I can no longer – with a straight face at least – call myself “working class”. The implications of the term, which tends to suggest dropped aitches, manual labour, a preference for beer over wine, magazines over books and pies over frittata – all exclude me. So why do I still feel – in part, anyway – working class? Because, although I grew up in an entirely working-class environment – my dad worked in a greengrocer’s shop, my mum was a dinner lady – I was earning enough money to distance myself in economic terms from the “working class” by my mid-20s.
As a result of the British Social Attitudes survey released this week, I realise I am not alone in this feeling of contradiction. Despite the fact that the proportion of people living in a home headed by someone in a middle-class job has risen to nearly 60 per cent, 60 per cent of people still persist in defining themselves as “working class”.
The reasons are straightforward. “Working class” suggests that you have not unfairly benefited from privilege. It also has a number of other positive overtones – such as the idea of warmth, straightforwardness, practicality, humour and unpretentiousness.
Whether or not these ideas have any founding in truth, they fit into the matrix of British class alongside class resentment. One of the ways in which I know I still have the remnants of working-class genes is that when I listen to Radio 4 – the bastion of liberal British middle-class life –I feel a powerful if intermittent irritation about the voices and attitudes of the people that are broadcast. The presenters and commentators strike me, on the whole, as pious and highly abstracted in their opinions – in other words ‘“they don’t know they’re born”, as we used to say when we wuz scoffing pork scratchings down the rub-a-dub-dub.
This idea of “authenticity” is central to the working-class ethos, most particularly, moral authenticity. Most working-class people view middle-class morality – as evidenced by Radio 4 generally – as highly suspect, a parade of self-righteousness that is more to do with the stoking of their pampered egos than any actual behaviour towards the real world. And attitude is key to the British idea of class, far more so than income.
As Alfred Doolittle says in Pygmalion when challenged about his apparent lack of morals – “I can’t afford ’em, guv’nah, and neither could you if you was as poor as me.” The LMC (liberal middle class) is the voice of the upper echelons of BBC. The LMC agonising about the plight of this suffering minority group or that remote war-torn enclave seems alien to many of the WC (working class) because they are too busy making ends meet to think about these things and they are communitarians rather than middle-class human-rights activists in the first place.
This was pointed up in Julian Baggini’s excellent book, Welcome to Everytown when he, as a fully paid-up member of the LMC, went to live in Rotherham for a year to discover how “real people” – ie the WC – really lived and thought. The LMC (and there are other forms of the middle class, which we will arrive at), suggested Baggini, generally believe the doctrine of universal human rights. The WC believe in “look after your own”. In the WC formulation, people who have a history in this country, particularly of working-class struggle, have a greater right to the benefits of the state than immigrants and incomers. The universal human-rights advocate thinks that all –obviously – have the same rights.
This is not racism – it is a belief no different, I imagine, to that of the average Muslim or Sikh – that the in-group, the culture to which you belong, is to be preferred above those rights of non-members of the group. This is communitarianism.
Communitarians would automatically be dismissed by the LMC as racists, which is why a lot of the WC won’t identify with LMC. To confuse the picture there are also a large number of middle-class communitarians – only they tend to be derided by LMC as “Middle Englanders” (since they do not share the values of the LMC).
“Middle Englanders” (ME) are essentially people with nice homes and decent incomes and a commitment to abiding by the law and even a sense of patriotism. The LMC see them as retrograde and primitive – those damn Daily Mail readers – but I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of this group were self-identifying as WC despite the hydrangeas and lawn sprinklers.
The WC, like the middle class, has its strata. Among the WC there are the aspirational and non-aspirational – or if you like, the strivers versus the scroungers. Again, the aspirational working class tend to see the LMC as naïve on this subject, because they never meet any working-class people. The LMC – unlike ME – assume that scroungers and loafers are inventions of the ME press.
Anyone who is part of the struggling WC majority knows differently because they live side by side with them, and nothing makes them more furious than the irresponsible – lazy and feckless as the “respectables” might put it – partly because it’s bad press for the rest of their social grouping, and partly because they are at the sharp end of the unfairness that the “underclass” is seen to represent. The “underclass” in the WC and ME mind are the boozers, the “chavs”, the welfare cheats, the mothers who, nowadays, get pregnant for council houses. ME, in particular, is obsessed with them.
They exist. There may not be as many of them as the Daily Mail and the Express constantly suggest, but of course they exist, because human beings, rich or poor, always have a percentage of out-and-out rascals. And the WC and ME resent the LMC for refusing to acknowledge it. Which is one or the reasons ME = WC.
Finally, what about the “ethnics” as Boris Johnson (upper middle class) called them (as in, “I’m down with the ethnics”)? I have already, pace Baggini, pointed out that the WC are communitarian. This does not mean they reject ethnic groups – white WC intermarriage with the black community is much higher than ME intermarriage – but they are suspicious of difference that goes beyond skin colour. Cultural difference, in other words. The EDL, an entirely working-class group, concentrates its fire explicitly on Muslim religion and culture rather than race –and this would have resonance with a lot of the otherwise tolerant working class.
The fact that ethnic groupings are not seen by the working class as part of the larger polity is because they don’t tend to self-identify as “working class” – which contains white, “native” British implications. These are groups that identify by race, nation or religion rather than class, and are therefore seen as outside the class system – which is one of the reasons , along with their relatively recent arrival, they are imaginatively excluded from the historical “community” of communitarianism (this community being both actual and mythic).
The interesting thing about the ethnic and racial communities is that they can belong to the LMC in the way that a lot of WC people feel excluded from. When a WC person hears that the news is being presented by Ritula Shah or Faisal Islam, they don’t think “bloody darky”. They think “middle-class wanker”. Class hatred runs deeper than race or cultural hatred.
Which brings me back to my own class definition. I am still partly working class, because I still possess a lot of working-class resentments, and am still conscious of my own exclusion at trivial levels. I mispronounce words (the-atre rather than theatre), still call the front room the “sitting room” and still call the midday meal “dinner”. I can remember the humiliations of crawling up the class ladder and saying the wrong things, or using the wrong cutlery, or choosing the wrong wine.
I don’t know with whom my sympathies lie any more. I admire the values of the middle class greatly at the same time as finding their attitudes deeply annoying. I dislike the philistinism and sometime racism of much of the working class equally greatly, while enjoying their lack of hypocrisy.
Where does that leave me? You can take the boy out of greengrocer’s shop, but you can’t take the greengrocer’s shop out of the boy. Only now the greengrocer’s is a high-class fruiterer. Conclusion? As far as I am concerned the lot of you can just jolly well F-off old boy – because, me, I’m in a class of my own.
Tim Lott’s most recent novel is ‘Under the Same Stars’, published by Simon & SchusterReuse content