John Morrish: The triumph of the middle classes

'A new map of the social pecking order is promised by the census. But we won't give up the old divisions without a fight'
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Class is back. After years of pretending to be a "classless" society, the British are muttering about class again. In a few weeks' time - foot and mouth permitting - we shall all be receiving our census forms which will be used to help classify where we stand in society.

Class is back. After years of pretending to be a "classless" society, the British are muttering about class again. In a few weeks' time - foot and mouth permitting - we shall all be receiving our census forms which will be used to help classify where we stand in society.

The people behind the census classifications, the Institute for Social and Economic Research at Essex University, explained last week that some people - teachers, for instance - are no longer top of the class when it comes to status. Social workers have moved down a notch too, while senior police officers have moved up.

The researchers don't want us to think about working class, or middle class. They prefer lower-managerial and professional. But we prefer the old categories. Two senior police officers appeared on the Today programme, complaining about the class to which they had been assigned in the new census.

The inspector and chief inspector were not offended by being placed too low on the social scale, but by being too high. They were with the architects, lawyers and doctors, and weren't comfortable. "Those people don't work shifts," protested one officer. Would he now have to wear tennis whites to tend his garden?

The argument had moved from the objective - money and conditions - to the subjective: how you behave? Class distinction is tribal, about how we speak, eat and spend. Class answers that perennial question: what am I like? It determines who is "us" and who is "them", which even a senior police officer needs to know.

Yet members of today's middle class don't always know their place. They are rootless, ambitious and want everything. And, in the current political era, that's what they're getting. The Tories have promised to raise the threshold for top-rate income and inheritance tax. Inheritance tax: was there ever a more middle-class concern?

But the Tories are behind the People's Party when it comes to wooing the middle classes. Tony Blair's strategy has been to praise middle-class values (education, responsibility, savings, Radio 2) and protect the middle-class pocket, while reassuring others that they are part of This Great Class Of Ours.

It's not a new tradition. In 1831 the Whig Lord Brougham called the middle class "the wealth and intelligence of the country, the glory of the British name". But despite the efforts of the BBC series The Middle Classes: Their Rise And Sprawl to depict the class as socially progressive, "middle class" and "bourgeois" have usually meant philistinism, dullness and self-interest. When Marx and Engels, who believed in only two classes, exploiter and exploited, used "bourgeois" for the former, its fate was sealed.

Middle-class life is a code only some can crack. As XTC's 1980 song "Respectable Street" put it, "It's in the order of the hedgerows/It's in the way their curtains open and close". The code works to unite group members against outsiders. In hunter-gatherer societies, food taboos did the same job. If you can't eat with another tribe because you are disgusted by their food, you won't mate with them. Dinner party etiquette serves the same purpose.

Children cross class barriers, but are aware of them. The middle-class families in the close where I grew up ate lunch, not dinner. They had dinner in the evening. Milk came in jugs, not a bottle, and sugar in a bowl. You had to take your shoes off in their houses. They had furniture that was not made of vinyl. They belonged to a tennis club. Their children had encyclopaedias and money in the Post Office, given by their grandparents. They may even have said "lavatory", because they knew they were supposed to. Their houses had names.

But the middle class has always shrugged off satire. The real anti-bourgeois alliance collapsed in the 1960s. After that, the left scorned dangerous art, and artists shunned politics. They still like to épater le bourgeois, in Baudelaire's phrase, but only if le bourgeois can be persuaded to pay for it. And the bourgeois do, through taxes, but prefer the kind of animal pictures on Antiques Roadshow.

The middle-class outlook has never been about ideas. It's about ownership - the British obsession with having a mortgage is conquering Europe - and about putting your own sitcom-style family first.

The middle classes axed the 11-plus because their children weren't passing it; now they want it back. They want tax cuts, but student grants too. They want little towns with narrow streets and clean air and old ladies on bikes, and a 4x4 that does 12mpg. They want chintz, and want to chuck out the chintz.

But is everyone now an inhabitant of Planet Bourgeois? Perhaps the other classes are just ignored. Tesco may have travelled upmarket, but lots of people shop in Lidl and Aldi.

Education is the key to social mobility. You can be middle class without a degree; but if you get one, you can't be anything else. Comprehensive schools and more higher education were intended to bring all bright children into the citadel. Sadly, research by the sociologist John Goldthorpe suggests this has not happened. Children born in 1970 are less likely to have advanced socially than those born in 1958, when grammar schools were still going.

If your parents didn't go to university, it's still unlikely you will go yourself. But look on the bright side: even lazy and stupid middle-class children can now go to university, thereby securing themselves a place at the upper end of the census's league table of class, alongside doctors, architects and police inspectors.

This may not be a great advance for society, but at least they know not to say "serviette".