January is San Francisco’s coldest and wettest month, and generally its quietest. That wasn’t the case in 1967, though, when 20,000 gathered for the Human Be In, a “pow wow” of the then disparate “tribes” of American counterculture. To the psychedelic tunes of Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, and the piercing poetry of Alan Ginsberg, these radicals melded the “drop out” vision of transcendentalist hippies with the “tune-in” inclinations of anti-war activists. It’s an alchemy that still lies at the heart of many protests today. Yet in some ways, these revolutionary ideals differed little from those agreed in the same city over two decades earlier, when 51 nations representing 80 per cent of the global population signed the UN Charter of 1945, and its commitment to “rights and fundamental freedoms for all”.

That statement was followed up by the UN Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) three years later, a remarkable cross-cultural collaboration that forged what the chair of its writing group, Eleanor Roosevelt, called a new “Magna Carta for all mankind”. Such an appellation hints at a western bias in its drafting, but in fact another key author was the Chinese diplomat, dramatist and philosopher Peng Chun Chang, who is credited with the document’s defining principles of universality and religious neutrality. The Declaration itself is not binding, but it gave rise to other legally enforceable international agreements, and has had a profound effect on the development of international human rights law more generally.

The UDHR gets straight down to business. In its first two articles it declares all human beings “free and equal… without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” It is, regrettably, a commitment that has over the past 75 years been honoured as much in the breach as the observance. Nonetheless, these aspirations lie at the core of anti-discrimination legislation that has been enacted in hundreds of countries around the world – including the UK – protecting against sexual, racist and religious discrimination.

Class origins distinguish us in much the same way as gender or race

Thanks to our occasional royal weddings and coronations, an upper chamber called the House of Lords, the likes of TV dramas such as Downton Abbey, and real-life ones such as the Sussexes vs the Waleses, fascination with British class structure is one of our biggest exports. It’s curious, then, that the one promise of equality enshrined in the UDHR that’s been completely overlooked in this country is that of “social origin”. These words were specifically included in the document to distinguish between an individual’s national origins, and their social class or caste within their nation. The closest we’ve come to addressing that here in recent times is the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act of 2023, but it focuses on “geographical disparities” rather than class background, and in any event has turned out to be just another front for ministers dishing out dosh to their pet projects.

Class is undoubtedly a complex subject, and one that is seen differently across the UK’s constituent nations. It’s a phenomenon that intersects with our increasingly diverse ethnic, gender and religious identities. Some of us know exactly where we fit into it, others do not relate to it at all. And yet a plethora of government and private studies show the continuing importance of social class in the UK in determining an individual’s life expectancy, social mobility and financial security. Moreover, they show that being born into a lower or working-class background often compounds injustices caused by other forms of discrimination.

One of the reasons for Britain’s class blindness when it comes to human rights is that working-class identity here suffers from a widespread misconception of being an exclusively white construct. To engage with class is seen to run the risk of engaging with racial prejudice and intolerance. While it is true that within poorer multicultural communities there might be internal differences and even conflicts, there are also many unifying inequalities shared by all members, especially in regard to education, housing and health. Often, these are at a level that can be considered human rights violations, especially when compared with the outcomes of those from different social backgrounds.

By failing to address class-based disadvantages we not only run the danger of misattributing the causes of social problems, but of exacerbating the very racist (and often misogynistic) solutions that we are trying to avoid. Putting it bluntly, we’re driving deprived citizens into the arms of populists who claim to feel their pain. It is time we recognised that class origins can distinguish us in much the same way as gender or race; they can be a source of opportunity and pride, but also a cause of inequality and suffering. By affording class the same sort of protections we give to other categories of discrimination, we won’t solve all our social ills. But by “tuning in” to the real causes behind them, perhaps we can help prevent those who feel ignored and left behind from “dropping out”.

Peter Phelps is founder and publisher of Perspective

More Like This

Get a free copy of our print edition

Columns, June / July 2024, Opinions, Soapbox

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed

Your email address will not be published. The views expressed in the comments below are not those of Perspective. We encourage healthy debate, but racist, misogynistic, homophobic and other types of hateful comments will not be published.