By JR on Sunday, March 08, 2015
HMS Pinafore and the British class system
I have always been a classical music devotee but now that I am in my 8th decade I have been watching a fair bit of light opera, mainly Viennese operetta and England's Gilbert & Sullivan. And I enjoy it greatly.
All light opera seems to be about obstacles on the road to romance but W.S. Gilbert also includes some rather biting social commentary within his madcap humor. Perhaps sadly, however, the commentary is on the Britain of his day so most people these days probably miss a lot of the satire.
For instance who today has heard of Garnet Wolseley, the 1st Viscount Wolseley? Yet in the late 19th century when Gilbert wrote, Wolseley was the most distinguished British soldier and military leader of his day. He was renowned for his intelligence and efficiency and served with distinction and bravery in many of Britain's 19th century wars -- wars which are now mostly forgotten. And a reader has suggested to me (pursuant to an earlier post on G&S) with some cogency that the "modern major general" in "Pirates of Penzance" is mockery of the ultra-efficient Wolseley.
But the target of Gilbert's satire in "Pinafore" is impossible to miss. The obstacle to true love there is the British class system. To this day, you CANNOT understand Britain without a grasp of the class system. Yet the odd thing is that it is almost never publicly discussed. How are you to find out about it if no-one will tell you about it? I found out about it almost by osmosis. From childhood on I read untold numbers of British books. So I lived to a considerable extent in a British mental world.
And that world and the world outside my window were very different. In books I read about sea-birds such as whimbrels and snipes and other acclaimed birds such as skylarks and nightingales, whereas my environment in tropical Australia included deadly snakes such as Taipans and colorful fruit that would send you blind of you ate it (Finger Cherries). Not to mention huge crocodiles and sharks that could eat you and jellyfish that could sting you to death when you went swimming. It was a long way from the daffodils of England.
And the books I read in my early life were mostly written before WWII so were also rather alien in some of the social attitudes expressed. Even in my early teens I remember being struck by the expression: "That's very white of you", where "white" was an expression of appreciation that meant something along the lines of civilized, kind and generous. Such an expression would be toweringly politically incorrect these days but back then it was common enough. It was an expression of racial pride and reflected an adverse judgment of the morals and ethics of darker races.
But in the last two or three decades, some bold British writers have written explicitly about their class system, the social anthropologist, Kate Fox, most notably. And Fox lays it all bare down to the tiniest detail. As I wrote a couple of years ago:
"I have recently been reading Kate Fox's book on the English so passed on a few things that she had reminded me of. "Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour" is, I think, the funniest book I have ever read. It repeatedly has me in tears of laughter. As an Australian who knows the English well, I can recognize the truth of her observations without being embarrassed by them. And there is one sentence from her book that sums up the English well: "Everything is embarrassing"." There is an update of her observations here.
And such is the genius of W.S. Gilbert that, in his madcap and exaggerated way, he too makes the English class system seem hilarious.
Thankfully, the class system in Britain today is less blatant than it was in Gilbert's day. But that is no thanks to Britain's various Labour party governments of the postwar era. Leftists, of course, all have a mania about equality, though some pigs are more equal than others, naturally (to quote Orwell). And successive British Leftist governments (mostly run by people from privileged backgrounds) have vowed to tear down class barriers in pursuit of equality.
And in the typical Leftist way, they have achieved exactly the opposite of that objective. One could argue that their actions were a deliberate strategy designed to preserve their own privileged stations in life but, although I don't dismiss that thought, it seems to me to be mainly just another example of Leftist stupidity.
Leftist stupidity is a special class of stupidity. The people concerned are mostly not stupid in general but they have a character defect (mostly arrogance) that makes them impatient with complexity and unwilling to study it. So they repeatedly shoot themselves in the foot; They fail to attain their objectives. The world IS complex so a simplistic approach to it CANNOT work.
The big British Labour Party blunder from the point of view of someone who genuinely values greater equality was the attack on "Grammar" schools. Britain once had many such schools. They were taxpayer-funded ("State") schools that were run on lines very similar to Britain's famous and excellent "Public" (meaning private) schools such as Eton, Harrow and many others. Mainly because of the cost, only about 7% of Britons complete the schooling of their teenage years in private schools, so the availability of schools of private school standard that were "free" to the user did open up a path to social mobility for many bright children from poor families. And many of the leading figures in British life to this day are products of a Grammar School education.
Access to a State Grammar school was via the "11 Plus" examination. It was an academic ability test heavily loaded with IQ. Pupils sat the exam at age 11 to determine their educational path through their teenage years. Probably correctly, only the brightest quarter of the population were deemed able to cope with the demands of the sort of education that had long prevailed in Britain's private schools.
And the Grammar schools were a great success in enabling social mobility. A Grammar school education was rightly regarded as close to a private school education in excellence and, even though they came from impoverished backgrounds, Grammar school graduates had almost the same easy path through life that had always characterized graduates from the great private schools. Many Grammar school graduates made it to Britain's leading universities, Oxford and Cambridge. Grammar schools were the main path upwards for able people from humble backgrounds. Equality of opportunity for the whole English population was greatly enhanced by them.
So what objection could there be to that? There was a BIG objection: the recognition in the form of the "11 Plus" exam that some people are brighter than others. That offended greatly against the "equality" mania of the Left. So except for some local pockets of resistance, the Labour party ABOLISHED the State-funded Grammar schools.
In the name of equality they abolished the main means of achieving more equality. How perverse is that? Only a Leftist could see it as reasonable. But even Leftist parties have to make some show of rationality, so how did they justify their destructive policy? They said that they were going to bring ALL schools up to Grammar school standard. It sounded good but was of course impossible. Certainly, nothing like it has ever been achieved in the many years since.
When Tony Blair first gained office as Labour party Prime Minister he said his three top priorities were education, education and education -- and he vowed to increase social mobility through his policies. What his government actually did was to dumb down both State school education and the exams used to assess it. So for 13 years the apparent educational attainments among English children soared. But it was one big fraud. A good education became virtually unattainable for many British children and so social mobility in fact FELL under Blair.
So the British class structure is now more extreme in its exclusivity than it was 50 years ago. England is now a place where the young people are mostly poorly educated in all senses and where the 7% of the population who went to private schools run just about everything in the country and dominate in all avenues of attainment. Even Britain's successful athletes in the most recent Summer Olympic games were disproportionately from private school backgrounds.
W.S. Gilbert would find the underlying class structure of England today not greatly different from the late 19th century structure that he satirized. And the hypocrisy about it that he so vividly noted is still there too.