I recently wrote a column for The National that provoked some, let’s say, passionate reactions. Two of the more printable were: “Sam Fowles’ photo encapsulates the pompous attitude often expressed by privileged men who’ve attained an education and entry into a boys’ club simply because he was born into money.” A second one ran: “A privileged young man… It’s enough to make you despair of the junior bar.”

Apparently, the main objection to my argument was that I seemed a bit posh. Ironically, the second tweet is from Joanna Cherry MP, who was educated at the (independent, fee-paying) St Margaret’s Convent School, and Edinburgh University. I went to my local comprehensive. I made it through university (St Andrews – Edinburgh was my “safety school”), PhD, law school and the bar exams, with the help of scholarships and part-time jobs.

Cherry’s mistake is understandable. Class is as much about performance as reality. I grew up in a decidedly non-posh household. My parents bent over backwards to give my brother and me opportunities they never had (including sending me to drama lessons to get rid of my Worcestershire accent). But they didn’t have the connections, experiences, or money that my (now) friends and colleagues enjoyed growing up.

I pass as “privileged” because I’ve had to fit into a world where being a “bit posh” helps you get along. This is not to suggest I’m “faking it”. We all perform class in one way or another. It’s not, for most, a necessarily conscious act. Rather, it’s a thousand tiny behaviours that imperceptibly demonstrate one is the “right sort”. For those born into more privileged classes, these are second nature.

I was mocked for wearing a jacket with the wrong pattern

The performance stands out to me because I learned by failing. As a nineteen-year-old intern, I was mocked for wearing a jacket with the wrong pattern. A few years later, for wearing brown shoes with a dark suit. Then there are the less tangible tells: the easy charm that comes from self-confidence, with being comfortable in the right rooms. So many of my friends fit naturally into social spaces where I don’t. As a pupil barrister, one of my reports, while praising my legal work, noted my social ineptitude. This wasn’t meant cruelly. My supervisors appreciated that I needed (the right kind of) social as well as legal skills. The essential skills of advocacy: thinking on your feet, choosing the right words under pressure, are taught from a young age through the sort of activities you’re more likely to get at private schools, such as debating, public speaking, or simply being in classes small enough to have a genuine discussion.

There are extraordinarily successful barristers from working-class backgrounds (Michael Mansfield, for example). But only 34 per cent of barristers report going to state school (compared with 94 per cent of the population as a whole). The bar is making efforts to change. My chambers, for example, engages with mentoring and work experience programmes to help people from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds come to the bar.

The performance of class, however, goes well beyond barristers. The rituals which sort people into “social betters” and “social inferiors” still infuse society. For example, millions of pounds of public money are spent annually on the ceremonies of the monarchy. We subjects are forced to pay for the privilege of being reminded of our place. At a more everyday level, the performance of class can come down to a single word. At my university, one of the first questions new students asked each other was where they went to school. I noticed that most of my new friends were able to answer with a single word or phrase (Marlborough, Herriot’s). More recently I found myself discussing how certain words still give us away even when we’ve lost our regional inflections. I still can’t say “bastard” without a Midlands accent.

Class has always been about performance. It is ultimately a way of justifying a society organised on the basis of unearned privilege. The little performances we use today are the descendants of the unspoken markers of “nobility” in the past: unconsciously learned behaviours repackaged as innate virtue.

Ironically, the performance now goes the opposite way too. Politicians have always accused each other of being “privileged”. Sometimes this is a legitimate criticism. Privileged people often can’t appreciate what life is like for those born into less fortunate circumstances. It’s right to call out the scions of Eton and Harrow when they demonise people on benefits for political gain. But the age of populism has also created politicians who pantomime being “of the people”. Nigel Farage (Dulwich College) is a past master. Politicians like Farage and Cherry now scream “privileged” as a way of silencing opposition. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s true or not. The performance is everything.

Sam Fowles is a barrister, Director of the ICDR, and a lecturer at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. He tweets at @SamFowles 

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Columns, June / July 2024, Opinions, Star Chamber

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