The middle-class snobbery about being middle class

A third of the most well-off, high status people in society consider themselves to be working class. Maybe it's time for some new definitions?

On facing pages of a weekend national newspaper, there are reviews of two new books, both analysing the British class system in different fashions.

One, Consumed: How Shopping Fed the Class System argues it's now all about money and how you spend it, while the other, Sorry! The English and Their Manners, touches on the use of English, social codes, and how to read them.

Both deal with a fascination that never seems to die among Britons - an endless discussion of class, what it means and why we might care.

Having lived outside the UK for part of my life, I identify a little with the outsider who observes British ways, and wonders why. Partly because, when I lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during my high school years, I was always being asked by other teenagers to explain these funny little habits.

Britain was full of mysteries to Pittsburghers, who had an idea it was full of people either wearing bowler hats or kilts; who had no idea there was a country called Wales; and thought British music was oddly challenging; and that all of us were dead posh.

From the outside looking in, the fascination, or even obsession, with class in Britain feels idiosyncratic and oddly backward. Some of those authors who reflected it to the world, such as Wodehouse and Christie, were living abroad at the time; perhaps seeing it through a glass less darkly.

From Christie's snobbery about people with money but no class to Wodehouse's heroes trying to marry chorus girls, we have moved on through Upstairs Downstairs, and Essex Girls, to TOWIE, and still bright-cheeked columnists think it is public-school hilarious to come up with digs about Kate Middleton's mum party firm, and her air hostess past (wave your arms).

But it goes on, and on. In some tightly written newspaper columns, in the hallowed halls of Westminster, and other places where the chosen few have made it, comments float forth on where people were "schooled" and which "college" they went to; about "proper" universities, and the others; and who says "loo" and who doesn't, and who cares?

Yet, in 2013, we do still care. But the markers have changed. In British Future's new State of the Nation 2013 report we find that a third of the most well-off, high status people in society (the ABs) see themselves as working class, rather than middle class.

Middle class, you see, has now become the thing that people are snobby about, so there's no longer any need to lose your regional quirk, and find your inner U. Because being "a bit middle class" is a term edged with irony, and certainly nowhere near a compliment. While in 1950, the majority might have been striving to become the middle class, these days those who have it are throwing it back, and embracing their living-in-a-cardboard-box heritage, having decided it is far more cool to be working class. We all go to the footie now, well except those people who can't afford the whacking great ticket prices. This new-cooler-than-school working class means Westminster bigwigs and big business chaps who talk "football" can be like one of us, even if they live in a more brightly lit world.

Time then for a new definition or two? If we could move on to a place where everyone who works is working class, then that brings a whole lot of us on to the same side. If we are on the same side then we could stop caring why this sentence or that shopping bag makes us just that little better than someone else. And then maybe we could be all in it together.

But history suggests that just wouldn't be British.

Rachael Jolley is editorial director of British Future.

 

Shopping in Waitrose is generally considered to be a very middle-class thing to do. Photograph: Getty Images
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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue