Mark Steel: Michael Gove's guide to social class

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The Independent Online

Students are planning another protest today against the increase in fees, and you can tell they're making an impact because they're dismissed as "middle class". A typical headline about the demonstration that occupied the Tory offices was: "Rich rioting students." Because presumably, instead of advertising the march with posters the organisers sent out invitations, with curly gold writing saying: "You are cordially invited to smash up a Tory office. Dress code: scruffy but cool, carriages 6.30pm." Then waiters walked round with trays carrying little lumps of rubble.

The Mail wrote: "Militants from far-left groups whipped up the middle class students into a frenzy." How did they do that then? Perhaps Trotskyists went round feeding them Cheesy Wotsits and bottles of cream soda until they were fizzed up with E numbers and couldn't stop bouncing up and down on a Tory settee.

Several commentators and MPs made similar remarks, including a panellist on Question Time who referred to the whole protest as: "Just a bunch of middle class students." Where do they get such information?

There must be an extreme polling company that wanders through the middle of riots asking; "Before that fire gets going can you tell me whether you regard yourself as social class A, B, C1, C2 or D?". Or they've heard from the police that all the Molotov cocktails used lead-free petrol so they must have been middle class.

Protesters are often described that way, as some people in authority can't believe people from working class backgrounds are capable of getting annoyed by themselves. But when it's a protest by students it can't possibly involve anyone not middle class, because the common folk would surely say: "Gawd blimey sir, us simple but 'appy types don't wanna be students anyway, we can't be botherin' wiv long words or nuffin' or we'll never get all this washin' in an' in any case wiv all that studyin' we'd have no time for watchin' darts or polishin' my pictures of the ol' Queen Mum gawd bless 'er."

Even when the army of slaves were marching on Rome the Senate probably issued a proclamation that: "Most of them are simply middle-class students. Just look at them with their designer branding scars and Prada shackles." But one minister managed to go even better. Michael Gove defended the increase in tuition fees by saying: "Is it fair to ask a miner to subsidise the education of someone who can go and become a millionaire?" As Education Secretary you feel there's one or two aspects of recent history he's not quite caught up with. After today's protests he'll say: "These students can't expect to have their schooling paid for by weavers, stocking-makers and coopers."

Or maybe this is unfair, because the priority for any Tory Government has always been to look after the country's miners. Even when they shut them down, that was to get rid of the middle class miners, who were poncing off the honest sundial-maker so they could swan around underground in Gucci orange jackets and telling each other at dinner parties: "Using a lamp on your helmet is so passe, on mine I've got the most delightful chandelier from Habitat".

You could argue the same about the health service, that if we continue to fund it through taxes it's possible that some poor drayman or crofter will be subsidising a patient who gets better and goes on to become a millionaire. So the fairest thing to do for the poor is to scrap the NHS as well.

But in the case of tuition fees, it's obviously working class families who will find it hardest to cope with the huge debt of student fees or be put off going at all. Or maybe when the Government was discussing it they thought: "They'll hardly notice a debt of forty thousand pounds, they can make that in one night on a pub fruit machine or on an illegal dog fight or from an appearance fee for being on the Jeremy Kyle show."