Much attention was given in the news this week to the announcement that we in Great Britain no longer live in a society of three classes but what does this mean for us and is it important anyway?
Britain is famous for its class system. This is largely due to our long history without internal revolutions or wars. France underwent its revolution which largely rid it of its upper class. Germany lost its when the Nazi’s found Aristocrats to be a hindrance to its social engineering and world domination. Russia and China underwent Communist revolutions in the 20th C, and Italy, Spain, Austria-Hungary and many others either suffered from fascism or war and often both.
What race is to the United States, Class or social standing is to the United Kingdom. It’s not meant to be important and indeed you can live most of your life and not be aware of it, if you choose not to be. Whilst nowhere near as important as it used to be, class differences still exist and therefore to some degree they matter.
Traditionally we were split into three classes. The Upper Class or ruling elite who are closely aligned to the Monarchy and landed gentry, the middle class who were people such as doctors and solicitors who did have wealth but not “good breeding” and the working class who has Marx deduced in the 19th Century provided their labour but did not own any means of production.
Class was only ever partially related to money. Unlike in countries like the United States where money and star status meant individuals were considered to be at the top of society, here it was mostly due to family ancestry. Though not common, it was entirely possible for an Aristocratic family to be almost bankrupt whilst retaining their upper-class rating that middle class families with more money or assets could never hope to gain.
Overt displays of wealth were and to a degree still are seen as vulgar. True breeding meant one didn’t have to show off. As an example someone like Prince Charles is often seen in the country in old clothes that the average unemployed person would never dream of being seen out with.
Whilst someone like David Beckham might have millions of pounds but will only ever be seen as Middle-Class at best and often no more than a jumped up working-class. The more people like him show off their wealth and glamour with tacky though hugely expensive weddings and try to stress their credibility, the more the real upper class will turn up their noses. Just witness Downton Abbey for evidence of this. It is often said that the truly rich don’t have any need or desire to show off their wealth whereas the new money is always trying to show they have made it and impress those they have left behind.
Whilst the Industrial Revolution and world trade led to the rise of what would now be thought of Middle-Class with Industrialists and entrepreneurs setting up businesses and corporations , it wasn’t until the late 19th Century that workers identified themselves as working class. Whilst the Liberal Party did much to improve the plight of the poor before WW1 it was not until the 1920s that the working class got their act together as a political force.
Since then, the notion of class has very much gone downhill and become unfashionable. There is no longer any respect to anyone simply because of their social status or bulging bank balance. The rich try to downplay their background with even the Queen changing her voice to fit in more with normal people. The working class have been encouraged to think their ideas and culture are as good or better than everyone elses. In some way both the working and upper class have tried to eliminate themselves with the vast majority of the country identifying itself as being Middle-Class despite the fact that most people still have to work for a living in relatively dead-end positions and for salaries much lower than their betters.
Whatever is said, class still matters. The vast majority of land and wealth belong to the descendants of a few hundred Norman invaders from 1066. They go to the most expensive private schools and prestigious universities, run most political parties and even take more than their share best or high-profile jobs. It’s surprising for example just how many television stars are from what would be considered upper class backgrounds. Take the historian Dan Snow for example though likeable and talented, he got his break on television in a series with his famous Dad. He might speak in a normal accent but he went to Oxford University, went to a private school and his ancestors include a rather inept officer in WW1 and one of the most famous pre WW1 prime ministers, he is married to the daughter of the 6th Duke of Westminster but he appears to present himself as a man of the people. Like wise Helena Bonham Carter is descended from a 20th Century Prime Minister and Florence Nightingale. These are just two easy to find examples. Does it matter? In some ways not but though every one is entitled to success and a career, how much of theirs is due to their family background?
These days though still important, wealth is not the only defining factor in what class you are. It is quite easy for a very poor working class person to enjoy classical music or read philosophy whilst just yesterday, George Osborne the second most important politician in the U.K. a millionaire and from an Aristocratic background was spotted coming out of McDonalds, something most middle-class folk would never dream of doing, or at least get caught visiting. Despite his hugely wealthy and powerful family background, Gideon George Oliver Osborne was still labelled as an ‘oik’ by his university colleagues who were even more well-bred and who form the basis of our government and leading business and economic institutions.
Other things that give away class include clothing, hobbies and even words. Not just accents but the actual words themselves. This was highlighted by the famous book “U and non-U” meaning Upper Class and none Upper Class with some examples below.
|Sofa||Settee or Couch|
|Lavatory or Loo||Toilet|
|Lunch||Dinner (for midday meal)|
To show how messed up I am, I have highlighted the words that I use. Going by the above it would seem I have a bit of both in me, maybe that makes me middle class?
This week though as a result of a study of over 160,000 people it has been announced that there are now 7 social classes. This takes into account various factors such as friends, social media, hobbies, job status and of course wealth. You can try the test for yourself here
Below are a number charts that indicate the new typical classes.
An important factor in the economic health and vibrancy of a nation is the extent to which one can change their social status. In the United States this is what is known as the American Dream. The idea that someone can arrive in the USA penniless and either work their way up themselves or in a generation or two. However since sometime in the 1970’s the USA has fallen behind many European countries which is a surprise given how leaving Europe to live in the USA was for over a century a very popular ambition. It is one thing to have a country where those born into wealth stay wealthy but there are problems when those born into poverty stay there.
And what about me? Well to my complete and utter surprise I am classed as being in the Elite. I was quite shocked by this an a little embarrassed so I went over to the Guardian news website (a well-known socialist paper) and was relieved when their journalist stated he too was shocked and embarrassed to be an Elite.
There are a number of reasons why I am surprised as I am in no way rich. I went to a very ordinary school and wasn’t even in the top classes. I live in a former social housing area in a terraced house and my three previous cars have both died in use at the ages of 12-14 years old. I am also and not for the first time unemployed. My grandparents worked as postmen and bus drivers and my parents hail from deprived council estates and small, isolated mining villages respectively.
Whether my survey results are correct or not, it is good news for the U.K. if people like me can still go from the bottom to the middle (or apparently the top of the ladder). What could be behind this? Well despite his background, my father studied hard to become a very qualified engineer and I was the first in my family ever to go to university. We both share the old-fashioned idea of working hard and not wasting our money so that we do more with our small amount of money than people with 3 or 4 times higher salary.
What really helps my score is my social and cultural factors. I have a wide variety of friends, and many of whom are higher achieving than myself which for the purposes of this survey pushes me up. I have always been a dedicated saver and started saving for pensions, shares after doing part time jobs at school. Maybe because I come from a “poor” background I have always been careful with my money and over 20 years it does add up even though my salary has only ever been average by UK standard (which is low by London standards).
Most of all my high rating is I guess because I score 100% on culture and visiting museums, concerts etc which is higher even than traditionally wealthy “elite” people. I have always been one to aspire to do better and certainly not one happy to just go out and spend money on booze or be ashamed of being different or trying to do better for myself. This isn’t a common thing for young men in Britain born into working class backgrounds and is even less common now than it was when I left high school 20 years ago.
I am as happy going to the cinema as to the theatre. I like the sport of the masses (football) as well as more minority sports like cricket or even horse trials. I like Pizza but don’t generally like fast food. I love traditional roast dinners but am more than happy with a sandwich. It is true I am not into consumerism or celebrity lifestyles or reality tv shows and I will be good mannered, polite and refuse to speak with that terribly fake estuary English accent that everyone to Tony Blair has adopted.
Until this new survey came out, I would have said I come from an upper working class background and migrated to a lower middle-class with potential to improve further. Personally I would very much dispute being classed as elite as my socks have more holes in them than Prince Charles would know what to do with. However there seems no getting away from it that in just over a generation “we” have achieved what many who went to America or Australia did too in years gone by.
The fact is that only 39% of the population are now in the traditional 3 classes but the modern political parties are continuing to argue amongst themselves in the same way. No wonder people are disaffected with politics as they are not being represented and funnily enough the percentage of people who are voting in elections isn’t too far from 39% either.
Class may not be as important as it once was but it still is important whether people realise it or not.