This article forms part of a series, Class Wars, in which we asked contributors to address what is often a vexed question: what does class mean to you?
The British working class were the subject of intense study for much of the 20th century – before being ignored altogether by the end of it. They went from “salt of the earth” to “scum of the earth” as the Guardian columnist Owen Jones would later write in his book Chavs.
By the 1990s, politicians were proclaiming the abolition of the working class entirely. John Major (Tory; working class) entered Downing Street in 1990 promising to create a “classless society”. He must have made good progress, because shortly before the 1997 General Election, Labour’s deputy leader, John Prescott, proclaimed confidently: “We are all middle class now”. Two years later, prime minister Tony Blair declared the “class war is over”.
The reality, of course, is very different. Class has never disappeared, even if the boundaries between the working and middle classes are more fluid.
Mike Savage, in his 2015 analysis of the British Class Survey, Social Class in the 21st Century, argues that the economic changes that have taken place over recent decades have brought “the end of old-fashioned class politics based on the fundamental cleavage between the working and middle classes which had dominated political mobilisation during the twentieth century”.
Working-class children attend university in far greater numbers than at any time previously. Cultural life too has changed. In books such as Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1957), a sociological look at working class life in Britain between the wars, there existed a distinctive proletarian culture, separate from the middle classes.
Nowadays, on the surface at least, there is a more common culture that spans all social groups. The middle classes listen to popular music while, as Savage notes, through widening university participation, “…forms of culture which used to be restricted to the educated middle classes actually filter down to wider sections of the population” (like ballet, theatre or classical music).
But the seeming fluidity of class boundaries in the 21st century masks more subtle forms of inequality. The chances of going to university – as well as of getting a good degree – closely correlate with family background. The bottom fifth of the population are still 40% less likely to go to university than those from the top fifth. And in recent years, while the proportion of students from poorer backgrounds going to university has risen, the proportion attending one of the Russel Group universities – an elite group of 24, including Oxford and Cambridge – has fallen.
Yet it is these few educational institutions which provide a conveyor belt for the elite. A media studies degree from a former polytechnic college does not carry anything like the same cachet, nor open the same doors as a degree in PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) from Oxford.
Contemporary political discourse is also shaping new class inequalities. Turning Britain into a meritocracy is a modern political obsession. This can result in a situation where “privilege is misread as ‘merit’”, as Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison discuss in their new book The Class Ceiling. “We do not dispute that conventional measures of ‘merit’ – skills, qualifications, expertise, effort, experience – are important to career progression in Britain’s elite occupations,” the authors write. “But what our analysis indicates is that people do not necessarily have an equal capacity to ‘cash in’ their ‘merit’ or ‘realise’ their talent.”
Despite popular usage by politicians, the word meritocracy was coined to denote something sinister. In his dystopian novel, The Rise of the Meritocracy, Michael Young imagined what a fully ‘meritocratic’ society would look like in practice, and it wasn’t pretty. Whereas the old aristocratic order had felt a twinge of responsibility toward the poor, the meritocratic elite felt no such compunction: they had risen based on merit and innate ability; their privileges – as well as the lowly status of those beneath them – were therefore legitimate.
Class is, of course, about much more than occupation – it is deeply personal. As the fashionable identity politics parlance goes, it is a question of ‘lived experience’.
I was born into in the lower middle classes, or the petit bourgeoisie in Marxist terminology. I was the first member of my family to go to university, yet I did not do so until I was 23 years old. Going to university was outside of my reality until one of my friends, from a similar background, went to the University of Bristol as a mature student, at around the same time.
It was only once I started making my way through higher education that the prospect of a professional job – in this case journalism – became something tangible, something within reach. Previously it had not even occurred to me. When I was a child, we didn’t own books, I had to go to the local library to find anything to read. The outlook of those I was with as I grew up might have best been described as parochial, materialistic and conservative. Those in the local community who went to art galleries and the theatre at the weekend were deemed ‘posh’. Once I was at university, though, my prospects changed.
This is a form of what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has termed cultural capital: the things you acquire through being a member of a particular social class; from behaviours and tastes, to skills and material belongings. In my own case, it was the understanding that university was a viable career route.
Humour is something I have noticed too: the middle-class people who predominate in politics and the media have a very different sense of humour to the people I grew up with. Hating the television show Mrs Brown’s Boys is considered a mark of sophistication among the commentariat, with Hugo Rifkind writing in the Times in 2017 that he could not be friends with someone who found the show funny. I suspect this sentiment is widespread among journalists and newspaper columnists: the Independent called it the “worst comedy ever made”. According to YouGov, C2DE Britons make up 52% of those who say they like the programme, while two thirds (67%) of people who don’t like it coming from the ABC1 social demographic. Class expert Sam Friedman evidenced this “comic cultural capital” in a 2011 study.
This all presents an obvious challenge to the Left, but also helps explain why class politics is increasingly fought on the cultural front. At the 2017 General Election, the Conservatives increased their share of C2DE (working class) voters by 12 points. Meanwhile, middle class votes swung to Labour. Cultural concerns – about immigration, Europe and terrorism– took precedence over economic questions.
Economics has always been intertwined with these issues, but as class identity has shifted away from the productive sphere, cultural divisions have become more pertinent. In many of the working-class communities I visited in 2016 for my book, Hired, work was viewed as a means to an end. Their true identity, as they saw it, was derived more from patterns of consumption: from the clothes they wore and the things they did recreationally.
Just how little relevance an individual’s economic position appears to have in defining their class is surprising. The economic disadvantages faced by the young and working class in Britain today are well-documented. Work has become increasingly precarious and property ownership has plummeted. Yet this has not translated into increased levels of class consciousness.
As Mike Savage notes in his book, “those at the bottom of the pile are the least likely to think of themselves as belonging to a class, whilst those with the most advantages are considerably more likely to do so”. Younger respondents are also more resistant to traditional class identities than their older counterparts.
In other words, Marx’s prediction that class consciousness would intensify among the working class has been turned on its head. But even though our perceptions have changed, those ‘working-class’ concerns persist – economic as well as cultural. Indeed, they are contributing to the backlash against mainstream politics. And were we to have an electoral system in Britain that wasn’t so resistant to change, and politicians who listened more closely, we would probably be undergoing a broader political realignment right now to match that ongoing evolution.
Click here to read the rest of our series, Class Wars, in which we asked contributors to address what is often a vexed question: what does class mean to you?