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5 August 2023

How the left forgot the petty bourgeoisie

The sociologist Dan Evans on the “shopkeeper” class that progressives fail to understand.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Three years after he left his seaside hometown of Porthcawl for a new life in nearby Cardiff, the sociologist Dan Evans moved back home. He had been made redundant just before Christmas 2017, after a string of short-term university contracts. His dream of becoming a lecturer seemed lost.

One evening he went for a pint at the Harbour, a seafront hotel bar where he had worked during his schooldays and later while finishing his PhD on Welsh identity. A friend who was running the bar offered him a job. He started the next day. Old classmates would come by on nights out. Tradesmen, swaggering in after work in paint-splattered workwear, bought drinks with wads of cash. Cops, squaddies, sales reps, nurses, hairdressers and beauticians. They had houses and spouses and kids, and couldn’t understand why he was still behind the bar. “Doctors” were meant to be rich.

“They had lots of money, or at least a lot compared to me,” Evans, 38, recalls in A Nation of Shopkeepers: The Unstoppable Rise of the Petty Bourgeoisie – a memoir-cum-treatise on what he deems the UK’s forgotten class. “They had attractive girlfriends and wives, nice cars, and almost always owned their own house… I inspired genuine pity.

“On top of the builders, self-employment now included the working-class mums from school selling Herbalife or some other Ponzi scheme on Facebook, or other lads doing increasingly small-scale handyman work.”

This is the petty bourgeoisie of modern Britain: Karl Marx’s artisans and Margaret Thatcher’s shopkeepers, sandwiched between the working and middle class. To Evans, their lives are a parallel universe – fingertip-close but now too far away. At 16, he was a labourer for a local plasterer, who kept telling him to take two years out to learn the trade. “I was like: ‘No, I’m going to be a lecturer!’ I was patronising, naive,” he told me.

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The Evanses were upwardly mobile, moving within three generations from a council estate and the pits to the sea air of Porthcawl, where they settled in 1980 – Dan was born four years later. He grew up between two classes: blue-collar Port Talbot stock (his father was a bricklayer and his grandfather a miner and steelworker), and a “solidly middle-class family of schoolteachers” on his university-educated mother’s side.

Unlike his two best friends growing up, Tom and Eggy, who messed around in lessons and started hanging out with the sportier boys, he stayed on for sixth form. He won a scholarship to study international relations at Aberystwyth. Since then, he has pinballed between Porthcawl and Cardiff, working shifts in call centres and bars, coaching football teams and doing homeless outreach, clutching at academic stints. When we met, he had just taken a part-time role researching trade unionism at Cardiff, plus two days teaching criminology at Swansea. He was losing hope of landing a full-time job before 40.

“That experience of downward social mobility is extremely jarring,” he admitted when we met over lime-soda pints at a backroom table in the Rock Inn – owned by another boyhood friend – up the road from his parents’ house. Described by the local press as a “once rough pub that’s become one of the best places to eat in town”, its garish blood-check carpet has given way to sleek wooden flooring, and there’s a pizza oven in the beer garden now.

Throughout our day in Porthcawl, Evans obsessed over such aesthetic detail. “From a very young age, I was interested in class signifiers,” he explained. Taking me on a tour, he pointed out neat grids of new-build bungalows, and their “house-proud” owners’ “immaculate” gardens of plastic turf and faux olive trees. He contrasted this with the “bohemian” clutter of his own family home, a three-storey, bay-windowed Victorian terrace of weathered cream and grey stone (his gran “couldn’t handle it”; she would just obsessively tidy whenever she visited).

[See also: Which social class are you according to the British public?]

“The old ‘respectable working-class’ need for cleanliness and tidiness is rooted in a time when people did dirty jobs,” he observed. “The middle classes are defined by ease. Housing aesthetics have become one of the most noticeable and obvious signifiers of class in the UK, especially with new-builds.”

In town, I noticed he even looked different from the boys-done-good he grew up with. Dressed all in black (aside from chunky white trainers and the Ralph Lauren horse on his cap), with a hipsterish ginger fuzz of moustache and classic Ray-Ban shades, his subtle brand of lad-casual contrasted with the more “flash” tastes on show. (“While they marked themselves off from the working class through flashing the cash, I marked myself off via cultural and educational capital,” he writes.)

“Back when I had hair, it was all about haircuts and accents,” he said. “Because Porthcawl’s on the coast and a surfers’ town, a lot of boys deliberately cultivated long blonde hair, and we were seen as very posh, especially when you went up the Valleys where all the lads had crew cuts.”

Porthcawl itself is two towns in one. A rough-and-tumble leisure resort (“Valleys-on-sea”, where south Wales miners would holiday) famed for the world’s biggest Elvis festival – and a scenic Cornish-ish home to aspirational families and retirees who change their house numbers to “So-and-so Cottage” and christen the roads “avenues”. Evans described these separate worlds as “oil and water”. In his youth, he rarely went to Coney Beach, which backs on to a languid fairground lined with cockle stands and bars. “This part of Porthcawl was seen as ‘other’,” he said, as we weaved along its promenade. “I never came here because I was a little snob.”

Stuck renting, precariously-employed, and betrayed by an illusory “British dream”, Evans became political for the first time aged 30, attracted by Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the Labour leadership in 2015. He never joined the party though, and grew disillusioned when canvassing for the 2017 election around his hometown. He cringed at how his fellow activists, privileged kids from Cardiff, clashed with the ideals of “hard graft” revered back home. Their target voters shrugged at condemnations of the housing crisis and landlords. As self-employed homeowners, they would buy rental properties instead of a pension.

Evans soon noticed “misanthropy” among his new graduate pals: a sense that “we’ve been let down by the public”. Having grown up in and around the petty bourgeoisie, he disagreed. “There is this assumption that people are bad, dull or selfish, and that for me is a fundamental tension. How are you going to win people over if you don’t really like them, and if you’ve got no connection with them? People can tell; they’re not stupid.”

Westminster’s target-voter caricatures such as “Mondeo man” and, more recently, “Stevenage woman”, frustrate him. “It’s cod sociology, rather than looking at the UK in terms of class,” he said. “What they are really talking about when they say ‘the normal person’ or ‘the median voter’ is the petty bourgeoisie; it’s on the periphery of their vision, they know it exists, they talk about it every four years, but the problem is they don’t understand it.

“They think there’s this group that is almost uniformly reactionary. For me, being a socialist is based on this idea that people are good and kind, and willing to cooperate with each other.”

As a socialist embedded in conservative values, and an ex-Corbynite dissenter, Evans felt like a lone voice. “The left has given up trying to understand popular conservatism,” he said. “There is a desperate lack of reflection on where the left has gone wrong, and its relationship to people outside the circles it occupies.”

Dan Evans’s journey is ordinary. Nearly a quarter of UK graduates are “returners”: people who go back home when they can’t find work after university. More than any other graduate type, they struggle in the labour market. They find themselves dislocated from the peers they left behind. Yet Evans hoped his experience could at least help Labour in its clumsy scramble for “the middle ground”.

“The whole point of [my] book is to show that most people are not latent fascists; they are just getting by and trying to do what’s best for their family… The fact is, Labour epitomises this idea of the professional managerial class, and if you look throughout history, that’s what the petty bourgeoisie have really hated: the class above them.”

[See also: Labour must not be the party of middle class environmentalism]

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