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POSH – just a play? Or a real problem for Cameron, Osborne and Johnson?

Posted on 10 June 2012 | 10:06am

First things first, and a quick line the producers of POSH can use in any publicity should they wish to … ‘topical, relevant, well-written, well-cast, well-acted and very thought-provoking.’ As to what I really think about it, even a good night’s sleep has not settled the answer.

Perhaps that is the sign of a good play, that it gets you thinking in a way you didn’t expect it to. Or perhaps I am thinking about it too much because I knew before going last night that on Thursday I will be chairing a debate about the play and what it says about class in Britain today, so I need to get my thinking clear before then.

I am sticking to my commitment to do the debate even though an hour after I made it I was given the tempting rival offer of a seat on BBC Question Time’s panel on the day David Cameron appears before the Leveson Inquiry. I was sorely tempted to tell POSH to bog off, but a promise is a promise and all that.

We will however be discussing some of the same things, as it is hard to imagine POSH would be doing so well in the West End were it not for the fact that David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson are in positions of power, and that they were once members of the kind of debauched, right-wing, upper-class Oxford University dining club portrayed in the play.

Most of us did some pretty silly things in our youth. The question is whether the kind of attitudes on display continue to form a part of the worldview of those now governing Britain. That Cameron understands the political risks of that are clear enough. Why else was a good deal of time, effort and money devoted to taking a picture of him and his pals in their Bullingdon Club uniform out of circulation? And why did he put so much effort into playing down his background, and playing up the idea of himself as a fairly ordinary middle-class kind of guy, in his ultimately unsuccessful effort to win a majority?

One of the most intriguing things last night was the reaction of the audience. Some laughed a lot. Some – myself included – laughed rarely. Almost from the off, I found the characters so repellent that I found it hard to accept anything they said or did should be rewarded with appreciation. At times it was more like watching a horror film than a satire, the horror all the more intense because of the sense that people like this really do still exist, really do think money can buy them out of any problem, really do have connections, influence and, in some cases, power.

Yet what was also interesting, despite all the bravado and the arrogance, was how vulnerable they felt. They had to lie about the nature of the dinner. Deep down they sense most people find them ridiculous. And they hate having to pretend that people lower down the social order have any real value whatsoever compared with their own sense of their own merit. One of the most irritating characters early on – annoyingly called Alistair – becomes one of the most interesting as he seeks to give political shape and sense to who they are and why they behave as they do. I won’t give any of the plot away but his little speeches are among the most powerful parts of the play.

POSH was first performed at the much cheaper Royal Court Jerwood Theatre. Seemingly they got less laughter there, and more of a political response from the audience. I sensed yesterday a divide between those who felt a certain sympathy with the very right-wing worldview driving through the play, and those who felt troubled at the ‘them and us’ nature of where power lies, that for people like them to get power, they have to pretend to be people like us, but that ultimately the reality of their upbringing runs too deep for them ever to understand the lives of most people. That is why Tory MP Nadine Dorries’ description of Cameron and Osborne as ‘two arrogant posh boys who don ‘t know the price of milk’ is so potent.

It is also why the PM and the Chancellor will not be terribly pleased to hear that having started with the Royal Court, and now made it at the Duke of York’s, the next step for POSH is the big screen. Governments breed their own culture and their own fertile ground for satirists. Fair to say that a lot of ours came in so-called spin – think Feelgood, The Thick of It, Rory Bremner. For all their efforts to declass the issue of class, for the Tories, that may be the area where popular culture’s take on them lands, with an impact they are probably right to feel uneasy about.

Below is a link to the event I am chairing at the theatre on Thursday, before the performance. Rachel Johnson, editor of The Lady, is confirmed as a panellist. According to her tweets, she left the play before the end. I assume that means she was either very annoyed by it – I did sense that George Balfour was a kind of cross between her brother Boris and Cameron – or even more troubled than I was. I look forward to finding out. I also hope the writer or producer will be there.

  • ambrosian

    The decision to cut the top rate of tax changed everything. Until then, it was just about possible to argue that where you came from and what you did in your youth didn’t matter. But that decision was powerfully symbolic in showing that the “arrogant posh boys” were shamelessly committed to advancing the interests of the class to which they belong while inflicting misery and poverty on millions of others.

  • Olli Issakainen

    Hello from Central Finland!
    I recently bought Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, and am mainly posting this comment to see whether this gadget works.
    I have not read the blog or papers for about a month due to living at my summer cottage while working in the nearby town.
    But it seems Messrs Cameron and Osborne have not had the best of times with their plan A I predicted back in 2010 would cause a double dip.
    2011 I predicted that Greece would not be capable of paying its debt.
    I also said that Spain, Portugal and Italy would collapse.
    I have also predicted the creation of United States of Europe.
    Personally I have had marvellous time and hope all the best for England in football.

  • Mike Power

    the strongest part of the play for me was the final few scenes where the leader of the gang was initiated into power by a Tory insider. It had the smack of authenticity. Tories are the administrative wing of  business interests and the royal family and see any instance of a non-market led government as an aberration. That’s why new labour was such a betrayal. Blair could easily have been in that play too, Mr  Campbell. 

  • Michele

     Woohoo, more than a crib sheet !!

  • Richard

    Given up on Nokia, eh, Olli? The rest of us did some years ago.
    I trust you are able to get strong signals at the Dacha!
    Old Olli’s Almanac 2013 is eagerly anticipated.

  • Mick Nott

    I thought the play was thought provoking. It’s not just about how appalling the attitudes of very young rich men may be, there is plenty of dialogue from the ‘decent’ landlord and his ‘smart’ daughter that provides a foil to the young men. I would expect a landlord in his own business to vote Tory and yet the young men have no commonality or sympathy with him, his hardworking or his enterprise. And that is about class, it’s the unwarranted sense of entitlement that some rich boys learn at public school and Oxbridge that becomes a sense of invincibility. The play is chilling at the end where the person who is seen to have some proactive gumption and is taken in by the establishment is alistair who got close to articulating the viewpoint of the very rich and initiated the violence of rich upper class on middle class

  • Richard

    “Most of us did some pretty silly things in our youth.” Spot on Al: and in my experience at University those destined for The Church, Medicine, Vet and Politics were the worst behaved. Their careers dictated a certain standard of behaviour in their future lives. They were to get a lot of wild living out of the way before becoming pillars of the community etc.

    Your need to generalise from one play is weak. It suits your argument, and desire to open up a class war front. (As the party who introduced tuition fees your egalitarian fox died!)

    Examine if you will how TB and his posh boys hijacked the Labour Party for their own ends, deputising “Two Jags” to appeal to those who did not get out of the bath to go to the toilet. (This quote said in my hearing by a Labour MP of those days.)

    Alan Johnson calling for an economics primer is not the way to go. We need excellently educated OxBridge graduates. The tendancy now is for them to be sneered at by some politicos.

    You should choose another hobbyhorse.

  • Anonymous

    Oh dear, you can’t avoid the Johnson clan, can you?  The old dad gets wheeled out on Newsnight, there’s a Tory apologist called Jo Johnson also favoured by the programme, and now AC will share a platform with the sister who rather rashly publicised Johnson Boris’s aspirations to enter No 10 when he’d only just become Mayor. 

    Ask her what might have prevented her from joining the Bullingdon Club, Alastair (and I think you’ll find the answers ‘balls’). 

    Pace the other product of Bullingdon, Cameron used to wear M&S suits in the run up to the last election, but I think he’s abandoned that particular pretence now.  His rebranding is soooo over.

  • reaguns

    Simple solution to this problem, open primaries. People like Cameron wouldn’t get to the top under such a system.

    In other news, Croatia should now be banned from the European Union 🙁

  • Michele

     Hmmm, this was meant for Olli’s post !

  • Janiete

    I think the problem for the Tories is that the presence of Cameron, Osborne and Johnson at the heart of Government, has reminded the electorate that posh people still exist, and really can still use their money and influence to gain political power. During the 60s and 70s there was a feeling that much of that undesirable old boy’s network was on the decline and had been largely replaced by a meritocracy.

    This was an illusion of course, helped by the good sense of surviving toffs to keep their heads down, given the prevailing negative attitude towards them. The selection of Thatcher, then Major, further established the view that wealth and influence alone could not ensure access to high political office. Looking back on it, they were probably chosen because they did not appear part of the dominant wealthy elite.

    It’s one thing for the electorate to be aware that some people have lots of money, very large houses or even family estates, but those who govern us have to, at least, give the impression that they can comprehend the reality of life for the majority. This is the problem for Cameron & Co. Their ‘everything on a plate’ backgrounds have not equipped them to connect with ordinary people. Added to that, they have no discernable skills, experience or vision that might justify their position as political leaders.

    It’s almost impossible nowadays to hide embarrassing information from the public and anyone can find those Bullingdon pictures by doing a simple Google search. I don’t think the sentiments of the British people have changed much since the 70s, and we can see all too clearly that we do indeed have ‘two arrogant posh boys’ at the helm. And why are they there? Because they thought they were born to rule and that they’d be good at it. Oh dear! That’s just nowhere near good enough.    



  • Janiete

    Welcome back Olli. We’ve missed you!

  • Michele

     So how did Dubbya?

  • Michele

     I don’t think RJ revealed anything without having discussed the pros and cons with her brother.
    I think they might all have the same middle name.

  • Michele

     The only reason for uni education having been free post-WWII was the need to quickly replace all those highly-educated and lost (which is not to forget those less educated and lost).

    The only way it was affordable was under the Marshall Plan (which UK has repaid, alone among all its recipients).

    Perhaps you need to show some gratitude for what enabled your own free tuition rather than exploit the fact that it became unaffordable as access to higher education was made available to more (and as their personal choice rather than a national necessity).

  • Ehtch

    Allegedly, and all that, is it true the Bully Boys trashed a restaurant in Oxford, and skinny Cameron legged it and got away, while fat Boris couldn’t keep up and got arrested and spent a night in police custody, or is it an urban myth? Look’s like Cameron is good at legging it from restaurants and leaving his responibilities, it seems, going on beeb’s highest hit online news story today.

    And many people have got that posed photo of them in their Clockwork Orange type getup gear carved in stone on their hard drive, so it will not go away, ever.

  • Ehtch

    I’ve got the same mobile phone now for twelve years, still going strong. Only need one for calls and the occasional text. Hasn’t even got a camera on it. It’s all I ever needed.

    Apps? Stuff them. It’s mostly fashion at times. And I prefer to use old fashion maps too, made of paper, they’re bigger.

  • Michele

     I don’t mind that ‘posh’ people still exist, nobody can help the level of society they are born in to and what precedes them in their family tree.
    It was a posh friend of mine that acquainted me with the phrase ‘not quaite one of oss’ being used about a third party – the utter stupidity of that led to quaite a lot of bad language and eventually to the end of the friendship.

    Some ‘high born’ people are great, they can’t help what they were born in to and are quite normal but despite expensive educations some of them are even beyond rescuing from Stupid.
    Did I really just hear Osbo say that when worries were being expressed about Coulson vs confidentiality at No10 he rang Rebekakaka for the OK about him?

  • Ehtch

    Anyway, who takes their young children on their Sunday afternoon bladdering piss-up? – quite feckless I think, especially when you forget one of them. Irresponsibilty of the highest order, I do say, right on my huge high horse.

    disgusted from west wales.

    : )

  • reaguns

    Dubbya is an entirely different kettle of fish to Cameron, Clegg, Chris Huhne etc. He neither had the posh accent, nor had he the smug smarminess of them.

    Dubbya (before election) could walk into a working class bar in Texas and not seem too far out of place, he was a rough-talkin’, hard-drinkin’ type of guy, ie the sort William Hague wished he was. He could say the things working class americans want to hear. Totally different to the likes of Cameron and much more suited to open primaries.

    Yes he may have been ‘privileged’ but he did a better job of hiding it than Cameron. Think how surprised people are when you tell them Bush went to Yale and Harvard – no one is surprised Cameron went to Oxford though. He was privileged in a different way too, ie dad was a WW2 vet and then a self made oil man, not like Cameron’s blue blood going right back to royalty.

    I cannot think of an equivalent in British politics. Maybe some of the older hands on the labour side, or David Davis for the ‘everyman’ touch.

    Not that I think you can’t be posh and succeed at open primaries, I think the likes of Paddy Ashdown or Tony Benn would do very well under such a system.

  • Ehtch

    for those who are ignorant, a scene from the Bullingdon Club, oops, sorry, Clockwork Orange, or am I…

    The cafe scene from If a couple of years earlier?

    Same difference. shits.

  • Richard

    The only reason that University education  became unaffordable for the state was when some ijit decided that 50% of 18yos should go to university.

  • Michele

    Show the stat re 50% please.

    Oh …. I almost forgot, didn’t you also have a maintenance grant on top of free tuition?

    Stop being stupid, situations and needs  change, solutions need to suit situations.

    Wrap your tongue around all those esses and try to avoid the cheap shots.

  • Michele

     oh good grief ….. Dubbya got to Harvard because its offer is either to milli/billionaires or those very few that qualify via means testing and bursaries. 
    James Murdoch went to Harvard too ….. splutter.
    Like Oxbridge systems; take in some rich idiots for their loads of dosh which allows less well-off geniuses in too 🙂

    He got through Primaries because the funding was limitless and not just from Deddy, his uncle is big in Big Pharma and the whole sorry sad battle about Terri Schiavo was in the background (and wasn’t there something about ‘klinkered’ ballot papers in Unc’s state?).  I’m not sure of the real name  btw.

    Dubbya got to be Pres ‘cos he was following Deddy — ooops I just hinted at yet another republic with a hereditary HoS.

  • Mick Nott

    In addition to my earlier post:  the play also portrays the Riot’s Club constituents’ appalling attitude to women – of any kind but especially those not of their class.  I thought about this in relation to Cameron and Nadine Dorries (Calm down dear) and also now the difference in treatment with Lady Warsi and Jeremy Hunt.  
    And Jeremy Hunt must be a member of the ‘establishment club’; one can only think that Cameron is shielding him either because he knows ‘where all the bodies are buried’ or because he is being shielded precisely because he did as he was bidded and this shielding is his reward for loyalty.
    So the end of the play is chilling and more ‘probable’ than ‘possible’.  
    Wish I could be there for the debate

  • Anonymous

    I’m not arguing with most of that, I’m just saying that a couple of things that would hold Cameron back in a primary, would not hold back a Bush figure. Some of that is personal, most of it is down to the difference in the american class system. They don’t have centuries of aristocratic divisions to the same extent we do, they do not have as much of a “posh accent” syndrome, ie whereby some people have it and its a stigma. Bush personally, in my opinion, does not come across so smug and self satisfied as Cameron does. I think both of these matter in open primaries, but not when you are getting selected by the powers that be rather than the people. Glad to hear labour make noises about open primaries in future.

    My remarks about Harvard were not to portray Bush as intelligent, but to portray him as privileged. As you rightly allude to, he went to Harvard due to privilege, not brains. A lot of people are not aware of his educational backgroung though.

    I’ve seen the list of the topics he studied at Yale and Harvard. I think “colouring in” would not have looked out of place amongst them. Not like our leaders eh… er, well actually quite a lot like them. I found it hilarious, the only time I have seen Boris Johnson riled was when someone told him Cameron had scored a higher mark at Oxford, he then regained his composure when he suggested PPE was less difficult than Johnsons subject, which I have now forgotten. Here comes the offensive part from me: Yes they are smart people, taught by the best etc but PPE, History, Classics, English – all of these are soft subjects.

    Perhaps why every parliamentarian always appears stupid when confronted with someone like Robert Winston, ie a person with a numerate hard subject background rather than “Waffle for Posh Blokes with Honours”.

  • Gilliebc

    I wouldn’t disagree with that R.  It was a damn stupid idea.  But, I think the reason behind it was because there were and are so few jobs or apprenticeships for school leavers to go to. 

    Successive governments of both shades have always sought to hide the true unemployment figures in many ways. 
    University places with silly courses for people who clearly shouldn’t be there, is one ‘solution’

    Another way of disguising the true unemployment figures is by putting some people on long term sickness/invalidity benefits or whatever they’re labelled these days. 

    I don’t mean the people who are genuinely sick or disabled in a varietyof ways. Of course in a civilised society those people should be cared for.  A lot of them have already paid their dues anyway.  But most of us know people who shouldn’t be on the ‘sick’ That has become a convenient dumping ground for many people and as I say it all helps to disguise the true unemployment figures.

  • Gilliebc

    I think you’ve made some very good points in your first two paragraphs Michele.

  • Richard

    “Labour’s target of getting 50% of young people to go to university has driven down standards and devalued degrees – and the next government should abolish it, leading graduate recruiters argued today..”
    per your handbook Guardian.

    Stop being self appointed rottweiler of the blog, always wanting the last word, abusing all who may not sharel your views.

    Competent graduates are at least as important to our future economic success now as they ever were post war. But the 50% everybody gets a cigar culture is a disaster.

    University Technical Colleges may be the way to go.

  • reaguns

    Totally agree with this. It’s possible to be posh and give the impression you understand ordinary peoples lives, or at least care about them, even if it’s hard to truly appreciate it without doing it. But this lot fail on all counts. All the governments are the same, they never think of the impact of crime in working class areas.

  • Anonymous

    I am just not going to mention his security staff then were getting plastered in the bar, the other side of the lounge, that forget her, self-tripping themselves putting Dave and Sam themselves plastered in their cars, or have I?