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13 November 2020

How a giant chicken shows our notion of class is hopelessly outdated

Class shouldn’t be determined by matters such as Brexit or coffee, but by wealth and income.

By Jonn Elledge

“Everything is about sex, except sex: sex is about power,” House of Cards’ Frank Underwood once said. I often think you could say the same about British politics, only with the slightly depressing adjustment of replacing “sex” with “class”. There is almost no news story so apolitical or anodyne that it cannot somehow be twisted into yet another argument about the British class system. The only exception is when someone tries to discuss it explicitly, at which point somehow it turns out we aren’t capable of talking about class at all.

The reason this is on my mind this week is because of (no, really) an argument about what it means to dress up as a giant chicken and harass a politician. Lee Cain, the No 10 communications director whose resignation caused such uproar on Wednesday night, even though there were members of his immediate family who had never actually heard of him, turns out to have spent part of the 2010 general election dressed as a chicken and bothering David Cameron on behalf of the Daily Mirror. This revelation led on Thursday to a certain amount of pisstaking, on the not unreasonable grounds that it is objectively hilarious.

[see also: Does Lee Cain’s resignation signal a change of direction for Boris Johnson’s government?]

Except, it turns out, everyone who found the idea of a future senior Tory adviser dressing up as a giant bird and harassing a Conservative leader funny was actually just sneering at the salt of the earth working classes. “Bit tired of all the chicken snobbery,” tweeted Sky News’ Sophy Ridge, whose own position on the class ladder is left up to the reader to determine. “Not everyone lands their dream role straight away thanks to family connections/what school they went to.”

Now: lord knows the British media has a class problem, to go alongside its race and gender problems. But so far as I have been able to tell, those trying to break in do not face a binary choice between “nepotism” and “chicken” – which makes me think that someone, somewhere, might have misunderstood the reason why people were pointing and laughing this week.

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This is not the only unexpected intrusion of class to have happened of late. Conservative MP Jake Berry, formerly the minister for the Northern Powerhouse back when the government still pretended that was a thing, this week noted that, “For many people who live in London and the south of England, things like the opera house and ballet will be at the heart of their culture. But for many of us in the north it is our local football club.”

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Berry is hardly the first to have conflated culture, class and geography in this cack-handed way. But he nonetheless managed to casually erase the existence of everything from the Manchester Opera House to West Ham United in one ill-judged statement. At least when Andy Burnham said his favourite biscuit was “beer, chips and gravy”, he was joking.

All this would be a lot less irritating were it not for the fact that, whenever we should be talking about class, we manage to miss it entirely. Yes, both the 2016 Brexit referendum and the 2019 general election saw a lot of voters in traditional Labour areas vote for the option put forward by the rightward flank of the Tory party. But the biggest source of votes for both Brexit and the Conservatives was still affluent older homeowners in the south – a group of people who, from The Discourse, you could be forgiven for not knowing existed.

[see also: Why Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings don’t care about charges of hypocrisy]

What’s more, having successfully erased those guys from national consciousness, the forces behind Vote Leave managed to flip the debate to such an extent that it was Remain voters or left-wingers who were treated as the real elites in this country, even if they held neither money nor power. We have reached the point at which a retired Yorkshire businessman who owns a big mansion but voted Leave gets to be working class, while a London cleaner who is on a zero-hours contract but voted Remain does not. And at the point where “metropolitan liberal elitist” means simply “liberal”, it’s hard to have faith that words still have meaning. All of this is without even glancing at the dispiriting fact that the phrase “the working class” all too often now carries a silent “white”.

To be fair, the British class system is incredibly hard to untangle. A Russian bloke once made the mistake of asking me to explain it to him outside a pub. Was it your wealth that determined your class, he asked? Your job? Your education? The job or education of your parents or grandparents? I found myself replying that it was all of those things and more, but that, despite my inability to articulate the whole thing, everyone born on this island was instinctively capable of placing everyone else here on the ladder without even needing to think about it. The world of Downton Abbey was a long time ago, and the modern class system is a mess.

So here’s a proposal: we stop using things like one’s position on Brexit, coffee or giant chickens as class markers. Instead, your class should be determined simply by two things: your wealth and your income. That would make it much easier to talk about the relationship between class and voting behaviour, or to explain the whole thing to Russians outside pubs, come to that. But somehow, I can’t see it catching on with the Tories.