skills and winning cases advocated by my senior colleague mattered for nought until I did. Another Northerner had told me to dispense with my heritage and adopt the cultural and linguistic mores of the Southern Metropolitan Capitals champions. That moment, was one of those in life where the innocence of dreams is torn from your mental shield and replaced by the torpor of reality.
Over the next twenty years living in London, working amongst lawyers, accountants, bankers, marketing and PR, “Creatives” in films, tv and media, actors, producers, business owners I observed how the mass of people had replaced their own innocence with the cultural, social and intellectual mores of the metropolitan classes espoused by Carmen. It is a snobbery pure and simple. A value that one group is more significant and important than another based on culture, voice, background and beliefs. A metropolitan value that begins with the burying of of an accent and leads to disavowing your birthplace, family and background.
I watched it as university friend, who loved swearing and enjoyed rude banter, bumped into me outside court and in a newly acquired plumy told me that we could never speak again if I swore or the mixed race barrister who aped the louche, cigarette hand holding style of 1930s Brideshead character. I watched a wonderful, bright, Northern accountant friend become a power house in corporate takeovers by knowing how to use the social training of her days at Oxford University in meetings and how such links mattered immensely as being part of the club who would takeover the top roles. Of course Northerners and those of a working class or lower income class reached heights of power. There are some fine examples. Yet the truth remains they are the exception and very much so.
As the Black lives matter movement swings into full battlecry alongside the other oppressed groups championing LGBT, transgender, women or immigrants welcome, changing the roles being offered to employees, formation of grants and scholarships, preferential treatment on adverts or corporations and charities seeking out those to fund one group is distinctly missing. The working class and particularly working class males.
The snobbery of the intellectual, business, media or metropolitan elite was starkly and vehemently on show during the Brexit campaign. Intellectual snobbery from the likes of Robert Webb who said Johnson offered hope of independence day to wild applause from which people to media snobs such as James Obrien saying he was dismayed at the level of ignorance being displayed at Brexit celebrations. Everyone who supported Brexit has their own examples and experience
Social snobbery has its origins as a bourgeois caste imitating and mimicking their foreign ways of their invaders and superiors. This happened under the Romans and under the Normans. It was the desire to speak French and adopt EU cultures that they were superior. Remember the period of Britain being the sick man of Europe) . The Remainer upper middle classes believed they spoke for the working classes (the Fabians of Labour, The Oxbridge educated professors and Lib Democrat Snobbery is about a class system, it is tribal and it is about your group. It is also vicious and nasty it is as equal to racism for it judges you not for what we do or say but who we are.
So as the decade continues and the culture wars intensify the issue of snobbery in society will become clearer and exacerbate the divisions in society. That is what snobbery has always been about. It’s just easier and more acceptable to be one today and get away with it.
Steven Woolfe is editor of LIBERTATIO www.libertatio.com. and Director of the Centre for Migration and Economic Prosperity (CMEP) www.cmep.co.uk