One of the worst insults you can hurl at anybody in the early 21st century is to call them a snob. Political careers have foundered upon this imputation. Two recent victims were former Government whip Andrew Mitchell, who was alleged to have called a group of Downing Street policemen plebs, and Emily Thornberry, then Shadow Attorney General, who was forced to resign in 2014 after tweeting a picture of a house draped in St George’s Cross flags with a white van parked outside alongside the caption “Image from #Rochester”.
But what is a snob in 2016 and how has its definition changed since people took an interest in snobbery and its impact on our national life? “Snob” was first used 300 years ago to refer to a shoemaker. By the 1820s, it described a Cambridge undergraduate from a humble background who had a scholarship to study. However, it was William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Book of Snobs (serialised in Punch in 1846– 7) that shaped our modern idea of snobbery as judging other people by arbitrary rules – admiring a duke, say, because he is a duke rather than for any qualities. Or assuming that a duke is morally superior because of his aristocratic status.
Defined in this way, snobbery is well-nigh universal. Fashionista snobs are prepared to spend £600 on a designer T-shirt. Clothing traditionalists faint with disdain at the sight of a man in a suit who doesn’t wear a tie. Property snobs living in Battersea, London SW11, refer to their locale as “South Chelsea”. There are language snobs, who blanch at friends who make the fatal, grammatical error of ending sentences with prepositions (“That is language up with which I will not put”, for example). And there is the snobbery of place, such as looking down on “soft” southerners because you happen to come from a tough northern mill town in the shadow of the Pennines, and vice versa.
So the first great rule of modern snobbery is that it is no longer top-down, a matter of supposedly posh people affecting to despise their inferiors. We are all complicit in it, all trying to demonstrate that what we eat, wear, read and watch is superior to the downmarket tastes of our next-door neighbours and colleagues.
As someone who came back from his first term at Oxford to hear his father demand, “Where did you get that half-crown voice?”, I wonder whether I’m a snob myself. And if we are all in this together, then snobbery becomes collusive. You can’t be a snob unless the person on whom this snobbery is practised allows you to be. Comedian Hardeep Singh Kohli, for example, believes that British imperial rule in India was maintained for so long because it appealed to a deep-rooted snobbery that already existed among the native Indian peoples.
And so snobbery exists everywhere and is as likely to be found on a council estate as in the committee room of the snootiest suburban golf club. George Orwell, who dressed for dinner and preferred good burgundy to “colonial claret”, was a snob. Evelyn Waugh, who, as a teenager living in Golders Green, preferred to post his letters in Hampstead so that the postmark would read NW3, was unashamedly a snob.
The variant version, inverted snobbery, in which people play up their humble origins, can be glimpsed everywhere from those who exaggerate regional accents to the Labour MP Dennis Skinner, who entitled a chapter in his auto- biography “Good working-class mining stock.”
As for snobbery’s future in a technologically complex and economically shifting landscape: it looks set to play an increasingly important part in the way we behave. This, as commentators never tire of reminding us, is an era of growing social insecurity in which our ability to carve out a distinctive space for ourselves becomes ever more crucial to our sense of personal integrity.
The way we pronounce a word or the place we aspire to visit on holiday may be a satirist’s joke, but it’s also a vitally important aspect of the people we imagine ourselves to be.
Archive on 4: A Guide to the Modern Snob airs Saturday 4th June at 8pm on Radio 4