Statisticians tell us that we're all middle class now - but that doesn't stop poorer people dying younger

Class boundaries have been redrawn. Up the social order go teachers, librarians and bank managers, now elevated to Professional Grade One. Down go cooks, hairdressers and plasterers. Technically, this leaves Marco Pierre White, purveyor of £200 lunches, and Nicky Clarke, supplier of haircuts to those who eat them, sandwiched between a pork butcher (Class Five) and a pizza courier (Class Seven).

As for the low grading of plasterers, one can only assume that the architects of the new groupings have never wrestled with a wall, a trowel and a sack of thistle pink. Still, class divisions have rarely been precise, except in the mind of General de Gaulle, who once claimed to have "the bourgeois, the officers, the diplomatists" ranged against him and, for him, "only the people who take the Metro".

We are all Metro travellers now. Under classifications produced by the Office for National Statistics, more than half the population is embraced by the new middle class; leaving a rump of routine toilers, the long-term unemployed and John Prescott - now unofficial tenant of Dorneywood - who has this week been berating snobs and advising the Big Issue on his days as a rough sleeper.

Prescott is not the only despiser of the bourgeoisie. While statisticians plump up the ranks of middle England, Peter Salmon, controller of BBC1, has declared war on smug suburban values. The self-styled "net-curtain comedy killer" is to consign all Dralon sofas and chiming doorbells to the "dustbin of history". More bite, less whimsy is the aim of Salmon, who fails to see that most viewers prefer nothing chewier than a Delia Smith omelette.

Socially upgraded Britain is an oddly regressive nation, not necessarily in tune with Salmon's putsch on flying ducks. In the week of the 98th anniversary of Oscar Wilde's death, biting BBC coverage of the Wildean legacy was hampered by suppressing mention of the cabinet minister whose name they dare not speak. Meanwhile, one in three Britons say discriminating against gays is all right.

As homophobia increases, so does xenophobia. Oskar Lafontaine becomes the bogeyman preparing to leech the wealth of the new middle classes, privileged and affluent. But are they? In the redrawn class structure, no account has been taken of relative earnings. Instead, occupations have been sorted on the type of remuneration - ranging from secure, salaried employment with built-in perks and pensions to short-term piecework.

Hence the elevated status of teachers and country vicars, who - frugal stipend notwithstanding - supposedly have parity with barristers and surgeons. The purpose of these baffling new groupings is to accommodate a changing workforce, in which Tyneside ship-riveters have been superseded by people selling double-glazed bow windows over the phone.

The further object of the class redesign is, worthily, to "provide answers to old problems, such as health inequalities". As it happened, Sir Donald Acheson, the former chief medical officer, offered his own pointers a few days before in a report that provoked no headlines about a swollen middle class - only a bleak picture of a widening gulf between rich and poor and a snapshot not of how the nation lives, but of how it dies.

The surprise was not the bleak mortality rates of the poor, but the scope of what Acheson demanded - more welfare benefits, better housing, heating, food, education and transport. There was no costing; only a serving of notice about the investment needed to erase the worst inequalities of a society in which children starve and the disposable income of the poorest has barely risen over two decades.

Of course, we knew all that. But people forget. The statisticians' new social order provoked the usual pique from media pundits cleaving to their artisan credentials. How insulting to be arbitrarily bumped up a social class or two - elevated to the Delia-watching, gay-bashing, golf-playing, Germanophobic mush of the extended bourgeoisie.

There are worse fates. As Acheson warned Frank Dobson, little impact will be made on the plight of those debarred from the new middle class if he cherry-picks sexy recommendations such as nicotine replacement therapy.

A health white paper is due out next week. Expect free Nicorette patches for the poor, and hope, if the structures of society are really to shift, that the Acheson report will not be dumped - like the BBC net curtains - in the dustbin of history.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Just get out and have fun!