Leading Article: We're still too class-conscious for a classless society
Saturday 26 September 1998
But even those who do not see themselves as members of a particular grouping would recognise that social class still matters. Britain at the end of this century is nothing like as class-ridden as it was at the beginning, but it is still excessively class-conscious.
In a sense, this is a good thing. At least we have none of the hypocrisy of the United States, a nation built on the myth of social mobility - a promise which is, for most Americans, as illusory as that of the lottery. There is much truth in the old cartoon: Person A: "I'm reading a book about how the American class system operates." Person B: "I didn't know there was a class system in America." Person A: "That's how it operates."
No one has any doubt about how the British system operates: private education and inheritance are the system's two transmission mechanisms, the unspoken closed shops of various of the highest-paid occupations its defences. But the system has always been fluid enough to avoid the build- up of real class hostility, and the finer gradations of class distinction in Britain are breaking down.
Perhaps the most disappointing of ICM's findings is that only 1 per cent of people think of themselves as upper class. This is the group whose foibles and eccentricities provide most entertainment for the rest of us, and their shortage forces mass-market newspapers to fall back on reporting the antics of low-rent celebs.
It is interesting that, when Gallup first introduced opinion polling into this country just before the Second World War, questions about class invited people to allocate themselves to a multi-layered hierarchy, including the "aristocracy", a middle class divided into upper, middle and lower and an intermediate category called "upper working class".
Those kinds of caste differences have been abolished by changes, and a greater rate of turnover, in the labour market and by the great post- war backlash against snobbery. The most significant victim of this backlash has been the upper middle class, with its great "public" schools and extreme RP accent. Even in the BBC, once its liberal annexe, the full RP accent has become unacceptable - although only for men: Anna Ford and Sue MacGregor are still allowed to talk posh.
The upper middle class may still have most of the money, but its members do not command the deference they once did. In this respect, British society does increasingly resemble that of the US, with the vast majority of the population effectively middle class, with partitioned minorities at the top and bottom. The state of British politics, always class-based, is a telling indicator of this. The word "class" occurred only three times in Labour's manifesto last year (except as in "sizes"). The first time was in Tony Blair's introduction, in which he dismissed "middle class versus working class" as one of the "bitter political struggles" that "we aim to put behind us". The other two were in relation to preventing the growth of an "underclass" in Britain, "a permanent have-not class, unemployed and disaffected from society".
And that is probably how most people see class in this country today: a large majority of haves, with minorities of have-nots and have-lots on either side. Mr Blair's attention to the causes of social exclusion is admirable, but it might be balanced by a little more attention to the breaking down of the real, but increasingly obscured, class barriers at the top end of the scale.
We are still some way in this country from judging people not by their name, school, accent or colour but by the content of their character. That would be a modern definition of class.
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 I've been called an abusive and dangerous parent, when all I did was listen to my transgender child
- 2 Migrant crisis: Greek soldier saved 20 people singlehandedly off Rhodes beach
- 3 Sofyen Belamouadden murder: The inside story of a crime that horrified Britain
- 4 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 5 Ian Brady: Moors murderer announces his support for Ukip and the SNP
Poldark episode 8, review: How a costume drama became a Sunday night swoon-fest
Al Pacino admits he was nearly fired from The Godfather and it's still his most 'difficult role'
Warner Music owner Len Blavatnik tops Sunday Times Rich List
The day I starred in Only Fools and Horses
Peter Kay’s Car Share, TV review: The perfect vehicle for Kay’s comic talents
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove