The view from the ground.


Meet the "young fogeys" of David Cameron's Britain.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

James Sharpe’s taste in music pretty much ends with Edvard Grieg. On days when he feels particularly pessimistic, he laments that Johannes Brahms was probably the last great composer. As for art, “Caravaggio is definitely better than Rothko — although Rothko isn’t too bad.” He is particularly exacting about fashion: Savile Row is too expensive for a student, but one can find hand-tailored suits in vintage stores. This takes a trained eye, but Sharpe has been honing his knowledge of menswear since, as a small child, he chose blazers and waistcoats instead of the usual primary-colored poly-blends. Back then, he was imitating the adults he saw wearing suits to work. Now, the adults are mystified by him. “My father gets rather annoyed when I’m wearing silk handkerchiefs,” he admits.

For a long time Sharpe thought he might be alone in his antique opinions. It was only when he arrived at Cambridge University to begin his undergraduate degree in history that his lifelong fondness for Baroque fugues, paisley ascots, and conservative politics earned him a label. In Britain, there is a name for this kind of person: James Sharpe, age 22, is a young fogey.

Until recently, the young fogey was thought to be a relic of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain; if he still existed in the heyday of New Labour, it was believed, he was drinking his Ovaltine only in the darkest corners of Oxford or Cambridge. Even the resurgence of the country’s Conservative Party after a decade on the political margins hasn’t given the fogeys much to celebrate: Prime Minister David Cameron came to power in May by crafting the exact opposite image of the British center-right, touting his support for causes such as gay rights and fighting climate change and forging a pan-ideological coalition with the country’s center-left Liberal Democrats. The ruddy-faced Tories idolized by Sharpe and his ilk were supposed to be a thing of the past.

But the statistics of Cameron’s coalition cabinet — a survey by the Guardian in May found that 86 percent of its members were male, 59 percent were schooled privately, and 69 percent had university degrees from Oxford or Cambridge — tell a story of their own. It’s appropriate, then, that Britain’s new Conservative era has been accompanied by a rebirth of enthusiasm for the old: A new generation of fogeys is unapologetically asserting its taste in bespoke suits, fountain pens, and a nice glass of port — and political views that are unapologetically disdainful of egalitarianism.

Young fogeys wear tweed, smoke pipes, and revere the monarchy. They fight to repeal the Hunting Act, carry handmade umbrellas, and evince nostalgia for a past they have never actually experienced. Their political sensibilities, for the most part, track their aesthetics: Sharpe, a former chairman of the Cambridge University Conservative Association, describes his own politics as “paternalistic.”

Fogeyism has no manifesto or ideology, Sharpe insists, and young fogeys don’t announce themselves as such — to do so would be counter to what Sharpe has called their “studied indifference.” But, he admits, “one thing that is of great concern is the overdemocratization of things at the moment — that whatever is popularly thought good is what’s good.” The young fogey, says Sharpe, has faith in authority: Bach is superior to Lady Gaga; Alberti is preferable to Frank Gehry; and police chiefs should be appointed, not elected. As the ruling Conservatives present their agenda of government decentralization and sweeping budget cuts on relatively tenuous political ground, this refusal by some young conservatives to adhere to the party’s reformed image is inconvenient at best. 

The first use of “young fogey” to describe this particular subculture dates from May 1984, when Alan Watkins, a columnist for the conservative magazine the Spectator, wrote the following taxonomy: “He is a scholar of Evelyn Waugh. He tends to be coolly religious. … He dislikes modern architecture. He makes a great fuss about the old Prayer Book, grammar, syntax and punctuation. He laments the difficulty of purchasing good bread, Cheddar cheese, kippers and sausages. … He enjoys walking, and travelling by train.” The “he” was likely intentional — although many young women had fogeyish views, a tweed suit was rarely considered a flattering costume for most of them.

British newspapers quickly popularized the term and applied it to a range of authors, politicians, and academics. A guide, The Young Fogey Handbook, edited by Suzanne Lowry, appeared in 1985, the same year that British miners called off a yearlong strike and pundits proclaimed an ideological victory for Thatcher’s government. The handbook noted that “the present resurgence of Young Fogey ties up neatly with the re-invention of the class system” and added, with some acidity, that the trend was “locked into the great and incurable English vice of snobbery: explicit in the instant wish of any man who makes a bob or two, or rises in his profession, to ride to hounds, to send his children to [private] school and to live behind a facade.” The fogey was not necessarily of the upper class, but he did seem to revere it.

According to The Young Fogey Handbook, the 1980s culture of young fogeys was delineated by subtle clues, ranging from the novelists one read (Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse topped the list), to the leisure pursuits one enjoyed (rambling, croquet, beagling, crosswords), to the contemporary horrors that one considered suitable targets for cantankerous letters to conservative periodicals (Greenpeace, pop music, the 1960s). The original Evelyn Waughnabes preferred to distance themselves from the vulgar machinations of everyday politics. A few tea-stained and fraying fogeys even modeled themselves after social realists such as George Orwell. Still, they did, as a cohort, lean decidedly to the right: Many of them were self-identified libertarians who viewed even Thatcher with disdain.

Like preppy culture in the United States, young fogeyism had waned by the 1990s. The incorporation of many conservative ideas into the platform of New Labour was one factor; another was that formerly marginal opinions — cherishing traditional British cuisine, say, or protecting the BBC from becoming too commercial — became more mainstream. The fogeys also may have had an image problem at a time when acting posh was unpopular and hereditary peers were losing their places in the House of Lords. Even the foibles of the Prince of Wales — who had once referred to a modern extension of the National Gallery as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend” and whom the Handbook called “the Superfogey” — seemed more cantankerous than charming as he reached middle age.

In 2003, the Spectator ran an article titled “The Young Fogey: An Elegy” that declared the end: “Twenty years after his creation, the Young Fogey has pedalled off into the sunset on his sit-up-and-beg butcher’s bike, broad-brim fedora firmly on head, wicker basket strapped to the handlebars by leather and brass ties.”

It seems the elegy came too soon. Last year, the Guardian proclaimed “The Return of Poshness,” citing such varied evidence as the recent popularity of country sport brand Barbour, the latest film adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, and the impending electoral success of David Cameron. Today, one can unexpectedly encounter a young man in a waistcoa
t puffing a pipe everywhere from a university house party to the steps of the opera. Britain’s 2004 ban on fox hunting, which was perceived by many conservatives to be a populist jab at the upper classes disguised as a measure to prevent cruelty to animals, made the idea of running after a pack of beagles on a weekend in snowy-white breeches seem — for the first time in recorded history — rebellious and edgy. The last parliamentary election saw victories by unapologetically aristocratic politicians like Jacob Rees-Mogg, who once referred to graduates of Britain’s proletarian state schools as “potted plants.”

Most intriguingly, the most ideological wing of the Conservative Party seems to have absorbed some of the aesthetic trappings of young fogeyism. The monocle-wearing editors of a magazine called the Chap, who organized cheerful protests against the work of contemporary artist Rachel Whiteread at the Tate Modern, personify the fogey at his most whimsical; the High Tory who equates a proliferation of sportswear with the decline of a nation provides a more serious kind of fogeyism. For these fogeys, wearing a trilby hat is a way to express defiance at what they see as a populist move to the center by the party’s top officials and an abandonment of conservative ideology — a situation compounded after the last election by the necessary formation of a parliamentary coalition with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats.

Oliver Haiste, a 28-year-old business analyst for the Royal Bank of Liechtenstein, falls into this category. Haiste describes his beloved velvet jacket as “standard day-wear,” and sees his fogeyism as a complement to his politics. He says his principles are more in line with those of American conservatives than with the British variety, albeit without the religious posturing. He doesn’t believe in “moral relativism,” describes himself as “generally lukewarm towards mass immigration,” and is similarly chilly about British involvement in the European Union. Unlike Sharpe, Haiste’s young fogey is much more likely to invoke an image of the decline of the British Empire in his description of his tastes: “If you look at photos of Arsenal football stadium in the 1930s,” he says, “everyone there was wearing suits that were impeccably tailored. Now they wear nylon shirts with sponsors on the front. We used to be respected for being quite a stylish people.”

Regardless of whether he is paternalist, nationalist, or just a dandy, the image of the young fogey is precisely the one the Conservatives are trying to shed. Once called the “nasty party” by one of its MPs for its perceived indifference to the struggles of the working class, the Conservative Party has been able to capitalize on the failure of the Labour government to reduce social inequality while simultaneously promoting a more inclusive image.

Today’s Conservatives are trying to reduce Britain’s budget deficit while leaving tax cuts for the wealthy intact; the party has made a point of recognizing civil partnerships while speaking out against what it calls Labour’s “state-driven multiculturalism.” It’s a delicate line to walk, and the fogeys aren’t helping. “We are not a party of the elite,” says Michelle Donelan, a spokesperson for Conservative Future, the party’s youth organization. “We are a very modern organization with a very mixed-bag membership, and that sort of false Tory-boy image is not what today’s party is about.” 

But who knows — maybe the fogeys are just the conscience that modern British Conservatism needs in its ascendance. As James Sharpe wrote me in a recent email, “An aristocracy is great because it makes those who are haves incredibly guilty. Is there anything worse than having people in power who think they deserve to be there?”

Emily Witt is an American journalist living in Britain.

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