When I was working in London a few years ago a colleague told me that she envied me because my Scottish accent was “classless”. I was reminded of this the other day when I saw Government minister Esther McVey give a TV interview during which she seemed to be desperately trying, with only partial success, to eliminate any trace of Scouse from her voice.
The fact that a Conservative minister feels that she has to “talk proper” goes to show that we haven’t really moved on much from Victorian times when George Bernard Shaw famously wrote in his introduction to Pygmalion that “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.”
Like many things in modern Britain, this is mainly a class issue. And, despite what my ex colleague may have thought, it is not a problem unique to England. You only have to listen to the likes of Malcolm Rifkind or Fraser Nelson to know that the Edinburgh bourgeoisie identify much more with Miss Jean Brodie that they do with Irvine Welsh.
The broadcast media has to take some of the blame for this. Scottish, Welsh and Irish voices are frequently heard on TV and radio, presumably because they are regarded as “classless”. Regional English voices are conspicuous by their absence, the assumption being that they are just far too “working class”. Business News reporter Steph McGovern is one of the few BBC presenters to have a distinct regional accent, but even she draws criticism from some viewers who describe her rich Middlesborough tones as “common”.
I often wonder of one of the reasons for the ever growing popularity of social media channels is the fact that they neatly sidestep this issue by being based on the written word. There’s also the fact that it’s difficult to give away too much about your social or educational background in a mere 140 characters.
Many public sector organisations brand their equal opportunities policies as “valuing diversity”. We ought to value diversity in accents every bit as much as we value it in culture and religion. Why shouldn’t Esther McVey talk in her natural voice? After all, it would be a sad day indeed if we all sounded like Brian Sewell.