Defining Social Class

I am not sure how serious politicians are about the British Class System. Labour likes to portray itself as the Party of the poor and deprived; they would have you imagine that they like nothing better than to sit in the local pub with a pie and a pint of Stout, discussing whippets. They will also have you believe that the Conservatives are all "toffs", who sit around all day swilling Bolly and discussing the Grouse season. This is a travesty of the truth but it suits the Labour narrative.

The narrative goes like this: Labour represents a poor and disenfranchised underclass who strive for the right to work and earn a fair day's pay. The Tories represent big business and elitism.

Had we been living one or two hundred years ago this may have had a grain of truth. Britain had, largely by a process of attrition, gone from being feudal to eventually ceding priviledge to non-landowners and women. It is only in the last hundred years that our Prime Ministers have not exclusively been educated at Eton or Harrow and Oxbridge. Two wars changed the notion of Class hegemony radically, not in the least because three-quarters of the British Aristocracy were wiped out between 1914 and 1918.

There emerged from this a new Middle Class, one that had had a previous incarnation born out of the Industrial Revolution and it far exceeded, in numbers, the artisanal class that held that rank before that. By 1945 the Middle Classes as we think we understand the term represented a future of aspiration and solidity for many. It coincided with economic growth and a belief in national cohesion and social responsibility. All the major reforms we take for granted, such as the NHS and state education, crystallised about this time. By the time that the Labour Party had cottoned on to its rich vein of parody on class division, it turns out that a grocer's daughter with a grammar school education had become Prime Minister and of course, not so long ago the Labour government was run with a former pupil of Fettes College (The Eton of Scotland) as PM, and a whole raft of ex-public school boys and girls.

A digression here if I may be allowed to make my point: Ed Balls (Labour) was independently educated at the same school as Ken Clarke (Conservative). The only difference is that Ken Clarke was a poor kid on a scholarship and Balls was from a wealthy family. Labour abolished assisted places for independent schools during the first six months of power. Had Clarke followed Balls and not the other way around. Clarke would never have had an ecucational opportunity that lifted him from poverty.

So, to sum up thus far, I have said that the political notion of class division is a travesty of reality.

But what about the rest of life? Marketeers divide their targets into a specific grid based purely upon income. These are:

A- Higher managerial, administrative, professional e.g. Chief executive, senior civil servant, surgeon
B - Intermediate managerial, administrative, professional e.g. bank manager, teacher
C1- Supervisory, clerical, junior managerial e.g. shop floor supervisor, bank clerk, sales person
C2 - Skilled manual workers e.g. electrician, carpenter
D- Semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers e.g. assembly line worker, refuse collector, messenger
E - Casual labourers, pensioners, unemployed e.g. pensioners without private pensions and anyone living on basic benefits

But this does not correlate much with anything else except spending power and says nothing at all about traditional notions of what constitutes class. You may be a pensioner from category E who lives in genteel poverty, with a liking for Ibsen and Claret. You may be a footballer whose height of aspiration is to own a Bugatti Veyron and whose literary experience is limited to reading and digesting the instructions on a Tetrapak. Crucially, it is only a superficial guide to what I now define as social class in the 21st Century.

Class has always been identifiable by three things:

  • Choice
  • Mobility
  • Influence

This is usually summed up perjoratively as Priviledge or Elitism.
Societies, all societies are hierarchical.

Today's elite are a long way from cod notions of country gentlemen in tweeds who consider it a right to shoot poachers. Indeed, your average faded toff cannot afford to have the guttering done. Today's poor are the same poor you got from year one. They are poor, disenfranchised, feckless, ignorant and incapable of salvation and always have been and always will be.

The Upper Class, as we used to know them are irrelevant
The Lower Class are exactly the same as they always have been and will be.

The interesting bit is two things: The Middle Class and the New Elite. Who are they?
Ask almost anyone and they will define themselves as Middle Class. They are typically mobile and choice laden. Middle Class is now a very large umbrella ranging from your Waitrose 4x4 Sloane Clone to Sharon and Tracy who shop at Iceland and use the bus. What we used to call The Working Class is defunct. This term is only used sentimentally by public sector union bosses. It is the Middle Class who work and it is the Middle class who provide the commonwealth.  What they lack is influence. And it is the latter that defines the New Elite.

What defines the New Elite will be the subject of another blog post, but in the meantime I plead with you to let me know what you think.


Ruth@VS said...

A good summary, WW, you're quite right about the Middle Class. But I think that the Working Class has not disappeared but shrunk markedly, with many of its former residents becoming part of the Benefits Class - those who see no point in working and would rather the State provided for them. Actually the Benefits Class are better off than the Working Class financially. Here in the Northwest of England we were recently treated to the sight of a woman on the regional news who told us, with horror in her voice, that to maintain the same standard of living she had on benefits, she would need a salary of £50k. "and how am I going to get that kind of a job?" she wailed. Indeed. So the paradox now is that those at the bottom financially such as pensioners and people on minimum wage actually pay taxes to support the Benefits Class. Madness.

Jim Baxter said...

Who cares? No, really. Who cares about such labels any more?

'It is only in the last hundred years that our Prime Ministers have not exclusively been educated at Eton or Harrow and Oxbridge'.

Exclusively apart from Disraeli?

Sigh. You just can't get the staff these days.

Wrinkled Weasel said...

Yes, Jim, I knew about Disraeli, but I felt he was an aberration, one that got away, and not an indication of the trend. The start of the 20th Century was in reality the time when the Eton/Harrow/Oxford/Cambridge nexus was no longer a pre-requisite of high office.

Ruth, most what you might have called working class people in the old days are now engaged in the public sector as road sweepers and porters or in the private sector as contract cleaners or security people, for example.
A hospital porter certainly cannot compete in income terms with someone on benefits, but they do, because they believe that you should work for a living.

The public sector still has a big tranch of old working class which is why the Unions still cling on to power in transport and local public services. Outside of this Union membership is contracting.

The sector that clearly has seen a crossover from working class to benefits class is most obvious in agricultural labour and service industries such as catering and as we know this is now all done by nationals of other EC countries.

It has been pointed out to me that if you are faced with B. working 40 hours a week in a crap job, only to find that your wages go out of the window, leaving you with no discretionary income or, B., live on benefits and have a higher standard of living, a lot of people are going to chose the latter.

Wrinkled Weasel said...

Got my a's and b's mixed up. Benefit of a university education.

Brian said...

The New Elite are like the old Soviet Nomenklatura. It is comprised of politicos, quangocrats, MBAs and slebs. Once inducted into the freemasonry of the New Elite, downward mobility is stopped, hence failed ceos are rewarded with contractual payoffs when they resign.
Wouldn't the adoption of the ethos of the John Lewis Partnership make for a better society?

Wrinkled Weasel said...

I think you are on to something there, Brian. Peter Mandelson comes to mind: assumed high office, resigned, got taken on again, resigned, cushy job in Brussels, back here and up to the Lords and meanwhile he's making a nice little nest egg for himself.

Which reminds me, the other big indicator of the New Elite is their success at keeping their less savoury private lives out of the news..but that is for another post.