by Kitty Kelley
England is strangled by its pernicious class system. Even in 2021, the country’s rigid social structure dominates, and its snobbish acronyms still apply: N.O.C.D., usually whispered, means “Not our class, dear.” British aristocrats prefer associating with P.L.U. (“People like us”). If you’re born working class in Britain, you’ll die working class — unless, like Fiona Hill, you manage to cross the pond and move to the U.S.
The title of her memoir says it all: There Is Nothing for You Here, which is what her father told her — nothing for a coal miner’s daughter born in the North East of England with an accent that marks her fathoms below those who speak the “Queen’s English.” That cut-glass British enunciation, defined as RP (received pronunciation), determines one’s standing from cradle to grave.
“Aspirational Brits, mockingly dubbed ‘social climbers,’ would take elocution lessons to change the tone and the pitch of their voice as well as their diction,” Hill writes, citing Margaret Thatcher, who famously took voice lessons to rise above her roots as the daughter of a small-town grocer. But at least Thatcher, being middle class, was allowed into Oxford. Not so Fiona Hill.
Despite her outstanding scholastic record, Hill was steered from Oxbridge to attend St. Andrews University in Scotland, still impressive, but not of the peerage. “This was a case of guilt by linguistic association with a region once completely dominated by heavy industry and thus by ‘workers,’” she writes of her background. “I wanted to leave the UK’s place- and class-based discrimination behind and move on.”
She immigrated to America and received a partial scholarship to study at Harvard, where she earned her Ph.D. in Soviet studies. Hill traveled to what was then the USSR, where she lived for a year, and later wrote a book about Vladimir Putin.
In Russia, Hill was respected as the standard bearer of the working class; in the U.S., her Harvard credentials gave her social mobility. As a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution, she worked in the White House for three presidents — George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump — and was invited to be a presenter at the prestigious Aspen Ideas Festival in 2014. There, she was introduced to Britain’s former prime minister Tony Blair as someone who once lived close to his former constituency.
“Blair was taken aback when I gave my quick potted history,” she writes. Then came his “determinative question”: “How did you get here?”
Hill played dumb and said she’d flown from DC to Denver.
“No…really…come on,” said Blair. “I obviously mean from County Durham to the U.S. That’s quite a journey, isn’t it?” Hill said she was a product of his own “Labour Party at work.” But, she continues:
“Tony Blair looked more pained than pleased…He seemed most perplexed by the fact that I had attended a County Durham comprehensive school and retained my northern accent. The two of those together were confounding.”
Blair, who graduated from Cambridge and no longer spoke with his regional pronunciation, seemed to have trouble digesting Hill’s presence (and her unrefined accent) in the elite setting of the Aspen Institute. Their encounter sounds like the song lyric: “What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this.”
The subtitle of Hill’s book is “Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century,” which she does when she falls in love and marries a man she met at Harvard. She later becomes an American citizen. Her experiences working in the White House, particularly for Trump’s National Security Council, make her book timely.
Hill describes Trump’s awe of Putin as “autocrat envy” and disdains his attempts to transform the presidency into an “elected monarchy.” Worse, she sees the U.S. headed for economic collapse and unrelieved suffering because of its structural racism. She blames Ronald Reagan and Thatcher for driving “the nail into the coffin of 20th century industry while ensuring that those trapped inside the casket would find it practically impossible to pry the lid off.”
There Is Nothing for You Here is not a book for the faint of heart.
Crossposted with Washingt0n Independent Review of Books