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May 23, 2005

Harry Potter and the Declassed Gentleman: Why the Conservatives remain even more unpopular than Labour

Posted by William Coleman

Why do the Conservatives remain even more unpopular than an unpopular Labour Party? Dr William Coleman - Senior Lecturer in Economics at the Australian National University - argues that the Conservative's unpopularity is due to the endurance of two contrary class mythologies. The public still trust the gentleman politician - the gentleman politician is Britain's anti-politician politician - but there is also the contrary mythology of the haughty, condescending upper class politician, named by Dr Coleman after Harry Potter villain Draco Malfoy. The image the public now hanker for in their politicians is that of the declassed politician. Tony Blair has managed to corner this market. The Conservatives are thus left with the Draco Malfoy stereotype.

Tony Blair has won an unusual electoral victory. The Labour Party's share of the vote in May was lower than under Callaghan in 1979 (35.2 per cent as compared with 36.9 per cent). Labour's performance was still worse if measured by the absolute number of votes. Labour received 9,556,183 votes in 2005. The Labour Party has received a smaller total number of votes in only one election in the past 60 years - 1983, when Labour received 8,456,934 votes. Yet Blair has a comfortable majority.

At one level the explanation of this paradox is manifest. While the election revealed that 65 per cent of the electorate would not vote Labour, the same election demonstrated that rather more than 65 per cent would not vote Conservative. In 2005 the Conservative's share of the vote was 32.3 per cent - since 1945 the Conservative Party has only received a lower share of the vote in 1997 (30.7 per cent) and in 2001 (31.7 per cent). In terms of absolute number of votes the Conservative performance is still worse. The Conservatives too have only gained fewer votes than in 2005 in one election since 1945, namely 2001 (8,357,622). Amazingly the Conservatives have managed to lose over 800,000 votes between their cataclysmic defeat in 1997 (total Conservative votes: 9,600,470) and 2005 (total Conservative vote: 8,772,598). In short, Labour succeeds because the Tories are loathed even more.

I am sufficiently sympathetic to the Tories to not believe this odium is a reaction to some grave injury done to two thirds of the population by the Conservatives. Rather, I want to argue their unpopularity is the result of the endurance of two contrary mythologies about Tory England. One of these is positive, the other negative. One amounts to an attraction to certain traditional images, and the other amounts to the existence of certain repulsive images. I suggest the Tories are doing so badly because they are on the wrong side of both of these mythologies, the positive as well as the negative.

The positive mythology is the ideal of the Gentleman, that famously singular category of British social relations. In the ideal, the gentleman is honourable, and rule abiding. He does not lie. He is not a humbug. He is trustworthy. The gentleman is, indeed, the opposite of the typical, negative stereotype of the politician.

The value traits of the idealised gentleman correlate with certain more objective attributes. The gentleman is in a state of personal equilibrium; he is a guarantor of social equilibrium; and by his family background and socialisation he noiselessly constitutes a potential authority figure.

The gentleman, then, is the politician you have when you are not having a politician. So whereas in the individualistic United States, the anti-politician politician is a billionaire businessman (Ross Perot), and whereas in egalitarian Australia the anti-politician politician is a fish and chip shop lady (Pauline Hanson), in Britain the anti-politician politician is a gentleman.

And thus Tony Blair. Commentators have suggested that Blair's public appeal was based on the impression of gentlemanliness he conveyed. The poor gullible public thought that amid the badlands of politics they had found a gentleman: someone who would not lie; someone who would not humbug; someone who was trustworthy. It is corroborative of this interpretation that part of Blair's current problem with the public is supposed to be a loss of the public's "trust", in other words that this image has been tarnished. It is worth noting that a violation of "trust" never seemed to be a problem of Thatcher or Major.

But if the ideal of the gentleman is resilient, should this not advantage the Tories? It is here we are confronted with a paradox: the paradox that the Labour Party deploys as their people's tribune a public school educated, Oxonian, barrister while the Tories last had power under a Londoner who left school at 14.

It seems the Conservatives are unable to use the positive mythology of the gentleman. I suggest that this is because of the health of another mythology about Tory England; a blatant, gross and negative mythology; a mythology of exclusion and hauteur. I will call this the Draco Malfoy mythology.

My reference is Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling. First published in 1997, fittingly just weeks after Blair won power, the Harry Potter suite of novels are in several dimensions thoroughly "modern". In conformity with much other modern children's fiction, Harry Potter novels court a juvenile appetite for crudity, and condone any adolescent insolence. Horror and violence is ladled thick. And, as they progress, the novels increasingly swim in sexual reference.

But for all its modishness, HP is audaciously old fashioned. For the HP novels are "boarding school fiction", that by all rights should be as defunct as Greyfriars and Billy Bunter. But HP seems to be almost modelled on pre-War pulp school fiction. Much of the fantasy detail of Greyfriars is replicated; the baroque school buildings, its ancient history, the retinue of Masters, a nearby village for misadventures, ludicrous foreign interlopers, house matches, prefects, and "cosy teas round the study fire".

But in one respect the HP novels part strikingly from pre-War school fiction. In HP the salient dramatic tension is one of class. It is all about the poor boys versus the self-styled "pure bloods". The poor boys are led by Harry Potter; a down and out, socially disconnected, with sticky out hair, with no more than nature gave him. The "pure bloods" are led by Draco Malfoy, an acolyte of a satanic Lord Voldemort. Tall, pale and blonde, rich, well bred and well-connected, Draco drawls his sneers at Harry and his naff friends. In this picture of oppressive, class based, social relations Hogwarts could be not the United Kingdom of 2005 but George Orwell's St Cyprians of 1915, as he described it in his essay Such, Such Were the Joys. But Harry Potter is the book that, according J.K. Rowling's agent Christopher Little, had by November 2003 sold 250 million worldwide, and had been translated into 60 languages.

This negative mythology is going to make it difficult for Tories to benefit from the positive one. Could you really expect a gentleman amongst the "pure bloods"?

The upshot of the co-existence of these two mythologies is the public's hope that gentlemanly value traits may be discovered uncoupled from gentlemanly class moorings. They are seeking a "declassed gentleman", one from the Labour Party - in other words a Tony Blair.

Harry Potter, too, may be considered a declassed gentleman. For as the novels progress Harry's (previously unknown) distinguished descent becomes increasingly evident. And, critically, Harry is honourable. He has a sense of truth and fairness that is Orwellesque in its intensity. Harry Potter is, indeed, a little hero in the image of another declassed gentleman, George Orwell. However down and out Orwell fell, however out of his social context he found himself, he was (as he records) readily recognised by the public as "a gentleman", and respected for it.

And it is a tasteless prank that history has played upon the dead that Orwell's name was Blair.

Dr William Coleman is Senior Lecturer in Economics at the Australian National University and the author of Economics and its Enemies: Two Centuries of Anti-Economics, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).

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