Reclassifying Class in Today's Britain

By Harvey, A. D. | Contemporary Review, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Reclassifying Class in Today's Britain


Harvey, A. D., Contemporary Review


WE are not hearing very much these days about the good old British working class. The closing of the coal mines, which eighty years ago employed over a million workers, the collapse of the textile, ship-building and car-making industries, the bankruptcy or expatriation of factories which on their own employed almost the entire labouring population of substantial towns, have destroyed the community basis on which working-class consciousness was allegedly built. Margaret Thatcher's victory over blue-collar unionism and the hijacking of the Labour Party by those on the take from public funds have deprived wage-workers of the institutional means to flex their political muscle. Cheap air travel, cheap electronic goods and even cheaper massproduced furniture, together with the increasing irresponsibility of white-collar professionals, have blurred former distinctions in cultural behaviour.

At one level social class is like a bubble, defined by and essentially comprising not what is within it but what separates and demarcates it from its surroundings. On the other hand, the British used to be internationally famous for banging on about class long after even the French and Italians had become bored with the subject, and the fact that societies much less preoccupied by the issue of class than the British were in reality no less divided upon class lines suggests that consciousness of class and the existence of class, the subjective and objective aspects of class, do not necessarily relate to one another in a fixed one-to-one ratio. It is true that British culture and institutions exhibit, or used to exhibit, features of class-dividedness that scarcely existed elsewhere: the so-called Public School system, for example, and the tendency (itself originally derived from Public School culture) for the better-educated to speak with the same 'Oxford' accent, irrespective of regional origin. During the First World War the officers in many British regiments could scarcely understand the way their soldiers spoke, whereas in the German army officers and men had grown up speaking, or at least accustomed to hearing, the same dialects: but it was the German officers, not the British ones, who were more likely to have formal educational qualifications that their rank and file lacked. In France they do not have Public Schools, or Oxbridge, but they do have L'Ecole Normale Superieure, which is even more exclusive, and offers much better guarantees of success in later life.

Even if we accept that class is more than a matter of subjective impressions or subjective categories there is still the difficulty of agreeing on objective definitions. A middle class defined as controlling the means of production, a working class in slavery to the means of production: that hardly seems a relevant distinction in an era of no production. The Marxian notion that it was industrialization that brought the working class into existence might well have the corollary that the emergence of the post-industrial society involves the working class going out of existence.

A good case can be made for claiming that people who were working-class as recently as the 1970s, when organized labour was the rock on which both the Heath and Callaghan governments were shipwrecked, have now become middle-class. Ferdinand Mount's Mind the Gap: the New Class Divide in Britain, published in 2004, discusses what he sees as a growing class dividedness in Britain in terms of a breakdown in lower-class morale and self-esteem. Ferdinand Mount himself is a Baronet and like his cousin David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, a product of Eton and Oxford. It may be that the members of the lower class who had the morale and self-esteem have taken it, or been taken by it, into the lower-middle class, or beyond. One notes that Mount's evocation of the moral economy of the working-class owes much more to the how-come-the-plebs-have-higher-quality-leisure-activities-than-we-do tradition of social analysis pioneered by Disraeli in his novel Sybil, published in 1845, than to the more negative account in Friedrich Engels's Die Lage der Arbeitenden Klasse in England ('The Condition of the Working Class in England') published in the same year. …

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