I remember my first few days at University. My group were all dressed in black, or occasionally punk stripes. A few of us wore earrings or make-up. We all loosely held left-wing views, with some of us joining the Marxists, others the Fabians or Socialist Workers, but all with pretty much the same worldview that poverty was bad, inequality possibly worse, that governments and companies could not be trusted, and that the establishment rules and norms should be broken whenever possible, not least by smoking pot.
We were a minority at Cambridge at the time, although the university was in a state of transition, taking in more students from state schools and actively seeking to diversify the gender mix. But certainly when I arrived there, most of the boys were from elite public schools, and the girls were typically herded together in women only colleges.
There was a uniformity to their attitudes of the “posh boys” that I found distasteful: an innate sense of their superiority, an underlying colonialist belief system that white British people were better than Europeans or people of colour, that men were better than women, that the poor deserved their poverty, and that people with a different sexual orientation were perverts.
What startled me was the animosity between the two groups. Within a few weeks of “matriculating” (the word that the colleges still used for starting as a student) most of my lefty friends had been thrown in the duck pond by right-wing zealots who were infuriated that their elite Oxbridge ranks had been joined by riff-raff from the lower classes. The politics of the Cold War filtered through into the lecture hall. Radical new modes of analysis such as structuralism and semiotics were starting to make incursions in the ranks of Oxbridge academics, blowing in the seeds sown in provincial left-wing universities such as Kent, Essex and Liverpool, among others.
The English faculty was split between the Leavisites who despised any literature that could not be discussed politely over tea and biscuits, and the Maccabeans who followed the semiotician Colin Maccabe who wanted to treat War and Peace as a coded discourse structured by the systemic but hidden biases of the ruling class.
I remember being accosted at the College pinball table by a third year economist who disliked the fact that I was reading Karl Marx. When I had my own opportunity to be “ponded”, I quickly took off my clothes and dived in naked to the shock of those who were threatening to throw me in. I was a strong swimmer, and I loved being in the water.
Fourty years later, it seems to me that UK society and attitudes are still differentiated primarily by class, even though the Berlin Wall has fallen and the Cold War has ended. It’s not just the prevalence of Eton and Oxford in the background of most of those in the Cabinet. The problem runs much deeper than that of toffs in bow ties still acting as school prefects.