Quentin Letts letting loose delivers a cathartic read even though some stray punches strike the wrong targets, writes Gideon Rozner.
As countries throughout the West buckle under the disconnect between the political class and the mainstream, the London Daily Mail’s columnist Quentin Letts unloads on the ‘snootocracy’: the political, cultural and financial elites that have steadily ‘betrayed Britain’. And Letts is not selective in his outrage. Everyone gets a serve, from out-of-touch politicians and faceless bureaucrats to sanctimonious academics and virtue-signalling celebrities.
Nor is the author afraid to name names. For Letts, the political is personal, and he is uncompromising—often vicious—in attacking the ‘worst offenders’ when it comes to talking down to ordinary Britons. ‘Bearded box-wallah’ Richard Branson tops Letts’ list of the 100 most patronising bastards (helpfully included as an appendix). Other notable inclusions are David Beckham, Richard Dawkins and Prime Minister Theresa May, who is ‘so boring they should use her to dig for shale gas’. Many of Letts’ subjects are less well-known, and will be largely unfamiliar to Australian readers. But Patronising Bastards is still a highly enjoyable read despite its UK-centric angle. Letts’ caricatures are so detailed in their savagery that little background knowledge is needed.
FOR LETTS, THE POLITICAL IS PERSONAL, AND HE IS UNCOMPROMISING—OFTEN VICIOUS—IN ATTACKING THE ‘WORST OFFENDERS’ WHEN IT COMES TO TALKING DOWN TO ORDINARY BRITONS
In this sense, Patronising Bastards does for the political polemic what Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night did for the novel.
It is a 300-page scream, crackling with urgency, disgust and rage—a brutal assault on the hypocrisy and condescension of the chattering classes.
Naturally, Brexit is a recurring theme. For Letts, it was ‘the greatest citadel-storming since the French Revolution’, a culmination of ‘yeoman impatience with our smug, self-perpetuating, invisible Brahmin caste’. The Leave victory European Union:
For decades, Britons have been bossed about by a clerisy of administrators and managers and pose-striking know-alls. The old aristocracy having faded, in came a more furtive elite, driven by the desire to own minds, not acres. They were not interested in buying parklands and vistas. They wanted to control opinion and dictate our attitudes… They crouched behind ‘enlightened’ attitudes while imposing their views on a populace they claimed to esteem but truthfully disdained. … (the Brexit vote) was the eruption of a long-building resentment at being bossed around by an opaque snootocracy, by prosperous fixers and people-in-the-know… Our arrogant elite, after years of self-enriching condescension, had been whupped.
If Brexit represented the storming of a citadel, its apex was the political class. As Letts observes: ‘General elections are elections for Parliament. The [Brexit] referendum was an election against Parliament, in spite of Parliament’. Here, Letts points to the obvious disconnect between the Leave-voting public and the majority of their ‘elected representatives’, who–from the Prime Minister down–campaigned aggressively for a Remain vote.
It is emblematic of British democracy’s wider malaise. It’s not just that politicians don’t listen to voters, it’s that they don’t even really speak to them either, engaging in campaigns that seem designed to bore the electorate into submission:
It takes a warped audacity to go forth and stultify. At its root is the casual belief that the audience is peripheral to the process. The people are just bystanders whereas politics is for the cognoscenti. Don’t communicate too openly with them, for goodness’ sake. We don’t want them to develop an unhealthy interest in ideas. And then these bozos are surprised when a ripsnorter like Nigel Farage or acid Alex Salmond or even Pied Piper Jeremy Corbyn comes along and grabs attention by being different.
From there, Letts embarks on a roll call of political institutions removed from the popular will. The House of Commons, with its increasingly few working class members, is ‘barely “common” at all’ and simply ‘protects the interests of the clerical/political caste’. The House of Lords has been assiduously stacked with mates, apparatchiks, and failed MPs with nothing to offer but sanctimonious bleating. Quangos galore offer well-heeled insiders ‘Swanksville offices, business cards and spin doctors’ for no public policy gain. An army of regulators terrorises the nation, armed with ‘clipboard and disappointed eyebrow’. Mediocre judges have been shoehorned into the courts in accordance with asinine ‘diversity’ requirements.
LETTS SAVES A SPECIAL PLACE FOR THE EUROPEAN UNION AS BOTH THE SYMBOL AND SOLE PRESERVE OF THE PATRONISING ELITES
But Letts saves a special place for the European Union as both the symbol and sole preserve of the patronising elites. ‘Devotees of Brussels pooh-pooh the nation state and patriotism, that they consider feebly romantic,’ Letts writes. In place of the nation-state, Europhiles have created an obscenely bureaucratic ‘Tower of Babel’ for which the UK is ‘a province on the fringes of the empire, as it had been in the days of Asterix and Gaul’. Understandably, Letts appears to take particular delight in cataloguing the anguish of the well-to-do when the British people voted to leave.
But Patronising Bastards is about more than just political institutions. It is, to borrow from the late Andrew Breitbart, about the wider culture that is ‘upstream’ from politics. Letts’ fury is directed at an entire class of condescending elites. The fact they have commandeered the organs of state is almost incidental.
In any event, politics is not the only theatre in Letts’ class war. The tension between the patronising bastards and ordinary Britons is pervasive. Accordingly, Letts discusses a raft of cultural phenomena of varying significance. One particular bugbear is the arts. Under the stewardship of the establishment, artistic fashion has increasingly favoured ‘the new, the vulgar, the obscure, the puerile and the plain nasty’ at the expense of the ‘traditional, figurative, beautiful, sentimental, Christian [and] pastoral’. These peculiar fixations have only widened the chasm between the elites and the mainstream:
At the other end of the sewage outlet, the people of Britain [have been] simply reinforced in their suspicion that the Establishment was taking the mickey … [It] symbolised the deeper truth of the corroded values in our elite.
The peculiar tastes of the British elite can be felt beyond the art galleries. Fashion designers ‘are weirdly attracted to the harsh and the miserable [and] go out of their way to slash and offend’. Cityscapes are blighted by architects’ obsession with ‘modernising and “challenging” the public aesthetic (which is another way of saying “ruining much-loved vistas”)’. The unfathomably ugly London 2012 Olympic logo epitomised the triumph of the ‘bold’, ‘that defensive trigger word [that] means “too daring and high-falutin’ for you plebs to appreciate”.’
It’s hard at times to separate genuine cultural issues that merit discussion from idiosyncratic matters of taste particular to the author. Even more confused is Letts’ discussion of economic and commercial issues. On one hand, Letts makes several valid points about crony capitalism and corporate virtue-signalling pushed by elites and despised by the mainstream. Like the EU, Davos is presented as the (literal) pinnacle of elitist idiocy:
No satire would dare depict such paradoxical excess as is found at Davos. Billionaires draw their lips into bows of concern to give lectures about poverty. Rock stars mix with dictators to discuss democracy … Davos cable cars whisk fur-booted tax accountants, bankers and lawyers, lawyers, lawyers to James Bond villain-style lairs atop a distant peak, there to discuss public-health shortfalls or sustainable development … The fur-booted brigade later clamber back into the ecologically incorrect cable car (ski lifts are horrendous polluters) to admire the Davos nightscape and all those twinkly lights wrecking the night sky.
However, Letts cannot seem to distinguish between this kind of hypocritical love-in and genuine free market capitalism. Many of Letts’ jibes against ‘corporations’ at large are jarring, as he throws the free market baby out with the crony capitalist bathwater. At one point, for example, Letts takes aim at the ‘wafflers who promote capitalism as high-minded communal endeavour rather than the profit-chasing, customer-screwing rat-race that it is’.
Perhaps we can put Letts’ dubious anti-capitalist streak down to a reference at one point to his own ‘roots in the liberal elite’. He is no right-wing purist, rather a grizzled reformed leftie, one of many who have been left understandably bitter as the counter-cultural left of the 1960s has morphed into the hypocritical establishment we know today.
The book also contains a number of omissions and missed opportunities. Matters like freedom of speech, offence culture and identity politics are mentioned in passing, but merit their own chapters. Likewise, nanny state issues—arguably worse in Britain than almost anywhere on earth— barely rate a mention.
But for all of its faults, the book is an enjoyable read, if only for Letts’ writing, which is as sublime as it is savage. And of course, Letts’ masterful take-downs offer ready catharsis for any Australian who’s had a gutful of our own patronising bastards.