Ordinary, middle-class Mr Brown

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Kenneth Roy

In the battle for ordinariness, the prime minister has struck the first blow. Although he stopped short of describing himself as an ordinary bloke, he came close with his self-reference to ‘an ordinary middle-class family from an ordinary town’….

Kenneth Roy

In the battle for ordinariness, the prime minister has struck the first blow. Although he stopped short of describing himself as an ordinary bloke, he came close with his self-reference to ‘an ordinary middle-class family from an ordinary town’.
     The media have interpreted this as the start of a class war with the Tories. In that case the ground rules have changed. In distant days almost beyond recall – let us say 1983 when Michael Foot was almost a power in the land – this war was still being fought between the proletariat, what was then called the working class, and the rest. But the working class seems to have disappeared, leaving the ‘ordinary middle class’ to take up the cause and man (or person) whatever barricades are still allowed under anti-terrorism legislation. This is a profound cultural shift. I am surprised more scholarly books have not been written about it.
     Ignoring the cynicism of the newspapers, perhaps we should accept what Mr Brown claims at face value and assume that he is not merely scoring a cheap political point at the expense of the Old Etonian toff on the other side. Giving him the benefit of any remaining crumb of doubt, we should attempt to define the terms. What exactly does he mean by ‘an ordinary middle-class family from an ordinary town’?

Coming as I do from a somewhat extraordinary working-class family from an extraordinary town – my mother played as a child on the remains of a Roman wall and the grounds of the house in which she was born are now regularly visited by UFOs – so they say in Bonnybridge – I met few ordinary middle-class families during my childhood. I am still sometimes uneasy in their company. They belong to Rotary Clubs and attend charity balls, play golf and squash, that sort of thing.
     We were taught to respect a number of leaders of the community. These included the headmaster of the primary school, the local Labour councillor (though only for pragmatic reasons: it was he who allotted the council houses), and the minister of the parish church. To the people of the village – the ‘ordinary’ people as Gordon Brown would say – the teacher and the minister were beyond class. The idea that the minister in particular was somehow from ‘an ordinary middle-class family’ would have been regarded as extremely strange. Whoever he was, there was nothing ordinary about him. There was still a lot of deference around; in the case of the teacher, it amounted to fear. When the minister delivered his sermon, we looked up to him in more ways than one. Ministers visited the houses of their parishioners in those days and, of course, they were required to officiate at the burial of the dead. So the minister was the most important person in a working-class community.
     John Ebenezer Brown, the prime minister’s father, was a Church of Scotland minister who was born in 1914. I believe R D Kernohan knew and admired him. The Revd John Brown, then, would have gone to work as a minister during this age of deference when the manse was one of the great houses of any town or village. What was ordinary about this? What is ordinary in any sense about the religious calling with all that it involves in the care of people and the interpretation of eternal truths?
     I doubt that it would have been any different in Kirkcaldy, the ‘ordinary’ town where Gordon Brown was brought up. Many of the men who lived there were coal-miners at the aptly named Seafield colliery. Once, in the middle of the night, I was wakened by a call from the BBC newsdesk and told to hotfoot it to Kirkcaldy: there had been a disaster; many men were trapped. Years later, when I next visited the town, the mine had closed and the ground was so flattened and bare that it was difficult to believe men had once worked and died under it.
     We must be grateful that Gordon Brown did not attempt to extend the illusion of the ‘ordinary middle class’ by describing Kirkcaldy as an ‘ordinary middle-class town’. In the Fife coalfield they always knew who was manning the barricades and it was never the ordinary middle class, who were otherwise engaged in solicitors’ and accountants’ offices, or smiling from the pages of the local paper at the Chamber of Commerce Burns Supper, or carrying the minister’s Bible.

I wonder if Mr Brown’s self-description (or self-deception) yesterday was motivated less by a desire to discredit the class roots of his Conservative opponent than by an attempt to woo the middle England of Daily Mail readers where the concept of ‘an ordinary middle-class family’ has more resonance. We have never been an ordinary middle-class sort of lot up here. Even when we do finally reach the far summit of ordinariness, living in a nice suburban bungalow with two cars and a small boat in the drive, we cling to the bad old habits of our former class, speaking roughly at sectarian-inspired football matches.
     What I am trying to say is that, north of the border, Mr Brown may be on to a loser here.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review – click here.