Book review: Not one of us, darling...
A Class Act: the myth of Britain's classless society by Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard Hamish Hamilton, pounds 17.99 Class: knowing your place in modern Britain by Stephen Brook Gollancz, pounds 20
It's not the books. Both Adonis & Pollard and Stephen Brook do, in their different ways, a good, well-documented, stomach-churning job. It's not the books; it's the subject. Britain - England, mostly - has always had the reputation of a class-ridden country, febrile with snobbery and resentment. Foreigners are aghast at our divisive educational system, at the preponderance of honking pinstriped fools at the heart of the Establishment, at our preposterous, demeaning system of "honours", at the House of Lords, at the inanities of the Season. For us, though, these things so often go unremarked, fading into the uncomfortable background like a nagging pain.
Like a woman married to a brute, we try not to notice and get on with our lives. We try our best. But after a day spent with these books, not noticing ceases to be an option. The thing stands revealed for what it is: a system choked with imbecilities, almost as if it were designed to cripple lives, promote injustice, and waste a great harvest of potential talent in a self-congratulatory desert of back-scratching amateurism and Buggins's Turn.
Someone once said that if they tried to bring the potato to market today, it would never be allowed on sale. Too risky; too variable; almost certain to cause cancer, heart attacks, madness or sudden death. In the same way, if someone suggested establishing the British class system as a sane way of organising our society and administering the state, the best they could hope for would be to be clapped into an asylum and shot full of powerful drugs before outraged citizens could string them up from the nearest lamp- post.
Did I say "citizens"? I am sorry. The word is, of course, "subjects", and there's the first absurdity: that our inchoate democracy depends from the rationally indefensible figure of the monarch. It's not just that the notion that heredity fits a person to be head of state; that can be made just about tolerable on the ancient basis that one should always keep a hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse.
Perhaps the most pernicious influence of the monarchy is the example it sets to the nation: that no matter how good you are, how clever or imaginative or diligent, there are some things you simply cannot achieve unless born to them. The American dream is that any citizen can rise to the highest office in the land. The British dream is that the Queen drops in for tea.
To say that it is not so in reality, that the monarch is a mere figurehead, is to be disingenuous. The notion of royalty penetrates the deepest recesses of our minds; if you doubt that, just think back a few weeks to the scenes surrounding the death of Diana. Would they have happened had she not been "royal"?
It might be argued that as the thing speaking to our depths as it clearly does, the existence of the monarchy is somehow thereby ratified. It is not. Violence speaks to our ancient instincts, too; so does cupidity; so does the urge to leap upon beautiful women and have them, there and then, in the street, without an introduction.
We've outlawed theft, rape and assault. We should outlaw royalty, too, and, in particular, outlaw our own style of royalty - the system of honours, the buying-off of time-servers, the rewarding of well-behaved nonentities, the absorption of potential mavericks into the ranks, the whole atrocious underpinning of the Not-Quite-Our-Class-Dear school of public administration which weakens our nation like dry rot.
But the monarchy is only a particularly florid symptom of the disease. I hadn't thought about it for a while until these two books appeared, perhaps just because it seemed immutable. But I suspect that I had been shamefully flannelled by the Tory nonsense about a classless meritocracy. The rise of a new, grotesquely boastful, wholly vulgarian class of City traders, trousering huge salary-and-bonus packages while behaving with less dignity and culture than a bucket of rats, led many of us to believe that change was in the wind, and that the old Establishment was dead.
Now I am not so sure. More likely, what seems to have happened is that a new group - what Adonis and Pollard called the "Super Class" - has emerged to join the others. These are the professional and managerial fat cats, exemplified by Cedric Brown, the gas-fitter turned Chief Executive who caused an outcry in 1994 by accepting a 75 per cent salary increase to pounds 475,000 a year while presiding over pay cuts and longer hours for his British Gas showroom employees, earning an average of pounds 13,000 a year. Adonis and Pollard also home in on Nick Leeson, the man who brought down Barings. But Leeson is in pokey now, so seems less than eligible for membership; though perhaps the doctrine "Once a gentleman, always a gentleman" also applies to the Super Class.
At this point, one pauses. It's true that the Super Class live lives which are probably incomprehensible to the single mother on grudging state benefits, sleeping on a stained mattress on the damp floor of her crumbling council tower-block.
But is that to do with class? Or is it just the rise of a new commercial grouping, the pointless snake-oil salesmen whose pockets bulge as their businesses crumble, whose lean and hungry faces and militaristic jargon conceal arses padded by share options and golden parachutes, safe in their fiscal padding as they slash and burn?
The argument becomes muddy here. My own view is that the Super Class is not a class at all. True, its members are bound together by self-interest, greed and protectionism, cranking up salary levels by sitting on each other's remuneration committees and then issuing mendacious "press statements" to the effect that everyone has to keep pace with prevailing pay scales. But they are not a class because there is nothing that binds them other than self-interest.
The conundrum is epitomised by the famous incident when John Prescott declared, on Radio Four, that he was now middle-class. Was he or wasn't he? He was born working-class; said that he behaved working-class; but also said, quite reasonably, that given his status and income, it would be "hypocritical to say that I am anything other than middle class".
The only way out of this difficulty is to separate the two elements of class, the economic and the socio-cultural. A true class, it seems to me, must have a shared set of values.
Thus, the working class as a whole believes in being true to your roots, communal solidarity, mate-ship, transient spontaneous enjoyment, and a sort of unpretentious decency; it is anti-intellectual, opposed to the cult of personality (except in its sportsmen and entertainers) and given to the not-unrealistic belief that it is, collectively, the object of a sort of conspiracy by those "above" it in social and economic terms. You can find similarly cohesive core beliefs for the middle class, the upper class and the aristocracy, though not for the Super Class (unless "Give us the money; now piss off" counts as a cultural value).
But the circle closes again when you consider that access to broader cultural values is dependent on education, and that education is precisely where Britain - England in particular - stinks to high heaven of an ignoble rot.
The education you get depends on how much money you have. If you have plenty of money, or are prepared to scrimp, you pay for private education. If you can't manage that, then you move to a "decent" suburb where there are "decent" schools. If you can't do that, if you are stuck in an inner- city sink area, then you get what you're bloody well given.
At the end of these two books - Adonis and Pollard's meticulous treatise, well-supported with figures and sources; Brook's more anecdotal and personal, but somehow more compelling, polemic - one is left with the inescapable conclusion that unless we radically reform our educational system and rid ourselves of the patronage of the monarchy, there is no hope of us climbing out of the primitive mire of a society still corrupted by deference, back-scratching and inequity. Until that happens, the only solution is to pray you aren't born poor, because our entire system is designed to keep you that way until you die. Fortunately, it won't be for too long. In New Britain, the working-class dies younger, too.
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