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?
George Orwell was wrong.
About class, that is.
His most important book on the subject is The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937. The first half is an eye-witness account of working class life in the industrial North and Midlands. Unflinching in his descriptions, he left his readership in no doubt about the misery he saw.
And yet it was the second half of the book that proved the more controversial – not because he saw socialism as the answer, but because of who he identified as one of the great obstacles to the achievement of socialism: his fellow socialists.
The doctrinaire, priggish, pretentious cranks of the Left-wing intelligentsia were turning potential allies into opponents, Orwell said. He argued that the “humbug” of “bourgeois-baiters who are bourgeois themselves” was making enemies out of people who were economically working class, but culturally middle class:
“The very last person in whom you can hope to find revolutionary opinions is a clerk or a commercial traveller. Why? Very largely, I think, because of the ‘proletarian’ cant with which Socialist propaganda is mixed up. In order to symbolize the class war, there has been set up the more or less mythical figure of a ‘proletarian’, a muscular but downtrodden man in greasy overalls, in contradistinction to a ‘capitalist’, a fat, wicked man in a top hat and fur coat. It is tacitly assumed that there is no one in between; the truth being, of course, that in a country like England about a quarter of the population is in between.”
By cutting the proletarian cant and including this quarter of the population among the oppressed, the fight against the oppressor and for socialism could be won, he believed.
And that’s where he was wrong. He portrayed this group as the “sinking middle class” – composed of people like the “the half-starved free-lance journalist, the colonel’s spinster daughter with £75 a year, the jobless Cambridge graduate, the ship’s officer without a ship, the clerks, the civil servants, the commercial travellers, and the thrice-bankrupt drapers in the country towns”. Counting himself among their number, he invited them to let go and “sink without further struggles into the working class where we belong… we have nothing to lose but our aitches.”
Too posh to fail
The alternative to Orwell’s inclusive socialism was a dreadful one:
“It is quite easy to imagine a middle class crushed down to the worst depths of poverty and still remaining bitterly anti-working class in sentiment; this being, of course, a ready-made Fascist Party.”
The middle class, however, had other ideas. It would sink neither into socialism nor fascism, thank you very much. Instead, it would rise ever higher on a flood tide of prosperity. Furthermore, and as if to prove Orwell completely wrong, great swathes of the working class would breakaway to join them.
This is the history of millions of British families – including my own.
George Orwell was born in 1903; my paternal grandfather was born two years later. The former was born in India – the son of a British civil servant; the latter in the East End of London – the son of a cabinet maker.
The Orwell family was therefore middle class; my family working class. But we can refine those categories. Orwell’s grandfather was a clergyman and his great-grandfather was landed gentry. So, not just middle class, but upper-middle class. At the same time, we can see a story of wealth diminishing down the generations, which is why Orwell described himself as “lower-upper-middle class” – “the correct and elegant thing, I felt, was to be of gentle birth but to have no money.”
Ideologues miss Orwell's greatest lesson
I’m afraid the Franklins cannot trace their ancestors as far back as the Orwells. People born in the poorest part of Victorian London didn’t have family trees. Presumably at some point in the 19th century, or perhaps before that, an ancestor left the countryside to find work in the Great Wen. But there’s no memory of it, and so the story begins with my great-grandfather. Being a skilled craftsman, he wasn’t just working class, but upper-working class – not that he’d have described himself that way.
His son, my grandfather, left school at 14 to follow his father’s trade. That would have meant a long apprenticeship in the same workshop, ensuring the skills necessary to making furniture were deeply ingrained by doing the same tasks over-and-over again. As an apprentice he would have been paid a pittance, but by the end of it he could cut a dovetail joint with his eyes closed. Thus as a young man he’d have earned a half-decent wage, enough to save a few shillings each week. By the 1930s, he’d saved enough not only to get married, but to realise two previously inconceivable ambitions – to own his own home and to get out of the East End.
An opportunity presented itself: about half-an-hour’s train ride away, in Essex, farm land was being auctioned off in small plots to the highest bidder. My grandfather bought four of them at £5 each. And then he built a house – in his spare time (he was still working his day job in the East End). It took him two years of early mornings, late nights and weekends, but he did it – he had a home, fresh air and a family.
Elitist Britain is a closed shop
But before this turns into the Essex version of The Darling Buds of May, I should point out the less-than-idyllic realities. Firstly, the strain of building a house while holding down a job took a toll on my grandfather’s health. Sawing through sheets of asbestos roofing material wouldn’t have helped either.
As for the rural setting, the plotlands were never fully serviced – and later plans to change this were interrupted by the war. My dad and his sisters therefore grew up in a house with no electricity and no running water (there were standpipes further down the unsurfaced road). That said, they were luckier than a lot of their neighbours. Before the war, most of the plots were used as weekend getaways – and contained caravans and shacks as opposed to anything that could be called a house. But once the Blitz started, these filled up with families living there full-time in all seasons.
These days we’d call it a shanty town, but to those who made their new lives there it meant safety, freedom and a stake in the future.
Nothing much remains of the plotlands: what hasn’t been swallowed up by suburbia is now a park. A single house – ‘The Haven’ – is preserved as a testament to a vanished way of life.
In the post-war period, the rest were cleared away, with people moving out to new towns like nearby Laindon and Basildon. That’s where my father went to school – and where he went to work, aged 16, in a council drawing office. His employers trained him up as a land surveyor – both on the job and at evening classes in a local college. This led to other jobs, with increasing managerial responsibility, until he and my mother started their own business and bought their own home. By the time my brother and I came along, it was simply assumed that we’d do A-levels and go to university, which duly we did.
Brexit has exposed our education apartheid
Things that were simply unimaginable to my great-grandfather became run-of-the-mill to my generation.
I don’t tell this story because it’s exceptional, but because, details aside, it’s the story of middle England.
At the beginning of the 20th century only 10% of homes were owner occupied; by the Millennium, it was 70%. As recently as the 1960s, fewer than 5% of school leavers went to university; the figure now stands at nearly 50%. As for what proportion of people call themselves middle class, that depends on the survey and how it phrases the question. But if one looks at occupation, the non-manual professions accounted for only a third of households in the late 1960s, but more than half after 2000.
Despite two World Wars and the Cold War, the 20th century was a time of expanding opportunities for ordinary working Britons. Writing from the perspective of the 1930s, the industrial North and his own straitened circumstances, Orwell can be forgiven for missing the trend, but he was unquestionably wrong: the middle class wasn’t sinking, it was recruiting.
In the post-war period, the cultural elites couldn’t deny what was happening – so they tragedised and satirised it instead. In America, there was Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller’s 1949 play about the shattering of middle class delusions. In his autobiography, Miller wrote that his purpose had been to condemn a “pseudo life that thought to touch the clouds by standing on top of a refrigerator, waving a paid-up mortgage at the moon, victorious at last.”
In Britain, there was John Brain’s 1957 novel Room at the Top, in which the working class protagonist plots his social ascent by impregnating the daughter of a well-to-do family and casting aside his true love. By the 1970s, the collision of the classes was being played for laughs – Abigail’s Party by Mike Leigh being a classic of the genre.
The closed world of the 'enlightened' middle class
Well, fair enough – social pretension provides a worthy target for the social critic. But for the most part, social mobility is not ridiculous, it is glorious. For the first time in history, it wasn’t just the fortunate few who could dare to dream – and work hard to make those dreams come true – but the great mass of the people. So, never mind the drama and the comedy, where’s the celebration?
What we gained in the 20th century, we risk losing in the 21st – perhaps because we’ve placed so little value upon it.
These are not optimistic times. The young no longer expect to be richer than their parents. In part, that’s due to economic stagnation. Growth rates are slower now than they were in the post-war decades and wealth is more unequally distributed. Room at the top is not being created the way it used to be.
But we’re also making it harder for people to make their way up. The grips and footholds that allowed my family to better their lot have been chipped away. The land my grandfather built his house on cost £20 – about 10% of his annual earnings. What would it cost to get a building plot in the commuter belt in 2019? A multiple, not a fraction, of a half-decent salary – and that’s assuming you could get planning permission.
Then there’s the training my father got to become a land surveyor – which didn’t cost him anything. In fact he was being paid and, in the latter stages, given time off for formal instruction. Today, you have to go to university to become a land surveyor – or to undertake a whole range of once non-graduate professions. At least when I went to university there were no tuition fees, unlike the present era when you can expect to be charged the best part of £30,000 – whether you go to Oxbridge or an ex-poly.
My grandfather left school a hundred years ago. Over that time, the nature of work has changed beyond recognition for millions of people. In the space of just three generations, my family went from building things, to making accurate drawings of them, to writing about them for websites. As a society, we have dematerialised production, disembodied knowledge and placed value in the abstract.
And yet economic inclusion still depends on the same fundamentals – learning how to do something useful and finding a place to call your own. These are the twin paths to prosperity, but after a century of progress, we’ve placed tollbooths across both of them.
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?