Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Modern Britain: The new class system

Over on The Telegraph's "Your View" section is a debate about class in Britain today. I've posted my comments on there, but as it was something I was planning on writing about anyway, I thought I'd reiterate those thoughts here and expand on them a little further.

Class is an ingrained part of British society. It may be that it can be abolished over time, but those who believed that it could be eradicated inside a generation were fooling themselves. All their social tinkering and engineering has achieved over the last 30 years or so is to redefine the classes and decrease social mobility between classes.

The only class that hasn't changed is the upper class - they are still the upper class. They are not defined by money but by lineage. Anyone remember the hilarious sketch from years ago?

"I know my place" intoned Ronnie Corbett in the class sketch featured on the Frost Report in the sixties. Beside the working class representation of the cloth capped Corbett stood the taller Ronnie Barker dressed in a smart, though poor quality suit and an homburg representing the middle class and next to Barker stood the tall figure of John Cleese in a quality suit and bowler hat, representing the upper class.

Funny though the sketch was - it was also inaccurate. The representation of the upper class embodied by Cleese was completely wrong. Instead Cleese represented a sub-class which was popularly known as the "Upper Middle Class". The true upper class then, as they are now, were those who achieved their status through being of high birth. This class remains in place today and will probably remain so for ever more - unless we adopt the approach of 18th century France and kill them all; man, woman and child.

But aside from the upper class - the aristocracy - we have always had, essentially, a tiered class system. If you take out the "Upper Class" then most people tend to think of the remaining two classes - the Working Class and Middle Class, but this is too simplistic as the divisions were more marked than that. The Working Class and Middle Class each actually consisted of other sub-classes.

The Working Class base - that which we knew as the Working Class were the labourers, factory workers, miners, textile workers - people who performed fairly hard but rather mundane, repetitive tasks and were known as blue-collar workers. The Working Class were a proud class. Proud of the dignity of work and the discipline required to repeat mundane tasks over a long period in order to ensure that their family was provided for through the sweat of their own labours. Proud as they were of their families, villages, towns and communities, they were also aspirational. They wanted better for themselves and their kith and kin and believed that the best way to achieve those aspirations was through hard work and self-reliance.

Above them was the second tier of the Working Class - those which we would call Lower-middle Class. This, in truth was something of a misnomer as they were really upper-working class. They were characteristically working class people who had made it into positions of responsibility or authority - as senior machinists, shift leaders, foremen and the like. This was something of an odd group as they were themselves split into two camps. There were those who insisted that they were still working class and there were those who thought they had made it on the next level as middle class.

These two camps were often apparent in a single household, the father trying to cling on to their working class identity and the mother keen to exploit the higher social standing. They were rarely accepted as legitimate members of either class - the Working Class derided them as defectors to the Middle Class (even though this was an aspiration shared by many Working Class people) and the Middle Class still considered them as Working Class - not fully accepted into their fold.

Next up on the social scale was the Middle Class. The Middle Class was probably - by the sixties - the most wide ranging of the classes. Made up of managers, clerks, office workers and generally referred to as "white collar workers". Middle class people could be as poor in monetary terms as working class people or as rich as the upper-middle class. They were not characterised by wealth but by education and position. This class had expanded massively after the war as more and more people moved upwards through the social ladder - thanks in part to improved education (through Grammar schools), but also due to the changing nature of British working life.

Finally, there was the upper-middle class. These were people who held positions of importance - directors, senior civil servants, barristers and other professionals. As with the middle class they "earned" their position through education and position but also through money. Upper-middle class people were invariably wealthy - something which was not true of the Upper Class. Just as there was difficulty for Working Class people to move into Lower-Middle Class, it was equally difficult for Middle-Class to move up into Upper-Middle Class - and acceptance by one group or the other was equally difficult.

There is no middle class these days, just middle England. Instead, what we have - apart from the Upper Class - are the Ruling Class, Working Class and Under Class.

Most people know which class they belong to, few will admit it.

What used to be Middle Class is now the Working Class. Aspirational, family orientated and self-reliant, this is now the biggest class (as the survey demonstrates). The class is made up of people from genuine working class backgrounds (like myself), lower middle, middle and upper middle class. The one thing they have in common is that they all work and work predominantly in the private sector. Essentially, the new Working Class are the tax cows for the nation. Their lot in life is to provide the revenue that feeds the other classes. They are the most numerous class and the class upon which the very existence of the nation depends - and yet, oddly enough, they are the class least likely to feel represented by mainstream political parties.

Instead of a lower class made up of working people (working class) we now have the Under Class. A better term would probably be "Welfare Class" as there has always been an underclass, but this used to refer to people who were, essentially, criminal. They were an "under" class because they operated beneath the strata of British society. The new Under Class or Welfare Class consists of people for whom welfare and dependency has become a way of life. They have little aspiration, no motivation and no desire to change. They are most likely to proclaim that they are "working class and proud of it" even if they've never done a days work in their lives.

They prefer to abrogate themselves of responsibility and leave it to the state. They all have and are aware of their "rights" without acknowledgment of their responsibilities. The right to a home (but not the responsibility to maintain it), the right to justice and legal recourse (but not the responsibility to abide by the law), the right to drive a car (but not the responsibility to maintain or insure it), the right to material goods (but not the responsibility to earn them) and so on.

Finally, we have the ruling class. The obvious members of this class are the professional politicians, but they are far from being the only members. The ruling class are the opinion formers, indoctrinators and social engineers in the media, schools, universities and local authorities. They are also - and this is the group least likely to recognise their class - the people whose livelihood depends on the maintenance of a welfarist society. It is made up of rich, poor, ignorant, educated, blue-collar and white-collar people. What they all have in common is that they all have influence in some form over how we are governed - directly or indirectly, deliberately or accidentally, knowingly or unknowingly.

This is the reality today. Not a classless society, but a whole new class structure which is based on one principle. The constant squeezing and milking of the New Working Class of "Middle England" to sustain the new Welfare and Ruling classes created by the welfare state and socialism. There is less social mobility now than there has ever been, there is less community spirit than there has ever been and there is less social cohesion than there has ever been.

The old class system was far from perfect, but it was slowly changing and changing for the better. Had it been allowed to continue at it's own pace then it would, eventually, become so dissipated and diluted that it no longer existed. By forcing the pace of change the social scientists, liberal progressives and radicals have created a whole new class system which is going to be even harder to dislodge.

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