Casualties of the class war
Social mobility is always portrayed as wholly positive, but the truth is not so glib
Friday 16 July 1999
It was the pollsters, rather than Blair himself, who identified these millions as "Woking Man". This label, first coined by the New Labour guru Philip Gould, who grew up in the Surrey town, was attached to a notional character who was the first in his family to be college-educated, and had left his working-class roots behind. By such a definition, John Prescott is a Woking Man. But he is also living proof that it is not so easy to leave your working-class roots behind, or to declare yourself as having ambitions far broader than those of your parents and your grandparents.
A warmed-over story appeared on the front page of The Sun yesterday which sought to attack Prescott, not for his transport policy or his combative style - or anything else that is relevant to his work - but by stirring up class war between Prescott and his father.
It all began three years ago, during what appeared on the surface to be a fairly unremarkable exchange between Prescott and the presenter John Humphrys.
"Why are you so disparaging about the middle class?" Prescott asked Humphrys. "I'm middle-class' you're middle-class."
"I thought you were working-class."
"Well, I was once, but being a member of parliament, I can tell you, I'm pretty middle-class."
Prescott's claim to have achieved a shift in classes provoked a storm, with all kinds of commentators chipping in with their observations about class and social mobility, some defending Prescott's definition of himself, others mocking it. Nobody was more definite in his opinion, though, than Prescott's own parents.
His mother Phyllis declared that Prescott was "a working-class man at heart and always will be". She went on to offer a definition of what it meant to be working-class. "That means very strict, a good standard of living, and a good background."
His father Bert was unequivocal too. "Well, I was a little surprised that the words `middle-class' were used, because I had always assumed myself and my family have been working-class," he said. "When I see him, I shall ask him what he's playing at. He should be proud to be working- class."
According to yesterday's Sun, though, that conversation should never have been allowed to happen. Bert told The Sun that his remarks had resulted in a rift that has never been healed. "I don't understand what has happened to John. He never used to have a spiteful nature but, after all he's done to me, I don't want to see him any more. People say to me, `you must be so proud of him.' Well, I'm not. Proud is the last thing I am. He has wrecked the family life, the whole lot, all because of his sheer stupidity, and that's nothing to be proud of. It's a great tragedy. He has hurt us all. It's a really bad falling-out."
Bert, who is 89, should at least be proud of the fact that his son is not slagging his father off in public in return. All Prescott said to The Sun when it contacted him in connection with the story, was: "These are personal matters and this is only one side of a very sad story." This answer seems to me to be dignified and truthful and loving.
I certainly can't claim to know all the ins and outs of the very sad story, but I do recognise at least some aspects of it. Social mobility is always portrayed as wholly positive, but the truth is not as glib as Tony Blair makes out. Blair has no personal experience of shifting classes, so he cannot possibly know what a painful and alienating experience it can be.
Many young people who have "ambitions which are far broader than their parents' and their grandparents'" find that their social mobility drives a terrible wedge between themselves and their parents, a gulf of misunderstanding that causes pain and hurt to both sides of the generational divide and which sometimes can never be sorted out.
As for the socially mobile child, she can find herself adrift; no longer a part of her family's value system, but without an alternative structure she truly is a part of either. As a Woking Man myself, I said goodbye to the uncomplicated respectability of the kind of working-class background described so succinctly by Phyllis Prescott when I left school and went to university. For me, it was not a move entirely bound up with education, but instead was about changing my life, leaving the small town behind me and striking out for better things.
I was amazed by my parents' attitude, for they fully expected me to come and live at home once my education was finished. The problem was that while they had always encouraged me to be aspirational and ambitious, I had unknowingly overshot their wildest expectations. They had created a monster, one who wanted a life quite unlike her parents', and one who couldn't see, in her teenage arrogance, why that upset and insulted them so much.
I think that at the bottom of the "three-year family rift" that The Sun reports so nastily and so triumphally, there lie feelings and emotions just as straightforward as these. A father who has lived a decent life, and brought his son up decently, has never got over his upset at hearing his son publicly announce that he is not like his parents, that he now considers himself to be in a different class to them - a class that the whole system is set up to acknowledge is a better class. What parent, except a snobbish, social-climbing one, wishes to hear such a thing from the flesh of his flesh? What parent really wants to bring up children only to find that once they are grown-up, they are in a different class?
I dare say Prescott finds the attitudes of his parents a little exasperating, as he has all the other familiar vicissitudes of a working-class boy who becomes a middle-class man. He has been mocked for his lack of polish, patronised for his poor syntax, taunted because, long ago, he was a ship's steward, and ridiculed because now he lives a fairly flashy lifestyle. In one unforgettably outrageous smear, the London Evening Standard doctored a photograph to replace some beer bottles on a table in front of him with bottles of champagne. All this he has put up with, to find eventually that, instead of pride in his achievements, his parents feel rejection in his "betterment".
It is easy to talk of social mobility, just as it is easy for people to say, as they do today, that they are working-class just because they work. People continually analyse what class is and how it is changing. Once it was birth, they say, then it was wealth, and now it's going to be merit. But it is all of these things and many more, largely to do with senses of entitlement, or poverty of aspiration, all to do with being part of a group that has a shared vocabulary and a shared idea of what's appropriate and when.
While I now have the temerity to count myself as middle-class, my husband insists, I assume with some irony, that we are upper-middle-class. But whereas I'm new to the game, he's been born and bred that way.
The other day we arranged to meet, our various children in tow, for tea at the zoo. The liaison completed, he asked me whether I'd got anything for the children's supper. No, I replied, I thought you said we were eating here. He was baffled by the very idea.
Caught out again, fraud that I am, as I've been caught out a million times over the years. He says supper, I say tea. My parents called it dinner, although I've recently learnt that that really is something that you "dress for". In the world of class and aspiration, food is a far from simple pleasure, and so, for that matter, is family.
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