Thursday, 20 May 2010

A class act

Have you got class? If you live in Britain then you will have - one of a whole, whopping range of three. Social mobility may be one of our favourite topics of conversation but still anybody who's anybody is obsessed with pigeon-holing people based on accent, schooling, clothes, where they do their food shopping and whether they've even been to an X Factor audition. As you can tell, some of the old rules are there, some new ones have inevitably crept in. 

But what has most certainly changed (and this just confuses matters further) is how you are now free to define your own social class. Or probably more accurately, everyone's queuing up to declare that they have got a bit of money and now now wish to be known as middle class. I've yet to meet anyone who had a public school upbringing, moved into a council house and promptly announces their new working class status. 

Mentioning this national hot potato at all I've generally found to be the preserve of the working class, which they associate with feelings of pride. No problem with that. But the middle classes I rarely hear talk about it. And the aristocracy may as well not exist as far as I'm concerned - I've certainly never met one. So are these class novices actually betraying their working class roots by bringing the subject up in the first place? Possibly. 

But this self-assessment approach to class does rather seem to make a mockery of it all. If something is a social system then it would seem necessary to have rules (they don't have to be logical or fair. Again, see X Factor for an example). But if it's a way of presenting yourself however you see fit, it's meaningless. Everyone is going to view it differently so why bother? 

But is individualism winning the class war? Well, no, not if the terms that individuals use to classify themselves come from one 'old society'. And not if they base their newly won right to elevate their worth on the very system that deemed them to be of little value in the first place. That just lacks imagination and smacks of 'if you can't beat 'em, join 'em'. Incidentally, this is not something that I mention directly to people at parties. 

Is it as simple as saying it's about money now? At first glance it seems to be. Those who rebrand themselves as middle class because of a move to a bigger house and the purchase of a few classical music compilation CDs are doing so because they have more money than they (or their parents) had before. But if this were the case, then people should move downwards too - but they don't. Should someone with a public school upbringing find themselves falling on hard times and staring at the 4 walls of a grotty bedsit, their crisp accent and knowledge of latin will save them from relegation. But not console them. 

I've never really considered myself to be someone who fitted in to any of the available classes. I am working class in my roots - the first 8 years of my life spent on a council estate, comprehensive schooling, pronouncing 'from' as if it rhymes with 'Tom' (as opposed to 'bum'). But my accent is generally perceived as being middle class and my genuine love of the theatre is often treated with derision by working class people and results in a gentle shove in the direction of 'otherhood'. Middle class people, on the other hand, can sniff out my lack of credentials with a few friendly questions about what I did with my gap year. 

As a social system, class was simply unfair and had to go. It was a simple choice. It either sloped off with its tail between its legs or there was going to be a revolution. The people now have access to jobs and wealth that their forebearers could never even have imagined. This is to be celebrated and capitalised on (and ignored when politicians bang on about it. Just because...) There is nothing smooth about this transition and our confused tendency to cling on to old ideals shows us that we are only at the beginning. No doubt new social strata will develop to replace the old and that it'll be as hierarchical as ever. But it would be nice to imagine that we've got an opportunity to do something new that reflects us as a nation an gives us something to feel proud of. 

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