It’s the rich what gets the pleasure

The return of a Dickensian working class

Class: the English may not have invented it, but by the early twentieth century they had most certainly perfected it. Everyone knew their place, like it or loathe it. The ruling class ruled, assisted by the upper middle class and those of the upper class who could be bothered. The middle middle class managed, while the lower middle class kept shop, and kept their noses clean. They aspired to climb a rung or two on the middle class ladder. And the working class, the overwhelming majority, worked. In pits, in mills, on factory floors, in the fields and in the dockyards. As miners and machine operators, as farmhands and stevedores. As builders and road menders and servants, and in the thousand and one other jobs that literally kept the country itself working. And not just working-class men: women and children too. A working class, civilian army, like worker bees, carrying on industriously until they dropped.

Top dogs in government, or this government at least, are still frequently from an upper class, public school and Oxbridge background

The gradual introduction of the Welfare State and two world wars, with the Great Depression of the Thirties in between, changed working class hopes, and, with the rise of the trades unions, expectations. There could be a more benevolent society, governments could be more caring and concerned about the welfare of all of the people all of the time. After its victory in the general election of 1945, the Labour Party undertook measures to protect and provide for the people of the United Kingdom “from the cradle to the grave.” This naturally impacted on the working class most of all.

But as the century progressed, class divisions festered and grew. The upper and middle classes feared the working class had become too influential, too vocal; they no longer knew their place. The working class, with the unions at their backs and union leaders at the front, stuck two fingers up at their “betters” and demanded their rights. In the so-called Winter of Discontent, in 1978-79, widespread strikes by private and public sector trade unions over pay demands brought the country to a virtual standstill, and sank James Callaghan’s Labour government. Arguably, then was the most crucial time for the working class, when more conciliatory voices and attitudes, on both sides of the argument, might have prevailed. Instead, came the battering ram that was Margaret Thatcher, the daughter of a grocer who took a wrecking ball to the powers of the combined trades unions. There were three million unemployed, one of the many milestones of misery during those turbulent times, which also witnessed the end of the UK’s established industrial landscape.

Fast forward 40 years and Britain is a land of service industries. We don’t make any more, we tend, manage, and manoeuvre. The manufacturers and providers have gone, and with them went millions of working class jobs. Perhaps, then, as generations pass, “working class” no longer means what it did. We know our place. We’re posh or we’re not, but less often now are we “working class and proud of it”. Top dogs in government, or this government at least, are still frequently from an upper class, public school and Oxbridge background, though maybe wealth is becoming more important and influential than breeding and class background. But what of those at the bottom of society’s ladder? The homeless, and those with diminishing support and little hope for the future? Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his ministers plan to cut benefits for the “work shy”. Even the disabled and those previously declared unfit to work will have to fight harder to retain financial support. It sounds depressingly Dickensian. Money talks, but does the demise of the working class and its most vocal proponents, also mean there are far fewer voices speaking up for those who have nothing?

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