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What did I learn from this class survey? Watch out for the postman if he's humming Mozart

For class to have any meaning, it must represent more than which music you listen to

They’ve done another one of those surveys about class. And they’ve followed the rule of these surveys, that each one has to be more stupid than the last. The results have been on every news channel and in every newspaper, that there are seven classes now apparently.

And one of the ways they worked out which one people might be in, is to ask whether or not they listen to jazz, which makes you “established middle class”. This makes sense, as the first prominent jazz musician was Louis Armstrong, grandson of slaves and son of a New Orleans prostitute, the la-di-da established middle-class trumpeting ponce.

Listening to classical music also makes you established middle class. So if you hear the postman humming a bit of Mozart off a car advert, it’s probably Stephen Fry roughing it for the morning. And if Jane Austen were to write a novel now about someone trying to climb the social ladder, instead of all that mucking about with gowns and fans, they’d just have to turn on Classic FM for 10 minutes a day and half the village would be desperate to marry them.

The survey might show that Roman Abramovich, on the other hand, would come out as traditional working class as he likes football, sitting on his £500m yacht muttering to Frank Lampard: “The thing is, Frank, with my background I never stood a chance.”

One question the survey didn’t seem to bother asking was what job you did, although it does ask for the jobs of your friends. So if you’re a cleaner who knows some teachers, that makes you middle class for having teacher friends, but those teachers will be working class for having a friend who’s a cleaner. If you’re the Queen’s cleaner, she’s likely to say, “It’s all right for you, with your upper-class lifestyle knowing the Queen. I’ve had to put down that I know a cleaner. And the way things are going, that won’t even entitle me to housing benefit.”

Going to museums is middle class, using Facebook makes you an emergent service worker, and so on. So the survey doesn’t so much measure class, as measure things people like doing.

The survey would be more useful if it had concluded that the 19 per cent who go to museums are in the category of people who go to museums. Otherwise they might as well have written: “There are now four social classes in place of the traditional three. People who like being on top during sex are a ‘Professional and Appreciative of Altitude’ class. People who prefer being underneath are ‘Manually Horizontal’. Those who favour being behind are ‘Intermediate’, and there is also an ‘Experimental and Contortionist’ class, which consists mostly of younger and more agile members of the community.”

Some people have dismissed this survey on the grounds that it proves class no longer exists at all. Jill Kirby, a Conservative adviser from the Centre For Policy Studies, says that “class has eroded almost completely”. That’s why it’s just coincidence that the Prime Minister, Chancellor and Mayor of London are sons of millionaires who went to public schools, two of them to the same one, and it’s just as likely that soon half the Cabinet will all have gone to the same comprehensive in Ipswich.

But for class to have any meaning, it must represent more than which music you listen to, or even whether you went to Eton. It only makes sense if it refers to your relationship with the way society is owned and controlled, and have a common interest.

For example, in the 18th century, the aristocracy of Europe was a class of people which owned and controlled the land, and which had a common interest in preserving rules such as hunting wherever they liked, and only being allowed a senior position in the army if you were born into a noble family. For those privileges, this class was prepared to engulf Europe in a war, whereas it’s unlikely there will ever be a war waged by people who enjoy going to a museum as part of their weekend break.

Similarly now, if you’re on the board of a bank, your relationship to society is different to the person who works in a call centre for the bank, or cleans the bank, or dreads getting letters from the bank. For most people, that dividing line, as to whether you have any real control over society is still clear. 

A different survey, which came out two months ago, revealed that more people now define themselves as working class than at any point for 30 years. That may be because even in professions such as lecturing, sales or trades that once seemed middle class, there’s now insecurity, and fears over pensions, and over tuition fees for the kids that make them feel more working class. Or it could be that they’ve made a cultural choice, and said: “Away with such frippery as John Coltrane. From now on, I’m going to whistle, and eat tinned carrots and shout, ‘Wahooor, I wouldn’t go in there for a while’ whenever I come out of the toilet.”

Or maybe that’s wrong, and some of the staff who’ve just been made redundant from HMV are still established middle class, even though they’re now unemployed, because they worked in the jazz or classical sections, and can still remember some of the tunes.