Essay: Class trumps race in England

Snobbery is a vice, but it may also be a virtue. At least it doesn't depend on the colour of one's skin.
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On the cover of David Cannadine's latest book, Class in Britain, the publishers put the all-too-famous photograph of three young scruffs staring at a top-hatted schoolboy outside the Eton and Harrow cricket match at Lord's in 1937. I've always assumed that this picture, like many docu-soaps 60 years later, was set up by the agency photographer, Jimmy Sime. But it now seems doubly dated.

Not even in Camden Town, which is where I assume the scruffs came from, do you see such a neat social contrast. In Camden Lock market, there is more dressing down than dressing up. But what dates the picture most is the lack of any reference to race, in a city where almost a quarter of the population now belongs to an ethnic minority. For an equivalent contrast in today's London, a photographer would stand at Shadwell, in the Bangladeshi heartland of east London. In the foreground, real poverty (carpets laid out for sale on some waste ground); in the background, the soaring money- palaces of the City. Rich and poor; First World and Third World.

In Cannadine's history (published by Yale University Press, pounds 19.95) of how class is perceived, I have found only one reference to race. He praises the US for its classlessness. Americans, he says, "do not think of their society as being fissured in one deep, fundamental way. (Or if they do, it is on the grounds of race, not class.)".

You can say that again. The "ghetto poor" (in the words of the black American sociologist William Julius Wilson) remain at the bottom of the heap, 133 years after slavery was abolished. They are overtaken by newer arrivals.

The English vice is still snobbery. Awareness of the minutiae of class permeates everything from fashion to literature. Comic writing, for example, is inseparable from class. Dad's Army, Fawlty Towers, Keeping Up Appearances, on the one hand; Pride and Prejudice, The Code of the Woosters and Human Croquet, on the other. In America, by contrast, there is an open readiness to categorise everyone by ethnic origin - black, Jewish, Polish, Italian, Irish. The melting pot is more like a colander.

But in England now? Consider the anger produced by the Commission for Racial Equality's series of amazingly stupid advertisements, trying to raise "awareness" by deliberately portraying racism. The anger was symptomatic. The English have become more and more hostile to the idea of categorising anyone by race.

I say "English" and I'll stay with "English". This isn't just because England contains 83 per cent of the United Kingdom's population. It is because pervasive class awareness is an English, rather than British, phenomenon. So, also, is the urgency and importance of how to think about race. Any student who goes from London (or other major migrant cities) to a Welsh or Scottish university is immediately struck by one overwhelming social fact. Between 98 and 99 per cent of the local population is white. This is not how it is, say, in the McDonald's outside Birmingham New Street station.

England is a long way from those 1950s b&b signs, saying "No blacks, Irish or dogs". This isn't to deny race prejudice; even police commissioners acknowledge it. Eltham, where Stephen Lawrence was murdered, is astonishingly white. For some, its cosy semis have been a refuge from blacker streets of south London. "White flight" exists. But it has nowhere led to the ghettos Professor Wilson speaks about. Even Brixton has a majority of white residents. (The Bangladeshis of Tower Hamlets are the most concentrated migrant group.)

A class-free (or race-free or caste-free) society is a noble ambition. In reality, all societies have sharp internal divisions. It is almost as if, paradoxically, such agreed battlegrounds are part of the glue that holds society together. Here, that battleground is still class. When the Anglo-Caribbean broadcaster, Trevor Phillips, emerged as a possible candidate for London mayor last summer, he ran into trouble, but not because of the colour of his skin. Labour activists objected to his daughters going to the fee-paying North London Collegiate School. In England, class trumps race.

It didn't always seem to be so. The first, largely West Indian migrants slotted in, mostly, at the bottom of the social pecking order. They often did basic blue-collar jobs. Such jobs also drew Pakistani migrants into the textile mills of south Lancashire and West Yorkshire. (Both groups were damaged terribly when this work collapsed.) In spite of the obvious differences, many commentators could present them as a homogeneous, equally disadvantaged ethnic minority.

The Indians changed all that. They arrived mostly from east and central Africa, after being short-sightedly thrown out by the newly independent black regimes. They are now, at about 900,000, the largest ethnic minority. They have moved on into business and the professions.

Complaints about racial discrimination have risen. But this is a tricky statistic. With higher ambitions, people knock against previous ceilings. A celebrated sociological study, The American Soldier, showed that men who knew they had no chance of promotion were more contented than men who knew they had some chance of rising. The chapter on Indians in the last census report was headed "Onward and Upward". You could add "Outward". Indians are moving away from inner cities into suburbs, and then into the expanding market towns. They are following the same route as the white middle classes. There are, of course, differences. But they are mostly to Indians' advantage. Compared to whites, Indian men are twice as likely to be self-employed. They are far more likely to be graduates. They are more likely to own their own home. Proportionately, more Indians are middle class than whites.

In the census report, Professor Ceri Peach of Oxford divides ethnic minorities into "Jewish" or "Irish" models of settlement. "Irish" means blue-collar, inner city, council housing. "Jewish" means white-collar, self-employed, suburban, owner-occupied. On Peach's analysis, Chinese - the most invisible minority - join Indians in the "Jewish" model. Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and West Indians are "Irish".

We're talking class again. The caste-like homogeneity of poor black Americans is absent. In the United States, Professor Wilson thinks that the marginal emergence of a black middle class has deepened the plight of the rest. I went around the Chicago black ghetto with some of his research assistants, and agreed. A thriving, if segregated, city district, with its own department stores, businesses and civic leaders, has given way to dereliction. Streets are sinking back into a shabby kind of countryside. Small groups huddle round little fires, cooking chitterlings. You could take photographs in mid-Chicago to match Walker Evans's of the desolate social landscape of the pre-war South.

Nowhere in England is like this - except, perhaps, some desolate tracts of the (almost entirely white) North East. Even here, class tells. Operation Black Vote campaigns to raise the ethnic minority turnout in elections. In fact, Muslim Asians' turnout matches whites. Turnout among Indians is higher. Turnout among young black men is undoubtedly poor. But is it race or class? Shamit Saggar, a political scientist at Queen Mary College, London University, has analysed the last general election. "The black alienated male in Lambeth," he says, "has much in common with the white male on Tyneside." Both are unemployed and angry about it.

Professor Tariq Modood of Bristol University has published an authoritative study, Changing Ethnic Identities. He expects new ethnic alliances. One could be "a Hindu-Jewish coalition". He argues that, in London, "They live in the same parts, occupy similar commercial and professional niches, and share a fear of Muslims." So far, Indians are the only ethnic minority to show any signs that their past rock-solid support for Labour may be crumbling. The Jewish vote suddenly went Tory under the magnetic attraction of Mrs Thatcher. Modood thinks that Indians might have swung more strongly by now, but for Tony Blair's clever invention of business-friendly New Labour.

All this sounds uncannily like social and political business as usual. Among West Indians, this continuity is compounded by the staggering rate of "marrying out". Is this sometimes a badge of class mobility? A long list of successful Anglo-Caribbeans have white spouses.

I never thought I would find anything good to say about class. But if you are going to chop a society up into different segments, class has one great, humane advantage over race. A class is not a caste. You can change your class, or hope to, or hope that your children will. You can never change your skin colour.

It was never certain that this is how it would pan out - which is why David Cannadine's silence is so strange. Perhaps he, too, is reluctant to give any credit to class awareness. I don't blame him. But that's the way it is.

Paul Barker is a Senior Fellow of the Institute of Community Studies.