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.