I have been living in Britain for 16 years and during this period have acquired that kind of outsider/insider perspective that anthropologists describe as a mix of estrangement and familiarity. You become part of the place and yet not quite. I have learnt how to enjoy gardening and the best winter puddings in the world, but if there is something I still find intriguing and peculiar about Britain is the class issue.
The force of class here is very striking. Certainly stronger than in any other comparable industrialised Western society. Social and cultural psychologists around Europe refer to it jokingly as the “British hang-up”.
Indeed what makes class in Britain so unique is not so much the reality of the class system, but the psychology that lies beneath it. Class is central to the collective psyche of this country. Here there is awareness of class, talk about class, jokes about class, and embarrassed glances about class.
Accents, manners, intonation, food, impression and expression management are all subtle and pervasive markers that establish from the very beginning who you are and where you belong. Class here is an attitude, something you believe in or you do not, something you argue passionately about, something you feel in your gut and you understand as well as the language you speak.
Quite apart from different positions people occupy in the class system and the different experiences they have in relation to it there is widespread and immediately recognisable shared knowledge about class. Opinions may vary but everyone knows the terms of the debate and what class is about: it has a place at the very core of the collective consciousness of this country.
Such an ingrained way of thinking and behaving around a notion is part of what social psychologists and historians call mentalities. Mentalities are powerful and sticky ideas that run in history, get handed down through generations, are cemented in all kinds of social institutions and ultimately in the behaviour and psychological make up of individuals. Mentalities are made of beliefs and deep-rooted in behaviour; they are difficult to change and tend to survive long after social structures are gone.
As part of the British mentality, class is resistant to change and difficult to transform because it is deeply entrenched in the way Brits speak – and language is the single most important symbolic system shaping any human community – and in the disciplining of bodies, one of the most powerful psychological mechanisms for socialising the young and reproducing social orders. Every time someone speaks and moves it starts all over again.
Ironically whereas the mentality about class in Britain is unique, its reality is not. The UK situation is not altogether dissimilar from other comparable European countries.
Across the board class still matters, as the strong correlation between educational achievement and family background demonstrates. But there has been tremendous social mobility in the post-war years, which might be slowing down considerably, but not completely.
It would be plainly wrong, and indeed politically undesirable, to state that material distinctions are gone, but the old differences between the upper, middle and working classes have been displaced by more complex scenarios, where diversity of lifestyles and use of income, multiculturalism and new global cultural references complicate distinctions and unsettle the ways in which identities are defined and group affiliations take shape.
The hard consequences of class are real enough for the many people who are at the sharp end of the class system. But these should not overshadow the reality and potential of the many new routes for socialisation and identity that are opening and challenging the social frameworks of class in contemporary Britain.
Today people cross borders and seek identity in ways that were unimagined and indeed almost impossible just a few decades ago. There are new sociabilities in the scene, new ways of organising communities and of establishing social solidarities. This should wake us up to what is new ahead. Britain’s old psychology of class needs to catch up.