I have always thought of myself as working class. I spent a chunk of my childhood in a council house on Merseyside. Our mum, who was eighteen when she gave birth to my elder brother and had me before she was twenty, worked a series of low-paid jobs. We saw our abusive dad during supervised custody, social workers hovering awkwardly nearby, until he disappeared from the scene while we were children. Nine years later, my younger brother’s father – the knuckle-dragger’s knuckle-dragger – also fled the consequences of his actions. I don’t remember a trip to any theatre, gallery, or museum. We weren’t miserable by any measure – and I’ve met many wealthy people steeped in childhood despair – but we were certainly “poor”.

Looking back, our single-parent family probably embodied the late-twentieth-century moral panic about the “broken home”. But where I grew up, everyone seemed roughly the same: no one’s parents were engineers, lawyers, doctors or architects. Some had a bit more money, but no-one was “rich”.

So, it was only later, when I went to the University of Manchester to read English, that I began to comprehend what George Orwell meant when he wrote “England is the most class-ridden country under the sun”, in The Lion and the Unicorn (1941). Are things any different today? Politicians have tried to make – or make us believe – class is a thing of the past. Margaret Thatcher called “class a Communist concept” and despised the unions representing the interests of the working class. Thatcher’s distaste for collective identity of any sort ran so deep that she famously declared: “There’s no such thing as society.” In 1997, the then Labour deputy prime minister John Prescott said: “We’re all middle class now.”

But in the 2023 British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey conducted by the National Centre for Social Research, 32 per cent of Britons thought it was very difficult to move between classes – a proportion almost double the seventeen per cent who held that view in 2005. So much for two decades of feeble political platitudes about “social mobility”. The BSA survey also found that 77 per cent of Britons think class affects an individual’s opportunities “a great deal” or “quite a lot”, compared to 70 per cent in 1983. Is class becoming more – not less – important in twenty-first-century Britain?

Britain’s national obsession with class, then, is nothing new, but its complexion changed in the twentieth century

At university, I received all the bursaries and grants available, did well in my studies, and went on to a master’s at Oxford. I’ve just finished a PhD (funded by the Wolfson Foundation charity) at University College London. My social circle now includes artists, academics, doctors, designers, musicians, screenwriters and authors. I write about history, culture and politics for magazines read by the middle and upper classes. So, am I working-class, middle-class or somewhere in between?
In 2020, sociologist Jens Köhrsen described “class ambiguity” as a “mismatch” in “class–culture patterns”, citing “students from a working-class background that attend elite universities or upper-class individuals that consume lowbrow culture” and the “boundary work” they undertake to “deal with conflicting group allegiances”. Traditional markers of social and cultural identity between classes are not vanishing – as Thatcher dreamed and New Labour blithely assumed – but blurring, made nebulous by those marooned at the borders.

I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to have had an “elite” education, but I still feel out of place among middle-class friends and former classmates with professional connections, family wealth or the prospect of life-changing cash or property inheritances. There are also less tangible – but often more awkward – social and cultural differences, like knowing the right kind of drink to bring to a poetry reading group (it’s not eight cans of Holsten Pils, as I found out to my profound embarrassment), or floundering through conversations about wine, classical music, skiing, holidays in Tuscany, or any other wealthy leisure pursuits.

Equally, I can be at ease in a Merseyside pub talking about football, but squirm trying to explain the point of researching sixteenth-century literature to a taxi driver. When I return from visiting friends and family “back home” – I haven’t lived there for twelve years, but there is a strange psychic pull – my girlfriend says I sound more Scouse. Sociologists call this “code-switching”, but there is an unconscious toll to all this “boundary work”. Do I fit in everywhere – or nowhere?

Reinvention at university is nothing new, of course. Yet the anxiety of class ambiguity in education is a persistent theme in recent fiction and film. The critically acclaimed Lady Bird (2018), directed by Greta Gerwig, stars Saoirse Ronan as a girl from a poor family pretending to be rich to climb the social ladder at school. In Sally Rooney’s Normal People (2008), working-class Connell fails to fit in with Marianne’s wealthy set at Trinity College Dublin, yet his education leaves him alienated from his old friends back in Sligo.

Class ambiguity cuts both ways. Anyone who studied at Oxford will know that the plot of Saltburn (2023) – in which a middle-class student pretends he’s from a working-class background – is only half the story. There are plenty of aristocrats affecting salt-of-the-earth sensibilities, too. When I was an undergraduate, the campus figure of scorn was the well-heeled, prim and preppy bourgeois child of the suburbs who, within a few weeks of living in a redbrick university city, fabricated a grungy, “urban” persona that would appal the snobs back home in Metro-land.

In my case, dining in the medieval halls of Oxford’s colleges was an out-of-body experience. How did I get there? My college was hundreds of years older than the shabby seaside resort I grew up in. I wondered how other students felt so at home. Eventually, I realised that their schools – sometimes their homes – resembled these colleges. They were culturally, psychologically, architecturally prepared for a seamless transition.

I could never quite get used to the fact that here, in the heart of privilege, everything seemed free. There was wine on tap at college parties and if you needed something – a new laptop, money for a research trip or social event – you only had to ask. Money was everywhere, yet never discussed. Back on Merseyside at Christmas, I might as well have been visiting Jupiter.

Education has always been a locus of class ambiguity. To go back only as far as the sixteenth century, Thomas Wolsey (son of a butcher) and Thomas Cromwell (son of a blacksmith) were never allowed to forget their humble origins. Wolsey became so powerful he was dubbed England’s “other king”, but he was continually ridiculed for his “base” parentage by nobles who felt entitled to the influence he had earned. Cromwell became the earl of Essex and Henry VIII’s most-trusted minister but was envied as much for his transgression of social hierarchies as his brutal execution of hated royal policies.

Shakespeare was famously mocked by snootier dramatists early in his career. Conspiracy theories about “the authorship question” usually centre on the objection that a provincial glover’s son could not possibly have written Hamlet (1600) or King Lear (1606). The alternative candidate is Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford, thought by some to be a more socially fitting author for works of enduring beauty and complexity.

Britain’s national obsession with class, then, is nothing new, but its complexion changed in the twentieth century. Up to the 1970s, welfare provision, strong unions, and pro-labour industrial policies were part of a direct, top-down attempt to reduce inequality. However, a shift in government planning – taken to extremes by Thatcher – towards neo-liberal, pro-capital investment policies, market deregulation and the degradation of labour unions widened the gap between rich and poor. All the while, politicians pretended class was obsolete.

In the 1990s, sociologists argued about “the death of class”, asking whether the concept was exhausted, or no longer reflective of social and economic realities in Britain. Left-wing critics, meanwhile, sought to modify or reinvigorate class as a tool for social analysis inflected by culture, race and gender as well as economics. Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of “cultural capital” shifted thinking on class away from quantitatively measured economic differences and towards an analysis of qualitative distinctions, moral stigmatisations, and cultural frontiers.

Today, though, class ambiguity means those boundaries are hazier and freighted with psychological and subjective anxieties. In the BSA survey, nearly half (46 per cent) of those who identify as working class are employed in middle-class jobs. “Professionals” often incorporate their parents’ or grandparents’ humble origins or financial struggles into their class identities – yet another “mismatch” in “class–culture patterns” that muddies social borders.

At the same time, the old routes between economic classes are becoming unpassable. After the war, the most reliable path into the economic middle class was property ownership. Thanks to Thatcher’s sell-off of council housing, successive governments’ failure to build (and unwillingness to upset their propertied voting bases), and the explosion in landlordism, home ownership is rapidly declining as a means of class mobility. In her book Tenants (2022), Vicky Spratt argues that “the housing crisis is inextricable from wealth inequality”.

Spratt prefers the term “low-income” to “working-class” because “class is an identity” but “income and wealth are a reality”. Yet thinking in rigid economic terms risks overlooking the soft, sometimes invisible realities of class. The Oxbridge graduate and aspiring freelance journalist who lives in their parents’ flat in Islington or Battersea probably earns less than the call centre manager in Liverpool or the shelf-stacker at Lidl (one of my old jobs), but the gulf in opportunity is drastic.

Meanwhile, those on relatively “high” incomes are struggling thanks to greedy (often mortgage-free) landlords charging £2,000 for a two-bed basement in London’s grotty hinterlands. Those in traditional middle-class professions are finding it increasingly impossible to buy without generational wealth or large inheritances. Isaac Rose’s recent book The Rentier City: Manchester and the Making of the Neoliberal Metropolis (2024) shows how the capital of the north ruthlessly cleansed working-class people and public spaces to make room for property developers and middle-class “professionals” trapped in a cycle of endlessly increasing rents. In other words, social differences cannot always be parsed by the flat metric of income.

Class, then, is not a thing of the past – but nor is it the simple, tripartite structure of old. The traditional distinctions are shifting, the familiar passages between classes are closing, and class identity is inflected more than ever by other factors like race and gender. But despite the ambiguous reality of class today, Orwell remains far closer to the truth than Thatcher. England is still one of the most class-ridden countries under the sun.

Josh Mcloughlin is a writer and editor from Merseyside. His work is published in The New Statesman, The Times, The Fence, The Spectator and others

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June / July 2024, Main Features

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