by Lisa McKenzie
Thursday, 16
June 2022
Reaction
11:49

Stop pretending to be working-class

Britain is still a caste-ridden society, especially in higher education
by Lisa McKenzie
They haven’t read much Bourdieu. (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

British higher education has been hijacked by the middle-class. Since tuition fees were raised in 2012 our universities have become ever more elitist. Working class mature students — as I was, when I first attended university — are increasingly absent. Higher education badly misses their life experience and creativity, especially in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

I came to university as one of those mature, working-class students. In 2001, straight from Access course, I arrived at the University of Nottingham. At the time I was one of the few local undergraduates and one of the only mothers — still experiences that are fairly unique in the Russell Group. My course was free to me at the time because I was on low wages. It would now cost over £3000.

My first year was very difficult. The language, the system, and the other students were far away from anything I had encountered before. It never became any easier — but I did begin to learn. Isn’t that the whole point of education? I started to understand my class position, and inequality, in a new way.

In my second year I was introduced to the French theorist Pierre Bourdieu. He was a giant of a sociologist, who thought and wrote in a complex language. Bourdieu spent his life untangling how social class works within a capitalist society and especially how ‘taste’ and cultural distinctions play out amongst classes.

His work explains how we are judged and valued — not only by how much wealth we have, but, more importantly, the ways working-class people are devalued through their cultural tastes. What music they listen to, what they watch on television, how they dress and how they speak and their accents — Bourdieu opened the debate about how culture plays a part in hidden class ‘natural’ distinctions. Many working-class scholars have read Bourdieu and instinctively grasped his arguments. For almost 20 years his work has been crucial in understanding the hidden injuries of class.

Britain is a far from classless society. Accent discrimination is an indestructible part of our social intercourse, according to a study released this week by the British Academy.There is widespread evidence, according to reports, that working-class students are mocked for their accents at the UK’s top universities. My own experiences at Nottingham were far from unique, and that was almost 20 years ago. The situation has only become worse since then.

The British Left’s response to all this has been pathetic. Recall public-school educated Tribune columnist Grace Blakeley’s attempts to redefine class last year: “No matter what your accent or education, if you’re forced to work in a call centre, you’re working-class.” A fairly jaw-dropping thing to hear if you’re working-class.

My question is — why are the middle class, especially those who see themselves on the Left, so desperate to change the terms of the class debate? In other words, why would the middle class want their privileged positions to be out of sight? Leftists like Blakeley desperately want to show class has changed, even as Britain’s peculiar fetish for it remains alive and kicking in our universities. If they read Bourdieu they would at least have some self-awareness. They would understand that far from reclassifying class, they are attempting to make their own privileges appear natural.

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N Forster
N Forster
1 month ago

Some on the Left are desperate to redefine the working class. Doing so allows them to deny and dismiss the work of people like Prof. Matt Goodwin. 

Goodwin observed the shrinking working class vote under Blairs’ New Labour and predicted the shift of the British working class vote from Labour to indifference and abstention, then to Ukip and then to Tory. He presented his work to Milibands’ Labour, who ignored it, and to the Tories, who put it to work.

So when it was clear (as predicted by Goodwin) that a substantial section of the working class voted Tory in 2019, the response of the vocal left was to argue the toss about who the working class really were.

A period of self reflection would have been more useful.

By redefining the parameters, you get to deny the reality that many working class did indeed vote Tory. You get to write off millions of voters as ageing racist reactionaries, and you get to recast the working class as educated progressives. In the process you get to ignore that the Left was always an uneasy but necessary collation between progressive minded university educated middle class types and more socially conservative working class voters.

Self ID is an interesting topic – Some on the Left are more inclined to believe a primary school child can self identify as the opposite sex, or that a man can be a woman because he says so, but get very uncomfortable if a 50 year old who bought their council house and voted Tory in the last election self identifies as working class. 

Last edited 1 month ago by N Forster
Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 month ago
Reply to  N Forster

Incisive comment.

Pamplemousse LaCroix
Pamplemousse LaCroix
1 month ago

A few years ago I read a really fascinating book called Social Class in the 21st Century by Mark Savage. He and his team were responsible for the Great British Class Survey from a few years ago, and they argue that traditional ideas of class divisions – working, middle, aristocracy – are out of date in 21st-century Britain, and that we need to move towards a new model.
Their proposed model uses the accumulations of different types of capital – economic, social, and cultural – to sort people into seven categories, from the ‘precariat’ at the bottom to the ‘elite’ at the top. A thoroughly fascinating examination of class in 21st-century Britain and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in these issues.
In answer to the question: being ‘middle class’ is associated with being white and well off, which to many on the left immediately equals ‘being a bad person’. There is nothing more passé than being higher up the oppression pyramid, so hand-wringing leftists must confect mental models wherein they are, in fact, the oppressed. Hence the redefinition of things like ‘working class’ to include ‘anyone with a job’ (I have a job! I’m oppressed!) and ‘women’ to include ‘anyone’ (I’m anyone! So intersectional!). The only sort of oppression hierarchy they haven’t been able to redefine out of existence is that of race. ‘Identifying’ as black doesn’t get you very far.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
1 month ago

“why are the middle class, especially those who see themselves on the Left, so desperate [for] their privileged positions to be out of sight?”
It’s a head-scratcher, that’s for sure!

Keith J
Keith J
1 month ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

It sure is a head scratcher. There are no points in the oppression Olympics for being working class – other than a few universities skewing their admissions policies to encourage applicants from poorer backgrounds. Maybe that’s why pretending to be prolier than thou has taken off in academia – they want the best chances for their kids to follow them. 

N Forster
N Forster
1 month ago
Reply to  Keith J

By redefining themselves as working class, and redefining older working class people like me as middle class, they get to continue the long held middle class tradition of telling the working class that they need to be better educated. But this time, they can claim to be “punching up.”
As ever, sophistry at play…

Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
1 month ago
Reply to  Keith J

“… prolier than thou …”. That phrase alone serves a tick on its own merits. There’s a new class in UK and the western ‘democracies’ generally. The ‘Woking Class’,

Guy Holme
Guy Holme
1 month ago
Reply to  Keith J

prolier than thou”… beaut. Thanks.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 month ago

If you solely live by your labour, that has always been (one) perfectly reasonable definition of ‘working class’.

Keith J
Keith J
1 month ago

So if the middle classes are now claiming to be working class, then how do they view those of us lower down the social order? Not as working class, but as an underclass. And because the (real) working classes do not buy into the woke ideologies, increasingly it seems like they see us as an underclass that refuses to adhere to social norms and should therefore be ignored. This started some time ago when the word ch*v became common parlance to describe the lower orders, then gammon after the Brexit vote. After the Brexit vote, some in the social elite (e.g. Dawkins) even seriously argued that the ‘uneducated’ should be denied the vote. It’s therefore not hard to see why so many working class people abandoned the supposed party of the working class at the last election and voted tory – one of the reasons being that Boris has never demonised us, talked-down to us or patronised us. Keep this up and the tories will do just fine at the next election.  

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 month ago
Reply to  Keith J

This downwardly mobile upper class twit completely agrees.

Last edited 1 month ago by Drahcir Nevarc
Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
1 month ago

After the financial crash, the political left could no longer afford the welfare policies they’d been relying on to win elections. Fortunately there was a ready made solution to this problem, which had previously existed only on the fringes of academia, in the form of identity politics.

Identity politics allowed the left to reintroduce the concept of the deserving and undeserving poor, excluding the majority of the white working class voters on the grounds of supposed privilege but more plausibly, as it was now unaffordable to include them in their electoral coalition anymore; instead replacing them with an alliance between the upper middle classes and groups of protected identities, who, regardless of actual economic disadvantage, they could funnel money to win votes, but at a price which avoided raising their own taxes.

Since the majority of this electoral coalition are comfortably middle class themselves and indeed own much of their economic success of the last few decades to suppressing the wages of the working classes, it’s unsurprising that it’s efforts have been dedicated to either denigrate or dismiss the working classes altogether.

Last edited 1 month ago by Matthew Powell
Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago

Study a STEM subject if you don’t want to have to waste your time worrying about “class”. The more you work on solving real problems, the less this “class stuff” will matter.
I wouldn’t spend any cycles worrying about what people like Grace Blakeley think or say. If it doesn’t agree with what you think or say, you may well be on the right track !
“Working class” is a label well past it’s sell by date in any case. There is no definition. What does it mean these days ? Plenty of highly paid people work extremely hard. Plenty of less well off people don’t work at all.
If we’re going to waste time labelling people – rather than judging them on their merits (or as I note the author does by school – usually chosen by parents and not children) – let’s at least have some meaningful, defined labels. But the effort would be better spent elsewhere.
Of course, the whole point of these labels in non-STEM subjects is that they never are defined – so the debate can continue ad infinitum and real work avoided.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

Just what I was thinking.

N Forster
N Forster
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

The definition is virtually unchanged from my parents time – Two questions – 1) What is/was your parents occupation? 2) Is it possible to tell from what part of the country you are from when you speak?
Those who claim the labels no longer apply are usually middle class.
In my case – 1) Bus driver and cleaner. 2) Yes.

Last edited 1 month ago by N Forster
Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  N Forster

So why does any of this matter these days ?
And why do people who meet this arbitrary standard get to call themselves “working” – which implies that the rest of us are all undeserving slackers ?
It seems frankly bizarre that we are trying to label people by hereditary factors over which they have no control rather than appreciate their abilities and contributions. What useful purpose does this serve ?
The whole concept seems well past its sell by date.

N Forster
N Forster
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

You’ll be saying we need a functional meritocracy next.
Past its sell by date or not, Class is still very much alive and well, and manifests in todays’ politics and in peoples’ personal interactions. The Brexit vote was split down class lines. As was the voting shift in the last election that gave the Tories their thumping majority.
Our approval or disapproval of the concept is irrelevant – these distinctions still matter. Denying them, pointing out how bizarre they are or trying to reframe them (as some on the Left are trying to do) simply ignores the opportunity we have from ever understanding them let alone tackling the issues class always throws up.
It is the case that the Labour Party is now the party of the educated middle class. This matters, it is a serious problem if they ever wish to be near power again.
As I mentioned prior, it is usually the case that those who wish to dismiss the concept of class are themselves middle class. And it is still rare in Britain today for friendships or relationships to form across class lines.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  N Forster

I have some sympathy with your frustrations and intent, but it’s just nonsense trying to pigeon hole people like this.
Amongst my very well educated middle class friends, around 50% voted for Brexit and I know of none who would touch Labour with a barge pole. It’s just not as simple as you suggest. This sort of simplistic analysis is yet another reason why “remain” still don’t understand why they lost.
It is certainly not a serious problem for me if Labour are never in power again (other than some competent alternative is needed to keep the other side honest).
Falling into your temptation to classify people into simplistic groups, perhaps the Labour party are the party of the educated-to-Dunning-Kruger-level middle class – i.e. not quite educated enough. I’d suggest this is a side effect of the expansion of “university” education. But this may just be my personal prejudice …

N Forster
N Forster
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

As I mentioned prior, it is usually the case that those who wish to dismiss the concept of class are themselves middle class.

Last edited 1 month ago by N Forster
Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 month ago

As Ferdinand Mount shows in the fascinating “Kiss myself Goodbye The many lives of Aunt Munca” class is something that you can, with some effort, identify yourself as something you were not borne to in terms of class. In Aunt Munca’s case from a poverty stricken background she was able to pass as an upper class friend of Prince Edward and Mrs Simpson.
Equally people can enter the working class from an aristocratic background. Many of my wife’s forebears have been northern coal miners but tracing her family tree suggested that in the 18th century a descendant of the Lord Lumley who was killed at Marston Moor and Queen Elizabeth’s spy master Davis lost his estate gambling and the family descended to the working class.
Many of my wife’s tastes are working class and she holds on to them with firm tenacity and has no wish to trade up to any supposedly superior taste. Class is something that you can happily chose for yourself if you consider it important. You just have to learn the relevant codes of behaviour and speech. A study of family history demonstrates how much movement there has always been between the classes. It is just a matter of choosing what you want to identify as. A lot more healthy than trying to change your sex.

Dominic A
Dominic A
1 month ago

Know this. Human beings are hard-wired to make judgements. In fact, all animals are hard-wired to make judgements, automatic or more considered – main difference is that as we are highly social, and complex beings, so are our judgements. The brain makes short-cut decisions – heuristics – to try & make it a bit simpler for us, so we can actually get out of bed and function.

Someone who protests biases, ipso facto, and denies having any, is in denial – and will likely act out this by posturing & shaming – which will just maintain and spread ignorance.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 month ago

class actually has nothing to do with job, or earnings, but can, as the 19th C showed, be changed via the accumulation of capital: Real snobbery these days is rife in middle classes, one generation on from working class, driven by the fear of somehow reverting. My favourite ” test” many years ago in the racing village of Lambourn, was to take people, especially female friends, into the great stable lads pub ” The Malt Shovel”, which I adored, and see how they ” got on”….. and were received, and vice versa…. the middle class snobs were unmasked in minutes…

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 month ago

Ah, yes, ‘The Malt Shovel’, used to be a great pub,but I think it closed a few years ago.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 month ago

Yes, Linda, sadly! Di Dearie was a star!

John Cole
John Cole
1 month ago

The working class can kiss me ar….. I’ve got a lefties MPs job at Larst.

Toby Poynder
Toby Poynder
1 month ago

Pierre Bourdieu “..thought and wrote in a complex language” – how very French. If you can’t convince ’em confound ’em.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 month ago

Academia plunders the public purse. Their main hope of making this state of affairs permanent is to become the gatekeepers of above median income employment. Like any totalitarians, they want to punish those who disagree with their privileged position, their values and their opinions by denying those people employment completely if possible and otherwise at anything other than menial poorly paid work.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 month ago

My favourite quip that confuses the middle classes into quivering apoplexy comes from a certain titled Grenadier Guards Officer, when it was suggested at a Mess Dinner by an RAF Officer, that said aristocrat must surely be a keen golfer.

The Grenadier recoiled in horror and replied ” I took advice from my father, who said that a golf club is merely a S’arnts Mess, but with Jaguars parked outside…”!!!!!!

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
1 month ago

The point of higher education is to stop being working class. You leave your accent on the train.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 month ago

It depends what is meant by working class, if people ask me I tend to say that I come from a working class backgroud, but due to my parents support and encouragement, and my later endeavours I would be hard pushed to call myself working class any more. You are, therefore, correct that one is no longer technically working class, but it’s difficult to leave behind one’s childhood and what one was taught as a child. As far as leaving your accent on the train – why? As long as your speech is clear and coherent, I see no reason for homogonising people at university, and I happen to love hearing different accents.

Mike Smith
Mike Smith
1 month ago

This is how I feel. My father probably thought he was middle class because his father was. But he had a poorly paid job and as a family we were not well off. But the 3 sons got into grammar school and all went to university. So what class am I who still has a slight Midlands accent which I don’t seem to have left on the train. But I know what working class is and I don’t need a fence degree in the humanities to see it. Just ask yourself what is the class of a person who empties your bins.I had to point this out to someone who told me there were no working class people in Cambridge while standing 1 mile away from an area which where they live!

N Forster
N Forster
1 month ago

I think you may have confused higher education with elocution lessons.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 month ago

Surely the maint point at issue here is that terms like ‘working class’ have never had a single one-dimensional meaning, and have always had elements of both economic class and cultural significance.

“No matter what your accent or education, if you’re forced to work in a call centre, you’re working-class.”

I rather think Grace Buckley has the better of the argument there, as would Karl Marx, apart from the absurd and denigratory ‘forced to’, unless ‘working class’ refers to a single set of mass industrial jobs, most of which no longer exist in the UK, and which were always a minority anyway.

Both the reports cited about accent are in The Guardian, which is ‘grievance central’ among newspapers. ‘The situation has only become worse since then’ – with the proliferation of regional accents over the broadcast media, politicians from Blair on routinely ‘talking doen’, does this statement seem remotely plausible?

Last edited 1 month ago by Andrew Fisher