A new survey thinks it’s got Britons squeezed into seven categories – but the glory of our class system is that it offers us endless opportunities to become whoever we want to be.
Which class are you? I reckon I’m upper middle. Lower, fake, poseur, scumbag upper middle, to be more precise, because despite exhibiting many of the signs of reasonable-ish social smartness (public school and Oxbridge education; mildly fruity pronunciation; Georgian vicarage home), I’m secretly tinged with lots of hidden common.
For example, one of my grandfathers was the gaffer at the local electrical works – and that’s not posh. Nor are the Midlands and Black Country accents used by quite a few of my close relatives. Nor is having been born anywhere near Birmingham (as I was, arkid). Nor is the fact that I don’t own my gorgeous ironstone country rectory: I rent it because, while I have huge pretensions, I’m in fact totally skint.
Yet, were you ever to meet my upper-class landlord, you’d think I were the toff, not him. He dresses like a down-at-heel student; I wear a sturdy, Cordings hacking jacket. He’d happily spend his life chopping up logs or watching DVDs, whereas I’d rather be out huntin’, shootin’ or fishin’. I stride around his Capability-Brown-landscaped estate like I own it, whereas he acts more like the junior undergardener.
So where, exactly, would he and I fit in to the new study by the BBC Lab UK, and published this week in the Sociology Journal, which says there are now seven social classes in Britain: Elite; Established Middle Class; Technical Middle Class; New Affluent Workers; Traditional Working Class; Emergent Service Workers; and Precariat – or Precarious Proletariat? Nowhere, I’d say, for these definitions just aren’t up to the job. If you really wanted to capture the rich, glorious and oh-so-nuanced stratifications of the British class system, you’d need closer to 700 gradations than that measly, reductionist seven.
To be fair to the study, it does at least have a stab at finding a definition of class that extends beyond the usual “working, middle and upper”. Besides how well paid or wealthy you are, the study posits, your class is also a function of your social capital (how many people you know and what their status is) and your cultural capital (the extent and nature of your cultural interests).
All this is true and it’s one of the things that has always separated Britain’s social class system from, say, America’s, which is much more strictly income-dependent. This was evident even as far back as the 19th century, when the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville visited the US. He was at once impressed and appalled to discover a new kind of society where values such as noblesse oblige had no meaning: being upper class was more or less synonymous with being rich and since, in the land of the free, anyone could supposedly make their fortune through hard work, there was much less social guilt or sentimental pity for the plight of the poor.
But what the study doesn’t capture (how could it possibly? It would be the work of several lifetimes) is the degree to which, even in post‑Blair Britain, so many of us continue to eat, breathe, speak, work, play, dream, dress, make love and live every last detail of our lives in ways defined by an invisible code that no foreigner could ever hope to comprehend but which we all understand perfectly.
Let me give you one example of how obscure these nuances get. Waitrose is posher than Sainsbury’s; Sainsbury’s is posher than Tesco. But if you’re really über-posh you’re just as likely to go to bargain basement Aldi a) because if you’re really posh, you’re probably also asset-rich and cash-poor and b) because you’re so confident of your social status that you don’t need to show off, like lower-middle-class people do, by paying too much for your groceries at Waitrose.
Here’s another. The defining characteristic of posh English teenagers is that they have to dress head to toe in Jack Wills: this applies throughout, except at Eton – arguably the poshest school of the lot (except maybe Radley) – where boys wouldn’t be seen dead in Jack Wills because it has a branch on Eton High Street, which somehow renders it tainted and non-U. The way to tell an Etonian, in any case, is that he tends to dress and speak down, not up: it’s a survival tactic born of trying to avoid being beaten up by Windsor boys.
Another subtle signifier is the concept of shabby chic. To a visiting American, say, a big house that had been done up to the nines with everything beautifully finished by artisan craftsmen would be an obvious status symbol: this person has made it, they’ve arrived! To a certain kind of Englishman, though, it would mean the exact opposite. No one can be properly smart in a house where the furniture isn’t bashed and the carpets aren’t frayed and everything doesn’t smell of wet dog. Too much polish and cleanliness are vulgar.
The problem now – if you’re the sort of person who thinks it is a problem – is that socially ambitious oiks have cottoned on to this distinction. (How could they not? The concept of U and non-U goes back to the Fifties, and there have been loads of similar climbers’ guides since, such as my Eighties bible, The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook.) Companies such as Farrow & Ball have built a lucrative industry on this, catering to aspirational wives of new-money City types who’ve twigged that all you need to rise a couple of notches is to paint your hallway Elephant’s Breath and your guest room Mouse’s Back.
This is an important detail missed by those earnest class warriors who bang on about the limitations of being born in a country where – allegedly – you only have to open your mouth for another Englishman to despise you. The glory of our class system is not that it’s constricting but rather that it offers endless opportunities to become whoever you want to be. It’s not a straitjacket. It’s the equivalent of that marvellous changing room in the magical shop visited by Mr Benn where he escapes the dreariness of Festive Road to become an astronaut or deep-sea diver or knight errant.
Did being born Welsh (in a place called Splott) – the son of a hairdresser and a self-employed French polisher – really hamper John Humphrys’ entry into the snooty, Oxbridge-dominated British media establishment? Not so that you’d notice. No more, I’d say, than having been born the daughter of a lowly Nigerian oil tycoon has prevented Emma McQuiston from becoming the future Marchioness of Bath. This is the point about the British class system: it’s porous and has been since at least the days when a lowly actress like Nell Gwynne could become the King’s mistress and become mother of the Earl of Burford (and later Duke of St Albans).
A good friend of mine spotted this very early on. Born into a desperately poor working-class household in Nottingham, he realised that he would never get on unless he learnt to mimic the ways of the middle classes. At university, he instructed his flatmates to correct his every error of pronunciation (for example, making him pronounce “pass” with a bourgeois long “a”, rather than a clipped Northern one), with the result that he can become whoever he wants to be at a moment’s notice. In legal circles (he’s a top barrister), he can play an Old Etonian smoothie (he has even memorised all the rules of the Wall Game); if he’s at a football match he can revert to broad Nottingham.
This same friend’s children, on the other hand, have to play an entirely different class game. Public school-educated in a world where “posh” people are about the last minority it’s socially permissible to persecute, they spend their social lives desperately trying to demonstrate how down-to-earth, ordinary and unsmart they are. They’d probably kill to have the authentic working-class credibility their father had – but which they can never benefit from socially because their dad has striven so hard to shake it off.
It was ever thus. If you could go back to a time as socially stratified as Victorian or Edwardian Britain, I doubt you would find it easy to tell who belonged where: not in an era when Earls and Dukes often spoke not in upper-class drawls but in the thick rural accents of their region; not with keen young Mister Pooters mimicking the affectations of their social betters. Class in Britain is a bit like a virus: just when you think you’ve pinned it down, it mutates into something else.
Read the original in the Telegraph.