Status anxiety

Why are we still obsessed with class?

27 October 2012

At a lunch party last Sunday with a group of journalists, the conversation inevitably turned to class and how this ancient English obsession has come to dominate the political news agenda. It’s now such a hot topic that the moment a member of the government does anything that can be construed as remotely snobbish — such as sit in a first-class carriage with a standard-class ticket — he is guaranteed to appear on the front pages the following day.

For a leftie, the answer is obvious. We live in the most class-bound society in the developed world and this government of millionaires, led by a toffee-nosed public schoolboy, is determined to make it even more so. That’s the barely concealed agenda behind raising university tuition fees, cutting the Education Maintenance Allowance, reducing the top rate of income tax, protecting the City of London and slashing benefits. As Alan Johnson said when George Osborne first unveiled his austerity programme in 2010, ‘This is what they came into politics for.’

Now, it’s plainly not true that Britain is more hamstrung by class than any other western country. Institutions like Oxford University and the BBC are often attacked for failing to do more to promote social mobility, but actually Britain doesn’t fare too badly in the international league tables. If you measure inter-generational social mobility according to occupation (typically a seven-class model with ‘higher managerial and professional’ at the top and ‘routine’ at the bottom), Britain sits somewhere in the middle of the table of developed countries, level-pegging with Germany.

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True, if you measure social mobility by income instead, Britain fares worse. But even according to that metric, we’re still not the most class-bound society in the developed world. Not as class-bound as America, for instance.

So the leftie’s explanation for why class is back at the forefront of our minds — and his crude analysis of what motivates senior Conservative politicians — is wrong. This government is as committed as the previous one to extending opportunities, with Exhibit A in the case for the defence being Michael Gove’s education reforms. As a nation, we remain obsessed with class in spite of our track record on social mobility, not because of it.

I think it has more to do with psychology than sociology. When we think about ourselves as a people, we quickly fall back on class stereotypes, not least because they’re so familiar to us from our literary classics, our great works of drama, our favourite films and television shows, etc. It’s as if British public life is a shadow play, an echo of another, more vivid comedy drama in which the toffs and the plebs are constantly battling it out. When we look at figures like David Cameron and Ed Miliband, the nuances of their particular backgrounds don’t register, and, instead, we cast them as the latest actors in this never-ending Punch-and-Judy show.

I’m not saying our public life is always filtered through this prism. During the Blair years, this long-running West End farce began to fade from the national consciousness. But it doesn’t take much for it to be revived. I don’t mean the double-dip recession. I mean the appearance of a series of psychological triggers in quick succession: the granny tax, pasty-gate, pleb-gate. It doesn’t help that Cameron’s wife’s stepfather is a viscount, or Osborne’s father a baronet. Suddenly, the class paradigm is rampant again, distorting our perception of life inside the Westminster village.

The American sociologist Stein Ringen had it right when he wrote: ‘What is peculiar in Britain is not the reality of the class system and its continuing existence, but class psychology: the preoccupation with class, the belief in class, and the symbols of class in manners, dress and language.’

Why should this be so? Why do we cling to this outdated national mythology, in spite of all the conflict it gives rise to? It’s all the more peculiar given that the English class system is generally considered to be the curse of our great nation — it literally hasn’t got any defenders. I think it has something to do with the comic aspects of the class stereo-types, with Peter Sellers in I’m All Right Jack at one end of the spectrum and Terry-Thomas in School for Scoundrels at the other. We may profess to hate our class system, but we cannot help but feel a wry affection for it. It’s part of who we are and we’re loath to give that up.

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Show comments
  • L’Arse

    To paraphrase Cleese, Barker and Corbett, ‘I don’t look up to him, because he went to public school. I don’t look down on him, just because he lives on benefits. I know my place.’
    The reality of London, 2012, where “the symbols of class in manners, dress and language” have all but disappeared.

    • guest

      A “Sketch” which was shown on the very medium that peddles this BS, keeping the class system alive in peoples minds, portraying working classes a certain way, sucking up to free-loading inbreeds such as royalty, who take millions n benefits each year, but the media ignores this FACT, and instead goes after the poor sod struggling on £70 a week, free-loading fat, pasty faced, bloated effeminate men in suits and ties, (politicians), doing all they can to make sure “everything stays the same”, heaven forbid these useless freeloaders having to earn an honest living themselves, the system is dead, people are now wising up to the charade it was set up to be.

  • EdBallz

    Class article

  • Kim O’Hara

    Toby Young is infuriatingly spot-on yet again, leaving the rest of us with nothing much to add. But class-warrior Les Ebdon and the Office of Fair Access are among those who believe that “the class system” is alive and well in higher education, and bizarrely a Conservative government seems to be supporting them.

  • Jay

    Many people love the outdated national mythology. There is
    fun to be had in adopting an us and them, rich and poor, right and left, this
    pigeon-hole and that pigeon-hole type of thinking. This provides a kind of
    pantomime baddy to collectively rail against. The conflict (and the comforting sense
    of belonging to one of the various ‘hard done by’ tribes) is what makes it for
    some. Let’s face it: nuanced thinking can make your brain hurt. Calling the
    baddies du jour — politicians, toffs, bankers, journalists, policepersons, the
    lower classes — names is cathartic. ‘Twas ever thus and now there’s the
    internet’s limitless space to fill.

  • HJ777

    I don’t think that we are obsessed by class. I certainly rarely think about it.

    The left, however, view society and economics through the prism of class, so they have to bang on about it. After all, if we’re classless, what is the point of the left?

    Incidentally, I was accused the other day of being a “posh Berkshire public schoolboy” by someone of a left wing persusasion. I had to disappoint him by pointing out that I was brought up by a single parent and went to the local comprehensive school (and not in Berkshire either).

    • Eddie

      Agreed! The left and the politically correct media is obsessed with class – that ‘we’ is; the ‘we’ that include me, ain’t!

      Of course, one can also get called ‘posh’ and ‘verbally abused’ just for speaking standard English properly (i.e. without the sort of local northern dialect much-loved at the BBC these days). But then, it suits some people to attempt to bully others in order to thus show themselves as superior – an irony the leftie who labelled you as a ‘posh public school boy’ seems not to grasp!

      I have been accused of being posh because I speak well and am educated. I too was brought up by a single mother in a semi, and went to the local state grammar school.

      Now, compared to, say. Harriet Harman, Ed and David Sillyband, Charles Clarke, Ed Balls, Lenin et al, I am not posh at all – THEY ARE!
      But oh how they crave and need their Manichean logic – their division of people into friends and enemies, good and evil. Pathetic really. The class obsession of the left keeps this country back and adulterates the attitudes of childrena nd young adults, encouraging them to see themselves as victims who can never achieve or better themselves. Sad.

  • Eddie

    Class is not an English obsession – it is a human need. Human beings have an instinct to categorise themselves – it is perhaps only the criteria that change throughout history.
    The leftie fantasy that there is any such thing as a ‘flat’ society is just that. These leftwing hypocrites really are hilarious anyway – try called a lefty academic a ‘lecturer’ instead of a ‘senior lecturer’ or forgetting to call them ‘professor’ (a title awarded to bureaucratic politicking and sychophaance NOT anything inhtellectual) and you’ll soon learn how these people are obsessed with their place in the hierarchy. Verey single staff room I have ever been in is like this – and teachers (many of them leftwing) are really class-obsessed.
    Lefties in general are the ones keeping the class system alive – banging on aboput being ‘working class’ despite earning £50k+ a year as some professor of working class studies at a former polytechnic somewhere to the north of sanity.
    All human societies have a way tro differentiate and a class system and always will do – and having personally taught middle and upper class students from Germany and all European countries (and the US) I can scotch the rumour that any other developed country is any less class-bound than we are. The difference is and has always been, that whereas Britain (and England in particular) had a large and growing middle class from the middle ages, many other countries had – like the catholic church – the cardinal class of the aristocracy (mayve 10% of people who had all the wealth) and then 90% of people who were peasants: like France or Russia. England was more advanced than that.
    And yes, the cultural pointers are there and easy to use, which is why people use them. A great deal of nonsense is spoken about the ‘British class system’ but really a system of privilege for the wealthy is no less pronounced in the USA or anywhere else – the constant parroting that we are constrained by a class system is just not true: poorer people here get way more chances than the same in the US or in nepotistic countries like Italy or Russia.
    I refuse to categorise myself as being from a class (which makes class-obsessed lefties very angry) and see people as people and look for merit. Having said that, it is (because of wealth and contacts) always the same people in all countries who getb the opportunities and breaks, and who can enter the insecure careers like TV or journalism – which are like ghettos of the privileged upper-middle class now. Just look at the BBC!

  • M. Wenzl

    Even if statistically the UK isn’t as class-bound as other countries, I suppose that class remains a deeply-embedded cultural notion to which we are very sensitive.

  • Damian Buckley

    So, Toby Young thinks that because we’re mid-table in one international assessment of social mobility, and almost bottom of the table in the other, class is overrated. What an odd conclusion to draw. His own facts show that most comparable countries are much less class-bound.

    We have a Cabinet in which a frightening proportion of Ministers went to the same small group of elite schools. Yes, they’re excellent schools. But we should be worried as a nation that the business of government seems to be the preserve of the 1% of the population that can afford the most expensive independent education.

    Westminster, Whitehall, the City, the armed forces (at officer level), Oxbridge, the Inns of Court, Fleet Street – British institutions are dominated by people who’ve been to the right (fee-paying) kind of school. And as Andrew Neil keeps pointing out, the bias is getting worse.

    • Eddie

      Yes, and I believe that they got rid of most grammar schools, thus robbing ordinary and poor people of the opportunity to have an education that matched the best private schools.

      In fact, now the situation is way worse than it used to be, because now every one no matter how thick has a degree. So how can anyone differentiate themselves? By having a sparkling CV full of lots of unpaid internships (like Blair junior or Mandelson’s godsons).

      Fact is, if you can afford to work for nothing and have parents with a big house in London where you can stay whilst building your career in TV, the media, journalism etc then fine – but those without that get shut out.

      I don’t think we can disrciminate against those who happen to be rich or well-ducated though; but I do realise (from personal experience) that it is MUCH more difficult for a man from a ordinary background (like me) to make it than the men and women I have known from stinking rich privileged backgrounds. I remember attending an evening workshop once on screenwriting; several of the wanabee writers there (younger than me) were the children of millionaire directors in the film/TV industry, and one had even done work experience with Dreamworks and I think Spielburg, who his dad knew!

      Needless to say, without those contacts and that easy wealth that means you do not need a salary, you might as well not bother trying. I mean, look at Clare Balding – without her rich parents and their billionaire family friend who paid for her education, she’d probably be driving a van and playing rugby down the park!

  • kevinlaw1222

    This article could only be written by someone who is part of the establshment.
    Try living on crap council estate in Glasgow, on benefits and see if class doesnt matter.

    • guest

      I noticed that as well, just another pretentious silver spooned drone, I just hope I see the day we “take care” of these free loading parasite elites, who parasite off of the 99.99%, this class BS has gone on to long, fat flabby old gits in suits, shouldn’t be too hard to shift em.

  • Ian Hare

    It seems even the conservatives are going to rethink on grammar schools the worst possible thing they could there has got to be a way for children that excel to move on. Let’s drop this politically correct obsession with social engineering when most of the politicians have not a clue as to what the working class are really about and probably never will.

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