Friday, November 26, 2010

The Brits are in a class of their own (though no compliment is intended). Where does this obsession come from?

Courtesy of Google Blogger’s stats facility, I know that although the number of those who read this blog can be counted in the tens rather than the thousands, they come from countries around the world. Each of those countries will have its own preoccupations and hang-ups, but the British obsession with ‘class’ must be unique.
It is a multi-lateral obesession: self-styled (I almost wrote ‘self-appointed’) ‘working class’ folk claim to loathe the ‘middle-class’ and ‘upper class’, ‘middle-class’ folk really do look down on those they regard as being ‘working class’, and some snobbish ‘middle-class’ folk who, for various reasons, do not like to be lumped in with other ‘middle-class’, will often describe themselves as ‘upper-middle’ class. That, of course, tells you nothing except that those who describe themselves thus are simply crass snobs. Finally, we come to the ‘upper class’, which, as far as I am concerned, is even more amorphous than any of the other ‘class’ groupings. Who are they?
Just how bizarre this British obsession is occurred to me again today when I was doing my daily morning online trawl through the newspaper (or at least the Mail, the Telegraph, the Guardian and the Sun). For today’s Telegraph carries a piece by Labour leader Ed Miliband on how ‘Labour failed the middle classes’. The piece is notable for several reasons: until the rise of that out-and-out charlatan Tony Blair, who might in many ways been a sandwich short of a picnic but did have a canny streak (he was canny enough to get out while the going was good and is now a multi-millionaire), Labour, on a good day, despised the ‘middle classes’, or rather purported to do so. That all changed when Blair realised that the traditional constituency of ‘old Labour’ — solid, honest, unpretentious working folk engaged in heavy industry boilermaking and living a grimy, but cheerful existence in row upon row of terrace houses — had long disappeared into the realm of myth. In their place, and, ironically, courtesy of the reviled Margaret Thatcher, was a wealthier, ‘more aspirational’ noveau middle class whose support Labour would need if it wanted to regain power. This Blair did successfully by dropping Clause IV of the Labour Party constituency (which stipulated that ‘All enemies of the solid, honest, unpretentious working man and woman must, under standing order One, be lined up against any nearby wall when apprehended and shot without mercy’) and admitting to driving a Ford Mondeo, on the understanding that the Ford Mondeo is the middle-class car of choice. But Blair could not afford to alienate Labour’s core supporters in the process and had somehow to keep them sweet, too, and so to woo those, he sporadically dropped his aitches (‘Hs’) to demonstrate that although he was the barrister son of a barrister who had attended the ‘leading Scottish public school’ Fettes, he could still mix it with the plebs when political expediency demanded it.
Since Blair’s ‘landmark speech’ in 1993 to drop Clause IV, wooing ‘the middle ground’ is now an accepted and quite vital political principle, which both the Left and the Right in Britain ignore at their peril. And this is exactly what young Miliband is doing in his Telegraph piece.
(Note to non-British readers: Ed is the younger brother of David, a former foreign secretary, who also wanted to be Labour’s leader, but who was pipped at the post by young Ed. David was very pissed off, believing the leadership was his by right. He is currently rumoured to be agitating against younger brother Ed in the hope that when and if young Ed fucks up, he might graciously take over the reins).
That 'wooing the middle class should be so important merely underlines how obsessed Britain is with ‘class’. The Daily Mail (who are, to a man and woman, marvellous, marvellous people producing a marvellous, marvellous paper — I know which side my bread is buttered on) has made Britain’s ‘middle classes’ is own and delights in it. Earlier this year it almost parodied itself when it declared there was now definite proof that Jesus Christ was middle class.
The story (if you can't be arsed to follow the link and find out for yourself, is based on a claim that what had previously been translated from the Greek as 'carpenter' should actually be translated as 'architect'. It seems Joseph, Christ's father was, in fact, an architect and, as every Daily Mail reader knows, architect are by definition 'middle class'. Thus, runs the subtext of the Mail story, Christ was 'one of us'. To put the Mail's pretensions into perspective, Lord Salisbury, who was Prime Minister three times at the end of the 19th century, once noted that the Mail 'was written by office boys for office boys'. No great fan of the Mail, then.
Then, last week, a day after Prince William announced his engagement to Kate Middleton, the Mail's op-ed page rejoyced that finally — finally — a member of the middle class would be Queen and ‘save the monarchy’ (not that I knew it was in any imminent danger — no one tells me anything). In publishing these stories, the Mail is most definitely parodying itself, but, to be fair (as I say, I know which side my bread is buttered on) it is only providing its readers with what it feels its readers want. And if one thing is certain, Mail readers are desperate to be middle class and desperate to be reassured that the middle class are the salt of the earth. Desperate. It is one reason why they read the Mail.
All the other papers, of course, play exactly the same game: the Sun plays up its rough and ready credentials, because is calculates that is what will go down well with its readers; the Mirror still — still after all these years — bangs the working-class man drum; the Telegraph does the same as the Mail, with the added precaution that it pretends all its readers wear uniform (Telegraphy readers like to be seen as 'military men' or the wives of 'military men' or if not that, they like it to be acknowledged that, by Jove, they know one end of a rifle from the other). The Guardian portrays itself as being on the side of the angels because it knows its readers like to see themselves as intelligent, discerning people with a conscience who care ('Well, someone's got to'); the Independent attempts the same kind of thing but also plays, subtly, the middle class card, and The Times — well, as far I am concerned The Times gives the term ‘middle-brow’ and even worse name than it already has.
But I have gone off track: I was talking (ranting? rambling?) about the British obsession with class. I have a theory, admittedly not based on any research at all, that it all started with the Norman Conquest in 1006 when the indigenous Anglo-Saxons were treated as sub-human by the Norman invaders and a real hatred grew. And make not mistake, there is still something akin to that real hatred of ‘the other side’ abroad in this country today. There is, and always, will be a lot of loose talk about Britain these days being ‘classless’ Oh really?
There are in Britain something like five different middle classes, and none particularly likes the others. They will all get on famously in public, but in private when no one can hear them, all the old ‘class hatreds’ are resurrected. Some middle classes will not thank you for being identified with some of the other middle class. That is how the concept of ‘upper middle class evolved’: it is a haven for those who, in all honesty, could not describe themselves as ‘upper class’, but who still feel a tad superior and are damned if they are going to be lumped together with those they regard as in many ways below the salt.
So, for example, William Windsor’s bride-to-be Kate Middleton, the ‘middle class girl’ whose future as William’s queen so excites the Daily Mail, is the daughter of millionaire parents, who was educated Marlborough College in Wiltshire. She then went on to study history of art and speaking nicely at St Andrews University. In the jargon associated with Britain's obsession with class, she might well be entitled to describe herself as ‘upper middle-class’. Contrast her with other ‘middle class’ folk, who describe themselves thus because they earn comparatively well (in the lower bracket) and, crucially, want to describe themselves thus.
What is so odd about all of this is that it doesn’t necessarily have much to do with wealth and prosperity. It is almost like a caste system: it is how you behave and, in many ways, how you speak (although what with the spread of estuary English and the spread and adoption of many urban whites of immigrant speech patterns, that distinction is becoming increasingly blurred). Then there is the political dimension to ‘class’: some left-wingers — for example the comedian Mark Steele — insist on calling themselves ‘working class’ although they are now anything but. What to them is important is that they are making a political point (and bugger whether or not they are talking complete bollocks).
But the fact is that with the transformation of Britain’s economy in these past 40/50 years from a broadly productive industry into a broadly service industry, and the concomitant disappearance of almost all the country’s heavy industry, there is no longer a clear-cut ‘working class’ as there once was. But that has not spelled an end to this damn stupid obsession with class. And as it seems to have been going on since the Norman Conquest, I don’t think it will ever end.

. . .

Speaking of supermarkets, there is most certainly a class distinction apparent in who shops where. Furthermore, each of those chains (or rather the ad agencies they employ to attract the shopper) is well aware of those distinctions. So Asda staff all wear a rather garish green apron and adopt a very matey attitude to customers as well as play on their store being ‘cheaper’ and providing ‘value’. Nothing will frighten off a class-conscious would-be middle-class shopper than being thought interested in value, the clear implication being they haven’t got quite as much money as they like you to think. Kate Middleton wouldn't shop at Asda and probably not at Sainsbury's. She would most certainly consider Morrisons and Tesco, mainly because they are pretty neutral. Sainsbury, latterly, tries to push itself a little upmarket but tends to shoot itself in the foot. When a branch opened in Bodmin, I went along as was delighted to discover it was stocking quite a range of different pates. Several weeks later that range had been reduced to two. Why, I asked. Because there's not call for a wider range, I was told. Bodmin, is not 'middle class'.
Then there’s Waitrose: unashamedly middle-class to their cotton socks. If you are looking for bread flavoured with olives grown in a certain valley in Tuscany, Waitrose is your heaven. There’s a rather funny joke about the mission statement of Sainsbury’s: to keep the riff-raff out of Waitrose. Says it all, really.

. . .

Finally, there is surely some smartarse out there asking him or herself: exactly why is this chap pfpgowell so himself so preoccupied with 'Britain's obsession with class'? Could it be that he is, ironically, equally obsessed, which might explain this post?
Well, all I'll say to that is any more in that vein and I'll come around and break your windows, whether you live in the Ukraine, the U.S., Canada, Russia, South Korea or St Mabyn (which is just down the road. That's, possibly, an impeccable working class response, though the chances of a working class blogger using the word 'impeccable' are virtually nil.
Bring on the revolution, I might finally make a little money wheeler-dealing on the black market.

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