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Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
4 months ago

Many people did not want to be doctors or lawyers, they just wanted to be paid a decent enough wage to afford a place to live, perhaps start a family and enjoy some home comforts. The problem was that working class wages meant middle class expenses, so mass immigration was brought in to “solve” the labour shortages and a campaign of sneering at blue collar jobs began to seep into the education system. Today the middle class sits firmly entrenched in the civil service, commanding disproportionately high wages and pensions, which may honestly, one day, collapse the government’s finances. All the while telling those fighting in what had been saturated jobs markets that either they where too lazy or stupid to deserve the kind of pay they are on, as we live in a meritocracy. As far as I can see, meritocracy ends where the state begins.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
4 months ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

I don’t personally buy into this laughable Marxist “working class” nonsense, because it’s 150 years out of date as a description of society. “Caste” is a lot more accurate, not least because it does not describe people enviously by their income.
Today we have a very small non-working caste who live on whatever wealth they have inherited, accumulated or married; a publicly-maintained caste who spend other people’s money, and that includes a dependency sub-caste sometimes called the underclass; and an economically active caste, who fund the previous caste.
Your economic position can vary from quite well off to quite badly off within any of these castes. The writer’s grandmother was a poor member of the non-working caste. People with seven children living on benefits in a large house are rich members of the dependency sub-caste.
You can parse out these castes any way you like, and identify lots of castes within castes, but ultimately, the real difference among them isn’t wealth; its who you’re accountable to if you want to keep your wealth.
You can’t really lose a public-maintained caste job or income stream at all. There’s almost nothing you can really do that gets you sacked. You can be a police officer who flashes women, but unless you actually murder someone, you will get away with it. You can be a transactivist or Remainer judge and not get called out for it. You can be a climate scientist and immune to critique. But you can be sacked from an economically-active caste job if you fail to be sufficiently economically active.
That’s the real fault line, and I suggest it’s why the Red Wall collapsed; people in the economically active class were pushing back against being hectored by their tapeworm in their innards.

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
4 months ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

Many civil servants earn so little that their wages are topped up by the benefits that they administer. Their pensions can never be more than half pay.

Guy Pigache
Guy Pigache
4 months ago

MP’s point was that civil servants (including the ones you refer to) are protected from accountability. His point stands.

D Ward
D Ward
4 months ago

Please back that statement up.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
4 months ago
Reply to  D Ward

Most wages in the public sector are awful, we only ever hear about inflated salaries of those at the top. The public sector does enjoy better pensions compared to the private sector though

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

And that trade-off is perfectly understood when they join these sometimes lower-paid jobs.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
4 months ago

Indeed, which is why I think it’s wrong when people attack the pensions of these people. They’ve had years of lower wages in the knowledge that they’ll have a better pension than most private sector workers, it’s the trade off as you say

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I dislike their frequently-expressed smugness towards us who are still working and paying for their pensions, while trying to save for our own so that we “won’t be a burden”, while knowing that the value of our savings is being eroded by largesse toward the state-funded class.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

That was once true, is it still? I know several people who work in the public sector who are all on a decent wage.

I have a number of policemen friends. All retired in mid 50’s on 2/3 pensions and now working for the police as civilians on decent salaries.

Like for like ie unskilled public sector vs unskilled private sector and so on up the chain, I really think the “public sector jobs pay poorer but compensate with better pensions” is an outdated myth.

Mike Wylde
Mike Wylde
4 months ago

In the private sector most pensioners would dream of half pay! The average pension pot is in the region of £60K, which would give an annual pension of about £4K.

Peter B
Peter B
4 months ago

There are many public sector roles where pensions can be more than half salary – sometimes with early retirement. There is simply no way that actual pension contributions to these schemes even come close to the funding needed to pay the pensions – bear in mind that a £20K pa pension currently needs a £500K retirement fund. That’s without spouse cover or any index linking.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
4 months ago

The problem with meritocracy is that it’s mostly nonsense. A child born to a wealthy family with good contacts will almost always earn more over the course of their life than a poor child, irregardless of talent or work ethic. A look around the top boardrooms in most countries shows that not many come from poor stock.
Occasionally you’ll get the story of a poor kid done well and that’s supposed to prove the system isn’t stacked against them, but the fact it’s newsworthy shows just how rare it really is.
Meritocracy would only be true if you took away any advantages people enjoy such as private education and nepotism in the world of work

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

True enough. But don’t you think there are things we could do to make society more meritocratic?

Warren T
Warren T
4 months ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Not if we pursue the concept of “equity”.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
4 months ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Not really to be honest, the advantages will always be there which is why I’ve always been in favour of the wealthy paying more tax to improve the state of our public services such as education. It’s not feasible to make sure everybody has exactly the same chances in life as everybody else, society is simply too complex, but what we can do is ensure those at the bottom don’t spend their lives struggling

Rosy Martin
Rosy Martin
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

The wealth do pay more tax don’t they ? Remember the 1/30 rule- the top 1 percent pay around 30 percent of the inland revenue’s take. That’s one of the things we have got right.. you can say a lot against western societies, but unlike the kleptocracies of the developing world, or Russia and its satellites, the wealthy do shoulder a lot of the tax take- hence the public sector, which doesn’t really exist elsewhere.

Last edited 4 months ago by Rosy Martin
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
4 months ago
Reply to  Rosy Martin

You’re talking solely about income tax with those statistics, which as we know isn’t the only form of taxation in most countries. If you derive your income solely from your salary then yes you will pay a higher proportion in tax, however there are many other ways of deriving income. Many of these are usually structured in such a way that those at the top can often pay tax at a lower rate than those on the minimum wage

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

That was a party political broadcast on behalf of the Labour Party of 1935.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
4 months ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

And also cobblers.
The ruling elite will always be the ruling elite and that will never changed. The extent to which the ruling elite under the Czar became the ruling elite under bolshevism is eye opening.
It is what happens to the rest of us that is the real issue. Over the last 30 years we have witnessed the death of the professions, save medicine. Long gone are the days when they provided secure well paid employment for the middle class. Today the only thing that really counts is ability and work ethic with the exception of the froth in areas such as marketing and media and also the civil service

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
4 months ago

Nah connections still matter big time.

Alison Tyler
Alison Tyler
4 months ago

Unless we are elite sports persons, or very successsful pop artists rappers or thespians.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
4 months ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Care to explain why you think it’s wrong? Does being born wealthy not give people a huge head start in life?

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

“Nothing is more unequal than equality itself”.*

(* Pliny the Younger. IX.Epistle 5.)

Chris Mochan
Chris Mochan
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Yes but most people try to succeed financially in life, at least in part, in order to improve the life chances of their children. If someone works hard to earn high wages and uses that money to give their child the best education, home life, and experiences, then the success of that child is hardly a lucky outcome. If it were not possible to use your own resources to further your children’s chances then a terrific driver of productivity and stability in society would be shot.
The problem is that poorer people are often left out of the equation because there are so few mechanisms by which they could reach the same playing field as the rich. I’m from a particularly deprived area of the country and was given an appalling education at secondary school, for example. There was no grammar school situation where academic kids could progress and so we were forced to try and grind something out in a school where more pupils were in gangs than in any sort of extra-curricular club. I fail to see how forcing some rich kid to have a worse education would have benefitted me or the country as a whole.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
4 months ago
Reply to  Chris Mochan

If the parent earns wages high enough to send their child to a private education and give that child good contacts, then that’s entirely down to lick on the child’s part. They’ve been given huge advantages in life simply down to the wealth of their parents, rather than anything they themselves have done.
I’m not calling for the end of private education, merely pointing what I see as one of the major faults in the meritocracy arguments.
If we want to believe that everybody ends up where they are based solely on their own talent, then we’d have to remove everything that gives certain people a head start in life for it to be fair. Otherwise it’s akin to running the 100m final with some competitors starting at the halfway mark then berating the losers for coming in last.
I’m also aware that it’s not feasible to remove all the leg ups people receive, which is why I’ve always been in favour of high taxes on the wealthy to help pay for lower taxes and better public services such as schools and hospitals for the poor

miss pink
miss pink
4 months ago
Reply to  Chris Mochan

But being part of a community or specific group has its benefits. I remember my mother who was from Belfast, talking about the shipyard workers and how proud they were of being part of such an enterprise. Does the modern approach of doing better and succeeding lead to a more fulfilling life? What’s so wonderful about both parents having to work full time? Having to ‘get somewhere’ and ‘do something with your life’ sounds very stressful and demanding. The drive for ‘success’ means you are not allowed just to ‘be’ – a husband, a decent person, a golfer or whatever, who is part of a family and a wider community. I’m nearly 66 and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up!

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I am not sure that this is actual evidence that these effects are due to the wealth of the parents though. There is good evidence that people born to higher class parents who found themselves in lower class families and vice versa end up reverting to what would be expected of them had they stayed within their original family. Maybe, shock, genetics also has something to do with it.

Peter B
Peter B
4 months ago

However much we might like genetics not to be a factor (most of us instinctively recoil from that), we may well discover in the next few decades that it is. Science doesn’t care about “fairness” – it just is what it is.
It may well be that “equality” and “fairness” are not just too expensive and destructive (of freedom) but actually impossible to achieve – i.e. not just practically impossible, but theoretically so.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
4 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

I believe some people are born cleverer, more athletic etc than others, and there’s nothing we can do to change that which is why equality of outcome is an impossible goal and not one we should aspire to anyway even if it wasn’t. However when it comes to financial advantages I just think there’s a lot more that can be done to reduce those so those born to poorer backgrounds have a chance of making it to the top than they do currently

Peter B
Peter B
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Agree to that extent, given that is is socially desirable that the most able people get to do the most important (from a wealth generation standpoint) jobs and doing nothing to assist the less well off living in areas with usually poorer schools won’t get us there. But this is [mainly] a pragmatic rather than ideological question for me.
On the other hand, while there certainly is some “wasted talent” today and some people in jobs they do not merit, I’m not convinced it’s nearly as much as the diehard equality/fairness lobby suggest.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
4 months ago

Perhaps also, the better educated seem to be able to evaluate cause and effect rather better eg ‘I better not have kids till I can afford that – and perhaps not too many’ or ‘I better get a house ASAP because that is the only way to safeguard wealth” etc etc – those born to the above tend to learn those things rather better than those born to less ‘aware’ parents.

Henry Ganteaume
Henry Ganteaume
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

And the myth of meritocracy goes further than that. Michael Sandel’s Tyranny of Merit is a brilliant expose on the subject.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

When will so many of you actually understand that social class had had nothing whatsoever to do with employment? It is such a deluded aspirant middle class obsession, that sits neatly with their chip on the shoulder about those who have that they the cannot buy…. but, actually the Victorian system allowed you to… I endured so many of these parent purulent non-entities whilst my daughters were at prep and public school…at least they provided me and my mates with something to laugh at at school dances, with their faux red non tie bow ties, fake wing collars, and over tight ” tea suits”: they always took these excuse for dinner jackets off when they ate, and as their wives became more inebriated, they also became more licentious towards us ” posh”, so annoying their toylittemenfolk!!!

Guy Pigache
Guy Pigache
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Or the advantage of having books at home, or a mum who helps with your homework, or a Dad who takes in an interest in your life or or or … Where do you stop in trying to level down against “advantage”. The lowest common denominator

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
4 months ago
Reply to  Guy Pigache

Never. If Billy Bob were to attain his ambition of closing all the good schools and leaving only those that are roughly equally bad, there’d still be inequality of outcome so he’d have to level that down too. Tall people earn more: so let’s drug people in puberty, so their growth is stunted. Good-looking people earn more: so throw acid in their faces so that everyone’s ugly.
Equality is a nasty, envious chimera.

Sue Sims
Sue Sims
4 months ago
Reply to  Jon Redman
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
4 months ago
Reply to  Guy Pigache

I wasn’t arguing for the closing down of private schools, merely using them to highlight my argument that meritocracy is nonsense. As you say there are many advantages some people are given in life, and it’s not feasible to remove them all.
What has always jarred me though is when people try to claim that everybody who is at the top (or bottom) are there solely on their own merits when most of us can see this clearly isn’t the case. I’ve usually heard it used as an argument against the wealthy paying higher taxes by saying you’d be penalising peoples success and hard work, whereas Ive seen too many wealthy kids start higher up the corporate ladder than most people will ever finish simply because of their family contacts to believe this is the case.
I’ve never argued for equality of outcome, merely for better funded public services to make the lives of those stuck at the bottom a little easier.
At least the old aristocracy knew they were born lucky, unlike the current caste

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

And that’s why my son in law has just asked me to review private schools for my grandson. Private education is a great indicator of future success. I succeeded in a big standard comprehensive but that was probably luck and character.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
4 months ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

I actually believe social mobility has decreased to be honest. At least when you were a youngster the grammar schools gave working class kids a route into the upper echelons, and polytechnics, funded evening classes and well funded apprenticeships were available. Much have these have long since disappeared due to ideology on the part of grammar schools and lack of funding for the rest.
The main problem with the grammar school system was never the grammar schools themselves, more the fact the comprehensives for those that didn’t get in were truly awful and essentially threw millions who didn’t pass the 11+ onto the scrap heap

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I’ve always thought the measurement was simply to do better than your parents. My ancestors were dirt poor farm peasants up to 3 generations ago. My parents were the first in the family to buy their own house (thanks Maggie) through sheer hard work, sacrifice and aspirating for their children. We didn’t have a lot growing up, for sure, but we had food on the table, a roof over our heads and a succession of rust-ridden cars. Our one big holiday was 2 weeks at a Hoseasons holiday camp in 1980, most years it was a day trip to Hayling Island, Swanage or Marwell Zoo. And that was OK. I was the first to go to university. I’m not well off but I’m paying off my house and doing ok. I have a nice 4 yo Honda with heated leather seats and have travelled to places my parents couldn’t dream of I think that’s a remarkable rise in fortunes within less than 75 years. Just because I’m not earning millions as a CEO doesn’t mean a lack of success or meritocracy I just think people are being too short term in their perspective. They think we should all get everything we want, now. Well perhaps that CEO did get a leg up thanks to his background, but at some point in history a leap or two was made because I bet his ancestors weren’t all high flyers. What does it mean to be human except the notion of passing down whatever benefits you can to your offspring?? In a society as old as ours some families have had hundreds of years to build up that ‘privilege’. If you’re a first generation immigrant from Somalia who doesn’t speak English I think it would be rather unrealistic to think you’d be a CEO and it’s nothing to do with race or lack of opportunity or whatever. It’s just unrealistic. But 3 or 4 generations down the line their kids might be doing OK. To expect an instant middle class life as a right is frankly ludicrous.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
4 months ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

The young today however are the first ones since records began predicted to be financially worse off than the generation preceding them, which would imply the system was rather broken would it not?

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Personally, I think the system may be broken because the number of pathways to success have been greatly reduced. Almost every child has to go to college now. As a college teacher myself, I can tell you that much of education is about conforming to rules and ideology rather than being independent and innovative. In fact the education system itself contributes greatly to young people’s learned helplessness. Another phenomenon which adds to this is lack of free-range play. Many educators mistakenly believe that learning can only take place at a school or college, but seriously undervalue the skills children learn from getting into fights, scrapes, and adventures with their friends outdoors. As such, this is making young people increasingly dependent on authority figures who teach them that the world is an evil place.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
4 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

I agree with you on both points, the closing down of many polytechnics and adult education centres was always going to hurt those at the bottom more than those at the top. This left many with a choice of university and the associated debt or a dead end minimum wage job with many understandably choosing the former.
I don’t believe in equality of outcome, I don’t think it’s a healthy goal in society. What I do believe in is providing services for those who haven’t been born into families able to give them an advantage in life, to be able to earn a decent living. I think this blind belief in meritocracy and everybody is where they deserve to be is as idiotic as the old class system, as I believe many of those at the top today are there largely because of the families they were born into, exactly the same as it’s always been

Peter B
Peter B
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

It’s certainly far from clear that Justin Webb’s career is a result of meritocracy – private education, father a broadcaster, inherited house in Bath from his mother.
We need more meritocracy, not less. And fewer hereditary/nepotistic jobs in the media which is riddled with them.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
4 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

And for more meritocracy we need to make it easier for those from poor families to succeed, which can’t be done without well funded public services such as education

Peter B
Peter B
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I would agree that more can be done here. But it doesn’t all have to be through tax and “central planning”. For example, some of the clearly well-educated readers here (I include myself here) could put some voluntary effort (later in their careers when they have more time) into helping disadvantaged children. I just hope the public sector doesn’t act like a closed shop and try to prevent this.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
4 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

That would be fine if there were armies of volunteers willing to give up their time and money to give a leg up to those that otherwise wouldn’t have one, but the cynic in me somehow doubts this would be the case. Maybe they could be utilised more be teaching part time at polytechnics etc I don’t know, but without funding I simply don’t believe it would happen at any sort of scale as to make a difference

Carol Forshaw
Carol Forshaw
4 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Just to point out that Justin Webb never met his father. The whole subject was only mentioned once when his father was on television and his mother stated that the presenter was Justin’s father. That hardly seems to have been any sort of advantage for the young boy, as he was at the time.

Peter B
Peter B
4 months ago
Reply to  Carol Forshaw

Thanks, that’s a fair point (which I wasn’t aware of).

Alison Tyler
Alison Tyler
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Meritocracy, also fails to take account of random good fortune, inate ability, and all sorts of accidental issues like being in the right place at the right time, chance meetings and inspiration.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
4 months ago
Reply to  Alison Tyler

Good luck plays a massive part, more than most people care to admit.
An example is a mate of mine, works as a drain layer and now worth a few quid. He’ll tell everybody how he’s self made, and everything he’s got is entirely down to his own hard work. What he always neglects to mention is the fact his wife is the daughter of one of the largest drainage firms in the area.
The father in law put him through his apprenticeship, and when my mate went out on his own he threw loads of work his way, gave him the use of machines, a lend of labour etc, advantages he wouldn’t have had in any normal given situation, but he flat out refuses to believe that all that played any part on him now being reasonably wealthy. He has the attitude of “if I can do it anybody can!”

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

This has been an interesting thread to follow. Can I throw in something at a tangent.

If we accept your thesis that those at the top should pay more tax to fund good public services (and I do) how do we pay much more attention to the efficiency of these public services?

The original comment identifying the public sector caste, noted it’s lack of accountability. I would recommend Hilary Cottam’s Radical Help for a great insight into how disadvantaged communities can help themselves and how the various arms of the state actively hinder that. This was certainly my experience as chair of a small charity trying to integrate services with local mental health provision. The complete disconnect of the bureaucracy, with the people they were supposed to serve, was quite nauseating.

Back to the caste system (which I thought a very interesting insight) the gap between the working caste and the public sector caste is being widened as the latter also becomes a woke clerisy. It’s going to get increasingly difficult to persuade the one to fund the other and probably rightly so.

You’re right your drainage friend started with significant advantages, but then clearly made the best of them. His success (like anybody else’s) is therefore a complex mixture of factors. How do we as a society decide how much he should contribute to the common weal and convince him that it’s fair and will be well spent?

Last edited 4 months ago by Martin Bollis
Peter LR
Peter LR
4 months ago

I had the chance to change from ‘no car, one wage’ working class roots to middle class via Grammar School and Uni but couldn’t stand the disingenuous theatre of middle class attitudes and socialising.
Mind you the 70s was when I saw through socialism: trying to bring up a young family with the Unions acting like autocrats and Labour junking the economy. Blair’s version was even worse with its “we know best” social engineering via legislation. Now we have the SNP version: masking kids and sawing off classroom doors! But has Boris, who was a 70s kid, caught the socialist virus too?

Last edited 4 months ago by Peter LR
Warren T
Warren T
4 months ago
Reply to  Peter LR

Very well said.
I too, came from a lower class background, I was able to rise into the middle level somehow, but came to find the condescending, fad-chasing lifestyle abhorrent and distasteful. So now I am happy to live well below my means, interact with real people and give money away to charity. (and enjoy good wine on occasion)

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
4 months ago

Do you know, I clicked on this article with a clenched jaw, fully expecting the republican spirit in me to be roiled. Instead, I read with interest a nuanced, balanced and thoroughly human reflection on social change.
This sort of thing is why I read UnHerd.

Jacob Mason
Jacob Mason
4 months ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Amen. I feel quite the same.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
4 months ago

This is not, of course, a reason to bring it all back. The kow-towing, the secondary moderns, the manual jobs with no prospects, the judges (and the politicians) who all went to Eton.

I enjoyed this article, but I struggled with this bit: with the implicit idea that any of this ever went away.
The kow-towing is still there, but we now just kow-tow to different elites – gays, lesbians, race hucksters, environmental whackjobs, gender lunatics.
All schools are now secondary moderns, since the introduction of GCSEs and the education blob’s determination to ensure all schools are about equally bad.
The manual jobs with no prospects – metal-bashing in car factories and whatnot – now instead involve packing Amazon boxes, making cappuccinos and manning call centre telephones; they’re still manual and still lack prospects.
The judges and politicians may no longer all have gone to Eton, but they aren’t any less identikit for it; look at the Supreme Court versus Brexit. After Nigel Farage, the man most successful at getting his policies adopted without being elected to power is clearly Ed Miliband, whose net zero, smart meter and price cap policies have all been adopted by a nominally opposed Conservative government. How is this less homogeneity of outlook than in the past?
You could read this across to almost anything. Seventies TV comedy was Bernard Manning and On The Buses. Today’s sneering, foul-mouthed rant acts that pass for comedy are every bit as offensive, but they’re offensive to those people who it’s now OK to offend, just like Seventies TC comedy was.
The Seventies had to come and go and be succeeded by something obviously, gloriously better in order for us to appreciate its true awfulness. I think that’s where we are again, and that the era from 2008 to 2030 or so will come to be recognised in due course as a cyclically-due, horrid period of cultural bleakness and intellectual poverty, like the rule of the Puritans, or between the wars, or the Seventies.

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
4 months ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

You will be delighted to hear that Eton*is rapidly turning itself into a ‘Secondary Mod’, thanks to its current leadership.
In short the ‘Woke’ have triumphed. Vae Victis!

(* A large school overlooked by Windsor Castle for American readers & others. )

Dominic A
Dominic A
4 months ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Indeed. Take this:

This is the logic: Granny was not working-class because she was not. So when she did working-class things they were not working-class. When working-class people did those things, they were. Got it? Yep. I grimace too. I cannot defend the attitudes my mother had. 

And invert it – so a miner asserts that he’s working class even though he’s playing Mozart. Or a white person listening to Reggae, claims he is nonetheless, not a Rasta. No problem, no indefensible attitudes. Strange.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
4 months ago

This is true, or at least matches my experience (as a former working class lad born in the 70s, sadly “elevated” after decades working in a middle class profession.). I think near all of us liked our working class identities when they were more of a thing back in the 70s & 80s. The few times we discussed class explicitly, we all said we preferred interacting with upper class folks or fellow working class rather than the middle. Back in the 90s, I seem to recall middle class culture warriors were able to recruit quite a few working class folk who shared their inverse snobbery & preference for classlessness – though Id say those were people who werent deeply rooted in actual working class culture.

Last edited 4 months ago by Adam Bartlett
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
4 months ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

I always found the same. The true upper class are great, properly away with the fairies most of them and generally treated people as they found them. It was the middle class that looked down on those below them, at least that was my experience of it anyway

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Yes, and as well as sometimes being away with the fairies, they tend to more often share our earthiness & physical recklesness, compared with the middle. Apparently this is a thing in the US too. Trump is seen as upper class by many over there – as he himself said in an interview he felt more affinity with taxi drivers & other working class folk compared with middle class. JD Vance & several other journalists talked about the working <> upper class connection as one of the reasons for his success in 2016. (Not all of them agreed the Donald is upper class himself, but some of them saw it that way.)

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
4 months ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

Who here thought President Trump “upper class”? Long before he became president, well before his TV show, SPY magazine in the late 80s dubbed him a “short-fingered vulgarian”. His penchant for flash was well-known and sneered at. He named one of his daughters Tiffany! The reason he was such a popular and successful president is the same reason the ruling class needed to get rid of him: he was effective because he wasn’t one of them (and none of them have ANY class).

Warren T
Warren T
4 months ago

And he spoke what was on his mind, versus carefully crafted BS from a teleprompter. I don’t know any blokes who speak with the use of a teleprompter.

Mike Wylde
Mike Wylde
4 months ago

He thought himself upper class.A lot of how you see others is based on how you see yourself. The upper class often seem (and commonly are) vulgar to the middle class but will treat the working man as an equal. It’s just the middle class (especially the upper middle class) who consider themselves superior to the workers but subservient to the upper class that they long to belong to – but know they never will because it’s not oney that gets you there, it’s centuries of just being.

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
4 months ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

Fran Lebowitz said it best: Trump is the poor man’s idea of a rich man.

Iris C
Iris C
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Reminds me of the sketch with John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett,. which was funny because it was true! (For those who don’t remember it, the middle-sized, middle-class Ronnie Barker looked up to the tall, upper class, John Cleese and down at the shorter, working class Ronnie Corbett – who knew his place!

Karl Francis
Karl Francis
4 months ago
Reply to  Iris C

I remember that sketch.

Karl Francis
Karl Francis
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

True.

David Morley
David Morley
4 months ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

Yes – it seems almost universal. If your background is working class, the middle classes (taken in general) are hard to like.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
4 months ago

I think tech has altered the equation. Not so many info barriers. You don’t have to know someone’s father as much. Our parents dirt poor. Wife and I first to Uni in family then public services. Did ok but not wealthy. Our kids: good state schools but not public school networks but then Uni then tech entrepreneurs. Who you know? Yes but internationally across platforms. What you know? Definitely in their world of Bayesian logic. Now they’re wealthy- properties, stocks etc as well as businesses. Obviously left hidebound UK through choice for Finland and Singapore. Both highly contrasting places but neither place gives much of a damn about class.

Last edited 4 months ago by Terence Fitch
Peter LR
Peter LR
4 months ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

Interesting, Terence, all my kids have higher wages than I ever did without any uplift from social privilege – definitely meritocracy combined with conscientious hard work.

Ian Moore
Ian Moore
4 months ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

Thing is the tech industry was new, now it is entrenched with the major players controlling everything, meaning you will see the nepotism, cronyism etc crawling in more and more. You only have to look at the shenanigans going on in places like Twitter and Google to see this evidence.

Last edited 4 months ago by Ian Moore
Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
4 months ago
Reply to  Ian Moore

Fair point but still more opportunities than old boy school tie days as in Law profession etc. Simply being able to find out info and easier cheaper foreign travel. Scouring newspapers for jobs and writing letters of application! Massive drag factors in the past. Mustn’t be naive and downsides include misnformation but, for example, looking up a course at MIT and writing to course admin or finding out from students on a course how to get past barriers etc? Easy. You just need initiative.

R Wright
R Wright
4 months ago

Most people now think they are middle class because of a university degree, despite their real wages having collapsed so much since the 1980s that a tradesman earns three times their prestige desk job and can actually afford the necessary accoutrements to that lifestyle. The so-called middle class can’t even afford to send its offspring to private school now.

Last edited 4 months ago by R Wright
Alex Stonor
Alex Stonor
4 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

The trades being properly paid is a good development.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
4 months ago

Is it just me who finds people from middle class families romanticising the class system suspicious? I can see how it might be good for the benefit of a mediocre hack to have that class cushion to fall on, but my experience of people in my own family with ability who were trapped in a working class existence was far from ‘psychologically comforting’.

Warren T
Warren T
4 months ago

It’s interesting to point out that many people from the UK or Western Europe talk about being “trapped” in a working class existence, which may be very real. However, in the U.S., it has been a very long time since people were “trapped” anywhere on the socio-economic ladder. Football players now make more in one season than most people make in a lifetime. Someone with a 6th grade education can become an social media millionaire over night. A high school dropout can buy a little bitcoin from his single mom’s basement and wind up with millions.
This is one reason why class distinctions (from an economic perspective) have almost been obliterated in the U.S. and the focus has shifted to racial equity.
Most high end restaurants or jewelry stores don’t really care how you received your money as long as you have it, and they will treat you like royalty if you do have it. But this has led to issues. Upscale restaurants now have to post their dress and conduct codes at their entrances and online, as so many people with money, but absolutely no idea of class, show up at these establishments in their gym clothes and flip flops, to the chagrin of the regular guests.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
4 months ago
Reply to  Warren T

I was talking about 70-80 years ago, not today. I don’t think anyone is trapped now – thanks to the Great Satan Thatcher wickedly giving working class people a chance to improve their lot when they should have gratefully wallowed in poverty for the benefit of the paternalist classes. And they haven’t been for a long time, which is part of the point of the article.

Last edited 4 months ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
4 months ago
Reply to  Warren T

Or: is a focus on racial equity the very means to disguising the skewing of wealth (i.e., “class distinctions from an economic perspective”)? Also, the sort of new money faux pas you describe is not new — but would there be more of this, or less, with skewing toward 1%/99%?

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
4 months ago

What a very interesting and thoughtful piece.
The author skated out onto very thin ice, given the subject matter, yet managed to get back to solid ground without falling through.
So unusual to read something about class that was neither whiny nor bitter.

David Morley
David Morley
4 months ago

Even worse, of course, is a society in which everyone is given the illusion that their success or otherwise is wholly down to them – but the stats tell a different story.
We do, after all, still live in a world in which some can’t afford a home (or to heat it) while others have second homes somewhere nice and warm. And if you want to meet their kids, go to one of the “better” universities.

Ian Moore
Ian Moore
4 months ago

This kind of article reminds me of countless social media posts “money doesn’t buy happiness” etc. It maybe doesn’t, but it certainly helps and if not for the material then for the being able to have a full stomach, a steady job and a good night’s sleep not worrying about bills. No matter what the author says class is a bigger problem to most than racism, sexism or any of the other popular isms.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
4 months ago
Reply to  Ian Moore

As someone once said “money may not buy you happiness, but at least you can be miserable in comfort”

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
4 months ago

Whoever said money can’t buy happiness didn’t know where to shop.

rodney foy
rodney foy
4 months ago
Reply to  Ian Moore

As far as I know, the idea that money can’t buy happiness isn’t strictly true

Alex Stonor
Alex Stonor
4 months ago
Reply to  Ian Moore

I was married to a rich man once and I could buy anything I wanted; it didn’t make up for the other gaps and it didn’t make me happy. The adage should read ‘Once money has paid the bills, it doesn’t make you happy’.

rodney foy
rodney foy
4 months ago
Reply to  Alex Stonor

That is bound to be closer to the truth. Also, I think that if people around you are richer, then more money will make you happier

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
4 months ago
Reply to  rodney foy

Money is like sex or oxygen: only important IFYOURENOTGETTINGANY!

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
4 months ago

Well, the photograph of the revolutionary industrial activity at the top shows a very un-Georgian part of England, for sure. The working-class community living in the shadow of such activity must have felt much more a world-apart from their kind living in “an unfashionable, un-Georgian corner of Bath”. To live in an unfashionable, unGeorgian part of Bath must seem like an embarrassment (or once did, I imagine) – to those ensconced in Georgian Bath. But not to those who actually live (or once did) in the rough end of town. They have (or did have) … dignity, I guess. They may have had their children at Sunday School during church. I don’t know the history of Bath, have never been there, so I imagine (if I may). But I imagine that the unfashionably unGeorgian could see right through Mrs Bucket-of-Keeping-Up-Appearances types who made a big show of being on the right side of town.

Had it been easier to be working-class in Bath if one had had dreams of moving up in the world? Rather than living in the working-class districts of the industrial north with the same dreams of escape? Hailing from Bath might have been a good thing in that regard.

What class was the sweet-wine-drinking lady? Well, she was educated. Had been to music lessons, let me rephrase, had studied music in Belgium. (The Brontë sisters’ only trip abroad had been to be educated in Brussels). She was well bred.

In several episodes of the American TV series from the Sixties, The Fugitive, the character of Dr Richard Kimble, the doctor-on-the-rum, the run, rather, is found out, in the middle of one of his many manual temporary jobs, by a colleague (usually boss): “I know an educated man when I see one” was the typical refrain. The subtext in America was that education defined the man. The doctor had a very ordinary background, in the mid-West. He had a good family, and was able to blend in wherever he pitched up.

But class too easily defined the man back in the UK. One’s origins had too much of a stranglehold on one’s self. Some working-class Brits made it big in the USA, in the end. Actors. In America, anybody could be aspirational whatever way they wanted to be.

Ironically, the sweet-wine-drinking lady may have made off to the basic caf in Seventies Bath in order to avoid bumping into other friends or acquaintances in the town proper. If so, were they just not her cup of tea? The caf that she visited was just the sort of place that would have appealed enough to Rumpole of the Bailey, that eternal stout defender in law of the weak and downtrodden. His favourite watering hole near his offices at the Inns of Courts was Pomeroy’s pub. He had been mere “ground staff” during WW2, in the RAF. But he was also boarding-school educated, on the windy Norfolk coast. But his judge’s daughter wife, Hilda, would never have been seen in Pomeroy’s. Rumpole was an ITV production, I recall.

Anyway, a cafeteria is a cafeteria is a cafeteria. Especially if not part of a chain organisation where every establishment is just the same. A one big homogenous whole. Perhaps in Bath-prosperous, the trendy establishments only served semi-skimmed milk. But in the uglier part they served full-cream milk only. Better for the coffee is full cream. Also, perhaps the greasy spoon cafes and working men’s cafeterias did not have Radio 1 on blasting Showadawaddy or Suzi Quattro music. Maybe Radio 4, from a little old radio on a counter top. But there used to be no music played: a refuge from noise.

It would seem the paradox of meritocracy affects the educated, the dignified, the well-off and the titled as much as the working class and the poor. The bigger you apparently are, the harder you fall, after all. Nobody wants to have too many grand notions about themselves. Are there people left after failure whom you can have a cuppa with? That is, I suppose, the question these days. Does one have to gravitate to a different tribe in such circumstances?

David Lewis
David Lewis
4 months ago

Meritocracy is often cited as a self-evidently ‘Good Thing’. But Justin Webb makes an important point here. In a perfect meritocracy, if I have failed, it must be because I have no merit. Who could live with such a brutal conclusion?

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
4 months ago
Reply to  David Lewis

It’s not that bad. I once worked for a boss who told me that I needed to come to terms with my own mediocrity. It jolted me (in a good way) and I promptly quit my job and went on to something much better. Had I stayed there, I would have proven him right.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
4 months ago
Reply to  David Lewis

But then again what of those who could have suceeded bit don’t because someone else’s birthright is considered more important than their talent. How os that any less brutal?

Both are equally brutal, just to different people.

Of course outside that wherther society rewards mediocrity or excellence has a great effect on the health of civilisation as a brief perusal of various intellectual and artistic golden ages suggests. Unfortunately our society is increasingly dominated by the worship of the pedestrian and dull mind.

Last edited 4 months ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Rosemary Throssell
Rosemary Throssell
4 months ago

So sensitively written, thank you and it’s great to see you on this platform.

Dominic A
Dominic A
4 months ago

Class, race, gender etc are problematic to the extent that someone confuses them with worth, rather than identity. One is deplorable snobbery, the other just a natural facet of character/tribe. The difference between a person claiming, ‘because I say loo rather than toilet, I am a superior type of person’ – rather than, ‘that I say toilette rather than toilet shows that I am French’.

James Chater
James Chater
4 months ago

Yes we are talking about snobbery – its inverted version being no less bitterly ridiculous. As a child I could only watch BBC TV, sit on a ‘sofa’ or use the ‘lavatory’. And an adult female was always a ‘woman’, never a ‘lady’ – she never used ‘perfume’ only ‘scent’. Thankfully, I went to a mixed, charity-established -‘foundling’ hospital – boarding school. Though very old and unprogressive, it wasn’t made up of rich kids. Subsequently most of my best friends were working class origin – proud, direct and usually very industrious and often wealthier.
The 60s and 70s were very good in so many ways…

Last edited 4 months ago by James Chater
Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
4 months ago

Interesting as to how many erstwhile Quakers made fortunes in the late 19th and early 20th century, and gained hereditary titles…. and the Quakerdom melted like ice on a stove, as the estates, Eton and The Household Division became the norm….

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
4 months ago

It is not called The Society of Friends for nothing.
Are you sure about the Household Division? They may have embraced greed, but many maintain their pacifism.

Last edited 4 months ago by SULPICIA LEPIDINA
Liz Walsh
Liz Walsh
4 months ago

As a descendant of Friends from the earliest days to my mother’s generation (although they early on saw the landowning possibilities in the Colonies and moved there) I always, however vestigially, take remarks on Quakers and Quakerism a little personally. I remember reading, somewhere, “…Rum thing about Quakers. One so rarely meets poor ones…” Point taken, although that is not necessarily bad. However The Society of Friends is a useful microcosm for seeing the operations of class/caste, in the Anglo-American tradition. Having renounced worldly “class” as a matter of theology, they constructed over the generations a more ostensibly elevated but also more cryptic caste system, a hybrid made of public purity and fidelity to founding traditions and “successful stewardship” of the world’s goods. Again, not necessarily a bad thing, just human. I don’t think any human, anywhere, takes naturally to playing tennis with the nets down! We will take even micro-differences if we have to, just to be able to feel differences. There is reassurance there, a convenient excuse when needed, and most importantly a sense of identity we can never get from the generic off-the-rack set of government-issued aspirations. (And as for the author’s grandmother, I wonder if her genteel education combined with her scarce funds had not in fact informed a sensible choice to drink a fortified wine — one gets a bit more “bang per buck”) It seems to me that what is called “class” is merely a system of values, underlain by economic rationale. When the particular economic set decays, the secondary expressions begin to disintegrate and disperse. But the fundamental, primary value constellations will rise again, as they are part of human nature, which will never change. That’s fine, too. Vive le difference!.

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
4 months ago

I feel very strongly that we have to differentiate between our social environment, which provides us with a frame of ethical reference and an emotional home, and that same environment being viewed a confining us in an identity. The first is fine, even necessary; the second must be rejected.
I believe a key element that has gone wrong in society is the notion that to liberate the individual, both aspects must be destroyed. That has led to a society marked by free-floating anxiety and individual alienation and isolation, and so depriving those who need it most of the firm grounding needed to take advantage of the welcome destruction of the second.

Bill W
Bill W
4 months ago

My father was an officer in the military but with a family bigger than 2.2 kids we were really quite hard up compared to the working class let alone the middle class kids at my state school. But with the benefit of rose tinted hindsight, the 70s look great even though I know they weren’t in so many respects compared to today (mainly material to be honest). And we had so much more freedom in those days. You could take risks and have adventures in a way you cannot today.

Last edited 4 months ago by Bill W
Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
4 months ago

If I can conceive it, and believe it, I can achieve it. And if somehow I do it’s only my own damned fault; but if somehow I don’t it’s only my own damned fault. At bottom Horatio Alger is really quite cruel.

Dan Croitoru
Dan Croitoru
4 months ago

It’s incredibly simple: if you must work for a living you are working class. It doesn’t really matter if you work in tech or as a journalist. You are working class. If you inherited, married into wealth and you work practicing your hobbies you are middle class. This is about the only thing Marx got it right.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
4 months ago
Reply to  Dan Croitoru

Yes of course we must accept your idiosyncratic definition of class as gospel. I will make sure to write this down.

Dan Croitoru
Dan Croitoru
4 months ago

No problem -stick with your definition if that helps you become financially independent.

William Shaw
William Shaw
4 months ago

What twaddle.
You’re overthinking it… probably for financial reasons.

Sean Meister
Sean Meister
4 months ago

Class was always just a stand in for meritocracy which was just a way to explain societal IQ distribution.