A lesson in the British Class System by Barbara Nadel

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I’m going through a bit of an identity crisis at the moment. All my life I’ve been told I am, and have also self identified as, working class. Now I find I can’t possibly be that because ‘working class’ is a term that is very rapidly ceasing to exist. The class system, it seems, is changing here in the UK with the working classes, apparently headed for some sort of redundancy.

Why is this? I can’t say for certain why or how, but I do have a theory which revolves around the certain fact that the two ‘higher’ classes of people, the upper and middle classes, are getting richer. How can they do that in the middle of a recession, I hear you cry? Surely as our Prime Minister David Cameron is always saying, ‘we’re all in this together’.

Except that some of us are ‘in this’ rather more than others. The upper and middles are, as I say, getting richer opening a gap between them and the working classes and the ever increasing hoards of what are affectionately called the ‘under class’, which exists at the ‘bottom’ of society.

People often assume, because you’re a professional of any sort, that you are, by definition, middle class. Some folk assume that because I am an author, I must have all the trappings and benefits of a middle class life. Not much could be further from the truth. True, I do own my house and all of the tat in it, but I don’t play golf, I don’t go out to restaurants, I own the sort of car that you usually see old farmers in and I shop at places where the under class shop. I can’t afford to do anything else. Furthermore, although I am married to an educated, intellectual man, he is neither a doctor nor a lawyer and last time I went to the hairdresser Duran Duran were in the charts. In other words I am irredeemably working class. Or I was.

While some assume I must be middle class because of my profession, there is an argument to suggest that I am actually slipping down the system into the under class. I do, after all, shop where they shop, like them I don’t have private health care, I have been in receipt of state benefits in the past and every time something goes wrong with my house or my car a small, but significant, financial crisis ensues.

The under class or the ‘poor’ as they used to be called, have always been with us and they probably always will be. In the past their numbers were legion and my ancestors were numerous amongst them. They lived lives of urban poverty characterised by the ill health of malnutrition, overwork and endless child bearing, they were cold, they had nothing, they were illiterate, superstitious and exploited. As a family, and by dint of education and work, we pulled ourselves out of that to become proud working class people who didn’t want to be members of the local golf club but did want decent food and clean water. We remain the same people with no aspirations to marry doctors or pay a ‘little man’ to clean the BMW on Saturday mornings.

But I fear that now, we’re slipping. Our current government doesn’t like the working classes. Just today they’ve proposed a new set of legislative instruments that will curtail workers rights in this country and put power firmly into the hands of the (mainly upper and middle class) employers. Apparently such a measure will make us more competitive internationally – principally with countries like China. Now I don’t know what the state of labour relations actually are in China but I suspect that they are rather less than advantageous to the worker. Is such a model appropriate for an ‘advanced western democracy’? I don’t think so, but then who cares a shit what I think?

If we’re not careful (and let’s face it, we won’t be) we here in the UK are going to drift back to the 1930s. ‘Austerity’ is a word that is used a lot these days but it only applies to certain people – the under class and what remains of the working class – Mrs ‘I’ve got an ironically named vegetable patch in my vast back garden’ the doctor’s wife, still has the little man in to clean the BMW every Saturday morning. But then as our very own embodiment of the word ‘odious’ our Chancellor George Osborne said just after the Olympics, we need to reward wealth creators and success stories in this country. So let’s give Mrs Ironic veggie patch even MORE, shall we?

I know, let’s not. Let’s, instead, reward her ‘little man’ and all the other people who enable her and her husband to spend a lot of money and support our economy in this time of austerity and need. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I am angry and I think with good cause. I have absolutely no aspirations to be middle class – golf clubs that wouldn’t have me anyway are safe, BMW need never fear that I will fling a sheep in the back of one of their sports cars and I couldn’t give a flying fuck about going to the hairdressers. What I do care about however, is going backwards. My father always used to say ‘never go backwards’ – in other words better yourself, get educated and make a life for yourself and your family. Poverty is no life. If any class should be phased out it is the under class, who should be lifted out of poverty and given some dignity, a helping hand, some hope and a ticket into the working class.

But then that was what did start to happen here in the middle of the 20th century when the working class was large and powerful and, most significantly, organised. And look what happened then? We got free health care, for everyone, even the rich, we had unions and free, good education and people who had lived in poverty all their lives began to see some light at the end of the tunnel. But that was then and this is now. Now rich bankers and industrialists have plundered the world and someone has to pay to put that right again. No prizes for guessing who that is. No further prizes for guessing how we feel about it.

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