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A matter of class: Is Clegg ‘posh’ after all?

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg’s privileged background has come under the spotlight in recent days, much to the surprise of many British voters. But what role, if any, will class play in the May 6 general election?

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Just days after his spectacular performance in Britain’s first ever general election debate on April 15, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg was forced to confront a little-known fact about his background during a question-and-answer session with students from Cardiff University.

Taking on the “third man” of British politics, Chris Williams, an 18-year-old politics student accused Clegg of cultivating a “man of the people” image which in fact, was not true.

“You had a very well-off South East upbringing,” Williams told Clegg, referring to the relatively affluent southeastern region of England. “The son of a well-off banker, you went to private school and then on to Cambridge, so what really makes you any different to David Cameron?”

Since taking over the leadership of the Conservative party in 2005, Cameron has been dogged by his elitist background.

The Conservative leader went to Eton, the elite all-boys private school that has produced 18 British prime ministers and whose alumni include several members of the British aristocracy. He continued his studies at Oxford University and was a member of the controversial all-male dining society, the Bullingdon-Club. Samantha Cameron, the candidate’s wife, is the daughter of Sir Reginald Adrian Berkeley Sheffield and a descendant of King Charles II.

The Clegg surprise

But while Cameron’s upper class roots are well known, revelations of Clegg’s “posh” upbringing have come as a surprise to many British voters.

The son of a successful banker and grandson of a Russian baroness, Clegg was sent to Westminster School in London, a private boarding school, which currently charges around £20,000 a year in fees. His family owns a large chalet in the Alps and a chateau in France. Clegg studied archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge University. His wife, Miriam Gonzalez Duarte, a successful international lawyer, is the daughter of a Spanish senator.

The “class card” is often played by British politicians - and for a solid reason, say some experts. “People tend to vote for the candidate which represents their social class and origins, the candidate which they identify with,” Andrew Cooper founder of the media centre Populus, told FRANCE 24.

The concept of social class is highly controversial in the UK. While traditional class boundaries have, to a large extent, blurred in the past few decades, it remains a highly delicate issue. For example, while the UK’s upper house, the House of Lords, is currently undergoing reform, it still does currently contain a small minority who have inherited their seats and the political power that goes with it.

‘Step outside posh boy’

Of the three candidates vying for the prime minister’s post in the May 6 general election, only Labour leader and current Prime Minister Gordon Brown hails from relatively humble roots.

The son of a Scottish clergyman, Brown has frequently drawn attention to his middle class family roots - as have the British media.

In an April Fool’s Day spoof, the national daily, the Guardian, published a faux Labour campaign poster showing a picture of Brown with the logo: “Step outside posh boy. Vote Labour, or else.” The satirical British magazine Private Eye often portrays Cameron as a posh boy in cartoon strips.

But in the 2010 campaign, Labour has been reluctant to launch an all-out assault on the Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders’ upper class past for fear of alienating voters.

In his response to the young student’s question about his past, Clegg was defensive but not apologetic. “For a start I’ve never said I was down with the workers. I’ve always been very open,” he said before adding, “I’ve been very, very lucky, I have a very loving family, I’ve had a very lucky background, and I’m certainly not going to airbrush that out of my own presentation.”

While recent polls show that Clegg’s past has not damaged his popularity, it remains to be seen if and to what extent the candidates’ backgrounds affect the outcome on Election Day.

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