In 1989, Richard Hoggart wrote in his introduction to George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier that “each decade we shiftily declare that we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty.” Eight years later, in 1997, John Prescott, the former ship’s steward and trade union man turned Jaguar fan, tried to nail down the lid by declaring “we’re all middle class now”. Two years later, Tony Blair used his Labour Party Conference speech to unilaterally announce a cessation of hostilities in the class war.
But the coffin remained empty and the conflict didn’t end. Blair was a private school-educated Oxford graduate whose accent slid further towards the estuary as he got closer to power. While his government’s foreign policy followed the US into wars abroad, its battles at home were often focused on a group of people presented as an under-class that obsessed the tabloids and titillated viewers of documentaries such as Benefits Streets and comedies like Little Britain. “We” were all middle class now, “they” were the feckless and undeserving.

The Blair/Brown years did not represent a permanent ceasefire in the class war but a propaganda victory for the notion of being middle class. It allowed those at the top to rebrand themselves as upper middle class. Meanwhile, the still struggling were encouraged to distance themselves from that early-21st century obsession – “chavs” – by seeing themselves as equally middle class as people earning hundreds of thousands of pounds more than them.

In 2010, while attempting to soften up the nation for cuts to Sure Start centres, David Cameron described himself (an Old Etonian, Oxford graduate, son of a stockbroker) and his wife (the Marlborough-educated daughter of a baronet) as members of “the sharp-elbowed middle classes”. The “we’re all middle class now” line had been stretched to breaking point. Not that Cameron’s definition convinced anyone. Ahead of the 2015 general election, a YouGov survey found that 77 per cent of those polled considered him to be upper class.

More people say they’re working class now than when Blair declared the end of the class war

The current incumbent of Number 10 spends a lot of time talking about his teenage years helping out in his family’s pharmacy and avoids focusing too much on his public-school days at Winchester, time at Oxford, millions earned as a hedge fund trader, or the fact his father-in-law is a billionaire. When Piers Morgan asked Rishi Sunak, “You’re stinking rich, right?”, the Prime Minister replied: “I think most people would consider that I am financially fortunate.” We are all in this together but some of us are more in it than others.

Sunak’s most likely successor in Downing Street, Sir Keir Starmer, often evokes his toolmaker father and working-class background, but voters tend not to hear it. In a 2023 poll conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies for The New Statesman, 40 per cent of people didn’t know how he got his knighthood, while fifteen per cent believed he inherited it and further six per cent thought he’d married into it. Just 39 per cent of those surveyed knew he received the title in recognition for his work as Director of Public Prosecutions. To many, Starmer seems posh.

Almost two decades on from Prescott’s middle-class maxim, distinctions have blurred so much that more people say they’re working class now than when Blair declared the end of the class war. According to the 2023 British Social Attitudes Survey, 46 per cent of British people call themselves working class, up from 32 per cent in 1983, with just 29 per cent saying they’re middle class (up nine percentage points since 1983).

Does that mean Blair failed in his desire to expand the middle classes? That Cameron’s Old Etonian government made the idea of identifying as upper class even less appealing? Or that the notion of being working class is more socially acceptable than the other options? To all three questions, the answer is a complicated yes. In his 1989 essay, Hoggart wrote that “class distinctions do not die, they merely learn new ways of expressing themselves.” And that remains as true now as it did then.

A state of enduring confusion around class helps only one group: those at the very top. There’s no better way of discouraging class solidarity than encouraging people who are struggling to make sharp distinctions between themselves and those at the very bottom of the pile. It’s the British equivalent of the American Dream’s distorting fairground mirror effect, where the poor object to higher taxation of the ultra-rich on the off-chance they might join them one day.

The death of the class system isn’t coming but the empty coffin is as prominent in British political discourse as Lenin’s mausoleum in Red Square. Regular battles about who is really working class, what constitutes the middle class, and who occupies either category are very useful for an elite that rarely shifts from its comfortable surroundings. £450bn made its way into the hands of Britain’s wealthiest during the covid pandemic. One class benefited from that vast transfer of wealth while the rest of us were left fighting like crabs in a bucket.

Time spent debating the granular details of class is a distraction from the reality of wealth – those who have it and those who don’t. While sociologists tend to shudder when class is boiled down to economic power alone, it’s money that buys time, opportunities, and access. It doesn’t matter if that money is old or new – it can buy class.

Mic Wright is a journalist based in London. He writes about technology, culture and politics

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Columns, June / July 2024, Open Mic, Opinions

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