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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General election 2017: Why don't voters get more angry about public spending cuts?

In 2012, 61 per cent were concerned about the impact of future cuts. By 2017 this was down to 45 per cent. What happened?

The shape of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s pitch to the country is clear. The overarching theme is a “rigged” system, a Bernie Sanders style anti-establishment campaign. 

This started with a clear economic focus, but will build out to public services and state support more generally: first, the switch to under-funded schools, and we’ll soon see the NHS emerge as the primary target. As the shadow Health secretary Jon Ashworth said, Labour believes the public has reached a “tipping point” in their concern about waiting lists and accident and emergency services.

And this focus makes perfect sense for Labour. It just won’t work as well as they might hope.

Why does it make sense? Firstly because there is record pessimism about the future of the NHS. Our poll from March showed that 62 per cent of those surveyed expect the NHS to get worse in the next five years, the highest we’ve measured – and by far the most negative outlook for any public service.

It also makes sense because this is one the very few important issues where Labour has a lead over the Conservatives. In our monthly issues index for February, more than half of voters said it was one of the most important issues facing the country, the highest level since 2002. And it’s always in the top three issues that people say determine their vote.

And Labour still have a lead on the NHS: 36 per cent say they have the best policies of all the parties, with the Conservatives on just 23 per cent.

So why will it not work well for Labour? 

First, Labour’s lead on the issue is nothing like it was, even in the relatively recent past. In 2012, 46 per cent thought Labour were the best party for the NHS, and only 16 per cent thought the Conservatives were. In previous decades, Labour was up above 50 per cent at various points. They’ve lost a lot of ground as the originator and defender of the NHS.

Second, while Corbyn is right to claim that issues like public services have more day-to-day impact on people, our relationship with Europe is uniquely dominant right now. Outside a major political upheaval like Brexit or an economic meltdown, there is no doubt that the NHS would have topped concerns over the winter, as we’ve seen it do many times before. We have a special relationship with the NHS, and when we feel it’s under threat it can trump all other concerns - as in the early 2000s, when more than 70 per cent said it was the key national issue. But instead, Brexit tops the list right, with the EU higher in people’s minds than at any point since we started asking the question in 1974.

In any case, it’s not even clear that a real tipping point has been reached in our health care concerns. While our worry for the future is extremely high, current satisfaction and overall ratings are still high, and not declining that much. This is shown across lots of surveys of individual health services: ratings are slipping, but slowly. And this is brought home by international comparisons – we’re the most worried about the future of our health service out of 23 countries, but we’re also among the most satisfied currently. We’re a country-level example of the “worried well”.

And this leads to a fourth point – expectations of public services seem to be shifting. The narrative of the necessity of spending cuts is so firmly embedded now that expectations of the level of service we can afford as a country may have moved for the long-term.

We asked in 2012 what percentage of planned spending cuts people thought had been made. Of course, this is an impossible question to answer definitively, but it is a useful gauge of how long a road people think we have ahead. Back then, people thought 40 per cent of planned cuts had already happened. Now, five years later, we think it’s still just 37 per cent. The idea of semi-permanent austerity has taken hold.

Of course, this could still provide a key leverage point for Labour, if people think there is a way to avoid this future. But the key point is that the cuts are not biting at a personal level for large proportions of the population, rather they are concentrated among quite a small proportion of people. So, back in 2012, 32 per cent said they had been affected by cuts to public services – by 2017 this had actually declined to 26 per cent. No cumulative, growing resentment at the personal impact of cuts - in fact, the opposite. 

And similarly, back in 2012, 61 per cent were concerned about the impact of future cuts on them and their families. But by 2017 this was down to 45 per cent. 

We are constantly scanning for the “tipping point” that the Labour MP Jon Ashworth has identified. It may come suddenly, and if it comes it seems most likely it will be the NHS that shifts the balance. But there’s no sign yet, and that makes Labour’s message that much more difficult to land. 

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