So which class do you look down on?
Paul Vallely is Associate Editor of The Independent where he writes on social, ethical, political and cultural issues. He writes leaders, features and has a weekly column in the Independent on Sunday. He was co-author of the report of the Commission for Africa and has chaired several development charities.
Saturday 26 September 1998
Some 55 per cent reckon they are working class compared with 41 per cent who think of themselves as middle class - with a meagre one per cent laying claim to membership of the upper classes.
But hang on. It doesn't seem that long since we were being told we were all middle class. Indeed, it was on the very same BBC programme only a while back that the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott was stoutly maintaining that, despite his background as an able-bodied seaman and stalwart trade unionist, he was self-evidently now a member of the bourgeoisie, on the basis, presumably, of his hefty ministerial salary and Jaguar.
Around the same time Prince Edward declared that the British class system was dead. It was "codswallop" to suggest otherwise.
Government statisticians seemed to agree. They charted a change in demographic profiles which revealed that, in the 1970s only a third of the population fell into the category of middle class. Today it is more than half. They are now reclassifying us all from the six grades used since 1921 - A, B, C1 and C2, D and E - and are preparing 17 new categories to be in operation by the next census in 2001. (Nurses are up and plumbers are down. Lawyers and doctors are on a par with teachers and police. All of which should produce a good dose of controversy when the statistics are eventually published).
So what are we to make of the apparent contradiction between all these steadily emerging trends and the new poll finding that most people think of themselves as working class?
Class is a difficult concept. Once it resided in blood and family and expressed itself in things like the school you went to or the social circles you move in. But over the years it became diluted by the amount you were worth, the property you lived in, the job you did. Now government statisticians will be adding in other indicators - your perks, pension, private healthcare and level of job security.
Which, perhaps, explains why in yesterday's poll only 45 per cent of the population felt that the Blair government was committed to all classes equally. A greater number (47 per cent) believed it was more committed to one social class - and of those only 27 per cent saw that commitment as being to Labour's traditional constituency, the working class. Some 71 per cent felt Tony Blair was set on favouring the middle and upper classes.
For all John Major's hopes for a classless society the signs are that class in Britain is as much of an issue as it was in the days when the writer Nancy Mitford produced her "U and non-U" guide to socially acceptable language.
It is just that class becomes ever more subtle. The nexus of characteristics by which it is measured grow each time the undesirable come within striking distance of mastering the last set of criteria. Accent, language, education, manners and taste continue to count.
Those with wads of dosh can never buy armour against what Lord Annan, the former BBC director general, called the invincible British defect - snobbery. It reaches to all levels of society, as when Lord Chartres called the Duchess of York "vulgar, vulgar, vulgar" or The Daily Telegraph leader on her divorce, which described her as "irredeemably unroyal". Class is not contingent, you see, it is integral, and those who do not possess the right kind of it are literally beyond redemption.
By contrast there is nothing so slippery about the notion of the working class. It speaks of a dying era in which there resided in the common people notions of community, roots, and pre-relativist values. It is a world which a middle-class, plagued by over-work or unemployment, enforced mobility and contract culture, can only yearn for. It is a romantic illusion, of course, but it enables us to be middle class in our pockets and working class in our hearts. How very post-modern.
Review, page 3
Dinner, Tea or Supper?
Is your house called:
1. Toad Hall?
3. Selvedon Manor?
Do you refer to your evening meal as:
1. "My dinner"?
2. "Me tea"?
You are watching Les Dennis's Family Fortunes on Saturday evening. The compere asks for Six Things You'd Find in a Kitchen. Top of your list is:
1. An asparagus kettle?
2. A bottle of HP sauce?
3. An under-house parlour-maid?
You have to attend to the call of nature. Do you ask your host:
1. "Where's the loo?"
2. "Have you got an indoor toilet?"
3. "Point me to the thunder-box, old boy"?
To the best of your knowledge, Vim is:
1. The Christian name of that bleak German film auteur whose retrospective you attended at the ICA last year?
2. A proprietory cleaning agent?
3. What your housemaster told you to be full of on the sports field?
At a party, somebody tells you they live on an estate. Do you reply:
1. "What - you mean like Brookside?"
2. "So do I, but the council are promising me a proper house after the kid's born"?
3. "Well, well. Employ a lot o' beaters, do you?"
Your new job offers a salary "plus LVs". Do you think they can be:
1. Low-voltage batteries?
2. Luncheon vouchers?
3. Lots of Volvos?
You ring a wrong number, and a female voice says, "This is the Duchess of Buccleuch", do you assume she is
1. Showing off?
2. A cousin on your mother's side?
3. A pub?
Is your idea of an attractive woman:
1. That little minx from The Corrs who sings "What Do I Have To Do to Make You Love Me?" on Top of The Pops and needs a damn good spanking?
2. Kathy Bates?
3. A Gloucester old spot sow?
Is your idea of an attractive man:
1. Michael J Fox?
2. Boysie in Only Fools and Horses?
3. General Sir Michael Rose?
Tell us the clothes you're most comfortable in. Are they:
1. A simple pair of River Island denims, with a simple black Ozwald Boateng shirt and some simple Philip Sweeney suede loafers?
2. Ben Shermans and Doc Martens (both from Barnardo's)?
3. Your grandfather's waders?
At a friend's house, you notice a strange woman in the corner of the kitchen. Do you assume she is:
1. The cocaine dealer?
2. The social worker?
3. The nanny?
Is your pet dog:
1. A labrador called Gordon?
2. A pit bull called Vinny?
3. An Irish wolfhound called Grainne?
Is your ideal holiday:
1. Two weeks in a rented farmhouse in Umbria with some, you know, really close friends dropping by to try the fettucine all'alfredo and the pudding marsala?
2. Three days in Southend with a nicked Visa card, a hot Mondeo, a dodgy spray job, a wrecked mobile, a takeaway prawn vindaloo and a bird called Tiffany with a permanent sniff and a bun in the oven?
3. A year exploring one's grounds?
Mostly ones: I'm sorry but you are irretrievably middle-class. A lifetime of shopping at Ikea, drinking Argentinian chardonnay, patronising workmen and saying "For my sins..." stretches before you.
Mostly twos: Congratulations. As you suspected, you're as common as muck. Go out this evening, blow your whole month's salary in the Whelk and Bastard, and crash the Reliant against a handy wheelie-bin.
Mostly threes: You upper-class git. What are you doing reading a questionnaire?
A question of class: As a survey finds a majority of Britons believe they're working class, we put the matter to the test
FAY WELDON, author, considers herself `middle, middle class': "I think the whole consideration of class has gone full circle. The term working class used to be a cultural phenomenon. It related to people who did not depend on money and were not aspirational but had unions and other groups lobbying for them because they were seen as being in need of help. Once people had an education they became middle class. Now I think it gets to something else. Now I think it has more to do with what television programmes you watch. There is a whole group of people out there who do not watch the BBC never mind Channel 4. I think the people who always watch ITV would describe themselves as working class."
MARQUESS OF BATH, aristocrat, considers himself working and upper class depending on who he is talking to: "For some time I have not seen the value of relating class to the manner in which one was brought up or born. I think that sort of thing is on the way out. I think the idea of a meritocracy will replace the idea of an upper class. If people ask if I descend from a long line of people who have been in the top bracket, however that is defined, I cannot deny it. But I work and I would also consider myself a member of the working class even though I realise how misleading that might be."
KEN JACKSON, leader of the Amalgamated Engineers and Electricians Union, has recently campaigned for more working-class MPs: "Working class refers to ordinary people - the sort our union represents. I am talking about people like engineers, fitters and plumbers. People who actually get their hands dirty and work on the shop floor, rather than someone like a barrister. One of the ways the working class is identified is by the pressure its members have to work under - suddenly being told they have no option but to work a night shift, people who have no bargaining power. I do not think that parliament is particularly representative - I would like to see more boiler suits and less lounge suits."
MARK ANTHONY, a construction site foreman, describes himself as a working man: "I think people might like to think that the meaning of working class has changed over the past 20 years but I suspect that it has not. It is still an `us and them' situation and there are still some people who look down on you. People still pigeon-hole you. I would say anyone who has a manual job rather than working in an office is working class. I am a working man but I would not want my two sons to grow up and do what I do. There are so few opportunities - you are put in a certain category and it is very hard to get out of it. The only chance we have is winning the lottery."
DAVE TROTT, award-winning creative director with advertising agency Walsh Trott Chick Smith and a member of the traditional working class: "There are many different working classes. The guy I work with is from the stereotypical working class you see in the media - all dodgy Arthur Daley types. I am from a different working class - all my family are sergeants, either in the army, marines or police. That is the working class that built the Empire. I think now that the working class has split. Many are the underclass. Then you have those who want better for their children and work themselves up into the lower working class."
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