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For longer than I’ve been a firm fan of John Prescott, I’ve been fighting against the British class system, pushing against a glass ceiling that I’ll never be allowed to break. Whatever my educational attainments, however much money I have, whoever my husband is, I’ll never quite belong to the upper middle class.  Because I went to a state school. Because my parents left school at sixteen and because they did not go to university. Because they were not educated privately. Because I grew up in a modern semi-detached house on the wrong side of town. Because I went to a Polytechnic not a proper university. Because of all these things I am tattoed with my lower middle class origins and will never ever be able to cast them off. It is not any one of those reasons that defeats me, but the basket of them all. At least I am Christian, white and Anglo-Saxon. The best I can hope for is for token acceptance, as the oddity, the exotic Labour Party member in a bouquet of Tories.

I don’t know my place. I have ideas above my station, and this is where the trouble starts. I threaten those in the class above me who fear they might not be able to maintain their position in the next generation. Women are the worst, or perhaps the problem for me is worst amongst members of the same gender. I think it is because women’s success is defined more by their class than is true of men who define themselves by their jobs. Upper middle class women tend not to have jobs. Jobs are for lower middle class women and middle middle class women. People tell me that I imagine things. I don’t. I just notice things and happen to come in contact with the upper middle classes quite a lot because, as I said, I don’t know my place. I am uppity.

So a short series of TV programmes featuring Mr and Mrs Prescott cantering through the class system was always going to be unmissable.  Working class John Prescott rose to be Deputy Prime Minister in the Labour government under Tony Blair and has famously smacked a member of the public who threw an egg at him, confessed to an affair and fought to keep his marriage to his glamorous working class wife, and has written and spoken about his bulimia.  He describes himself as a “bag of no confidence” with enough chips to eat with fish.

The first programme deals with class amongst white Britons and takes the Prescotts from encounters with aristocrats to strawberries on the terrace at Westminster with three “chavs”, one of the few words banned in our household. Chav is shorthand for “Council house and violence” according to the most commonly advanced etymology. My daughters’ friends use it the whole time to denote girls (in particular) who dress in a particular way and just happen also to come from a different background.

John Prescott is endearing, and his wife equally so.  The warm, funny, open relationship that the couple enjoy makes you smile with them: there is something chastening about watching a couple who have weathered so much and have emerged with such demonstrable love and support for each other inspite of – or as a result of – the storms, who have loved each other since they were teenagers, and who make each other laugh often.  He was the man who married a woman who had given up a child for adoption.  She is the woman who has stood by her man, understanding his frailties, his insecurities, and forgiving him because she understood them.

For John Prescott is familarly insecure.  Even at 70 he is still hurt to remember how the Blairs never invited them to Chequers.  He craves acceptance from people who will never accept him, whom he describes as The Enemy. 

He talks to two public school boys at the rowing regatta at Henley-on-Thames and challenges them about their upper middle class sense of entitlement. Their badge of entitlement is a gold signet ring on their little finger, bearing the family crest. Easily visible and unmistakeable at thirty yards. It turns out that the army has bought the entitlement of one of them, a privilege reserved only for children of officers.

Watching Prescott wander along the tow path at Henley, he confirms my prejudices.  Nothing he can ever do will ever allow him to leave his class behind.  He will never be a member of the upper middle class and members of that class will always be able to look down on his lower social class origins. The only hope for his white, Christian, Anglo-saxon family is for them to buy into the class system, educate their children privately, and, with any luck, after three generations the working class man will have been bred out of them, much as the Australians tried breeding the black out of Aboriginees.

Self doubt cripples or fulfils an individual with a desire to prove themselves, or both, we hear.  John Prescott is a complicated mixture of neuroses and principles, hating snobs with every breath of his body.   He rails against snobbery and inherited privilege, against the horribly British reality that the privately educated 7% of the population occupy 80% of the top jobs. Cherie Blair, a working class woman like Paula, is still trying to win acceptance. Even being a Queen’s Counsel, a top barrister in her own right, even being married to a Prime Minister, will not help her gain entry.

Cherie Blair and Paula Prescott

I hate snobbery too and I cried as I watched the programme. Almost nothing makes me more angry, and more hurt in equal measure. I hate it that I may be as intelligent, attractive, educated as the next (upper middle) class person, but I will never be quite good enough in the eyes of many of that class or, if I am TOO good, I will need to be put firmly back in my place because my parents could not afford to buy me the proper ticket and so I have no right to be there. I cannot bear to see people, children particularly, being put down because of their social origins and find it difficult to forgive people who do it so unthinkingly. My daughters cringe when a friend says that snobbish c— word, knowing that a lecture from me will follow. And yet, and yet, I find myself steering my children towards acceptable upper middle class clothes, just as I refused to allow them to take on the young girls’ badge of the working class – pierced ears before puberty – lest they find themselves judged and found wanting by their peers.

The only solution is a title – a knighthood or a peerage – which would allow me to leapfrog over the enemy territory to a higher land, to jump from being an Untouchable to being beyond reach. I say “Take the peerage, John. You’ve earned it!”.  Ironically, if he had not done so well, he would not have realised the size of the problem.

Time after time people ask him why he cannot leave his insecurity behind, why he cannot see how well he has done, how much he has achieved.  But he lacks the confidence to do so, the confidence that comes from being educated at public school to know one’s own superiority and that of one’s old school friends. 

We went to look round Westminster School a few weeks ago. Westminster School is possibly one of the least snobbish private schools you could hope to find. It is an anarchic beacon, an admittedly elitist meritocracy, and Elder Daughter would have loved to go there – if it wasn’t so far from our home. From the minute we arrived everyone told our daughter how brilliant she was. She may or may not be brilliant – they couldn’t possibly have known – but it doesn’t take long to start believing the messenger and behaving accordingly. Imagine a school that tells you, day after day, year after year, that you are superior to the unwashed outside the gate. You’d end up believing it, which is what your parents paid the fees for.

Private education is not all about getting a better education.  Private education in boarding schools is rarely about getting a better education, but it will still increase your chances of going to a top University, and winning a top job. Eton is a notable exception to add to those London day schools, and is wealthy enough to offer generous bursaries and scholarships which, in theory at least, put it within reach of every bright boy, even funding boys through the necessary preparatory schools that feed into it.  Even then, the scholarship boy may discover that he didn’t go to the same school as those whose parents paid the fees. I would love every bright boy to have an opportunity of experiencing the education that Eton offers, and every girl.

I don’t get upset by all this much nowadays and things are perhaps changing slowly. I’ve grown a thicker skin or simply an older, tougher one that I feel happier in. But there was a time when it would not have taken much to radicalise me and I still know where I’d plant the bombs if it got really bad.  In my ideal world, I’d abolish private education altogether, though not the schools that provide it, and I’d replace it with something that recognises and rewards an individual child’s merit. Margaret Thatcher had a good shot at doing something similar – by providing means tested Assisted Places to private schools in areas where her beloved grammar schools had been abolished. And isn’t it a scandal that private schools still qualify for the privileged fiscal regime of charitable status – that we, the taxpayers, are subsidising this invidious system?

Nowadays I’ve given up fighting and just play the system and there are few people that have more personal, first hand knowledge of the system than me, from the very top to somewhere close to the bottom. We educate our daughters in the periphery of that detested public school system, in a cloudy nether world – occupied by worthy girls’ day schools and the rump of the old grammar schools – which straddles the border between the Haves and the Have-nots. When they are older they will be able to choose which world they want to live in, and will hopefully blend in to both. You could argue that I should not have sold out my principles, that we should have sent our children to the local state comprehensive school. I would argue that they are my principles, not my children’s; that almost nobody who can afford the private school fees comfortably chooses to send their children to state schools, so entrenched is the purchase of privilege; and that our daughers will be able to choose their principles for themselves, free of the insecurities that have dogged me.

You can watch the programme here, but only in the UK sadly. The second programme goes out on Monday, and deals with class and ethnicity…

From the Observer today:

We love celebrity culture but loathe the unfairness of fame, seeing it as an excuse to ridicule the Britneys of our world. Julian Baggini explores our peculiar love-hate relationship with success

“If you want an insight into British attitudes to success, just think of Richard Branson. He’s rich, successful, philanthropic and a record-breaking explorer to boot. None the less, he’s also seen as a vain self-publicist who’s better at marketing himself than running things. No wonder he has featured both in lists of the 100 Greatest Britons and the 100 Worst Britons.

Branson perfectly illustrates a paradox in British attitudes to success. On the one hand, we specialise in sneering at it. Only a quintessentially British songwriter like Morrissey could have written a song called ‘We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful,’ with such poisonous lines as ‘If we can destroy them, you bet your life we will,’ and ‘If we can hurt them, well, we may as well’. Building people up only to knock them down again is a national pastime.

But on the other hand, we do success rather well. The achievements of the United Kingdom are way out of proportion with its size. Only the much larger USA has produced more Nobel Laureates than the UK. Great Britain lies sixth in the all-time Olympic medal table, when it is currently only the 22nd most populous nation in the world. British literature, television and pop music are among the most highly regarded and enjoyed around the globe. In business, ours is the fifth biggest economy in the world.

What explains this combination of negative attitudes to success and high achievement? One clue comes from sport. Consider the case of the recently retired Tim Henman. Henman is the most successful British tennis player of the open era, who at his peak only had three men in the world ranked above him. Yet his image is of a plucky loser, an underdog we love to root for but don’t really expect to win.

We took Henman’s success for granted as we assume we belong at the top, and anything else just doesn’t impress us. The same bizarre logic ensures that only a World Cup-winning football team will ever satisfy the nation. Yet England does not belong to the elite club of only five nations who have won the world cup outside their own country. We believe we belong at the top of the tree, even though the evidence is firmly against us. So much for the famous British empiricism.

The British assumption of superiority is internationally renowned, and reiterated in our national songs. ‘Rule Britannia’ declares that we are sovereign over the oceans, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ declares our bounds shall be set wider and wider and that God made us mighty and is going to make us mightier yet. Humble we are not.

Britain on top

Underlying all this is an assumption about the natural order of things, which, put plainly, has Britain on top and everyone else underneath. But this same sense of the natural order extends to within our borders too, and is reflected in one of the most famous hymns to have come out of the Church of England. The third verse of ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ tells us ‘The rich man in his castle / The poor man at his gate / God made them, high or lowly / And order’d their estate.’ It is a perfect encapsulation of the class system’s perceived naturalness and legitimacy.

The verse is rarely sung these days because we like to think we live in more meritocratic times. But class awareness persists. There is still a distinction made between people who were born into the upper echelons of society and those who clawed their way up. The latter are almost always treated with a certain degree of condescension. We are never allowed to forget that the likes of the Beckhams or Alan Sugar are not true blue-bloods but are, in all senses of the word, too vulgar for their late-found wealth. We may have become a more economically mobile society, but you are branded with your class identifiers at birth and you never lose them.

In contrast the US embraces, at least on the surface, a more dynamic view. The American Dream is that anyone can succeed, regardless of where you come from. Although the dream is too often just that, anyone who has spent any time in America will know there is something in it.

 For instance, 10 years ago Jeremy Stangroom and I started the Philosophers’ Magazine. At conferences in the UK, many academics would wander past our table, looking suspiciously at this unfamiliar upstart, judged non bona fide until proven otherwise. Their body language was at times quite extraordinary: I can picture some of them flicking through the display copies while keeping as physically far from them as possible. It wasn’t just academics. I remember one person seeing our first issue and asking sceptically whether there would be a second. Success is the impostor here: what we expect is failure and disappointment.

In the US it was completely different. People came to us enthusiastic about our new venture. They wished us luck, bought copies and told us what a good idea it was. The door was not just open to opportunity there, you were positively beckoned in. Back in Britain, the door was not exactly locked, but if you dared to enter a new room, it was up to you to make sure you fitted in.

 But then we return to the paradox: Britain has produced two successful, independent philosophy magazines; the much larger US hasn’t produced any. In America people may will you to succeed, but we do very well without such encouragement over here. Perhaps there is no paradox, perhaps it is simply the case that scepticism and suspicion are better friends to the ambitious than blind faith. Indeed, it is not entirely good that younger generations are beginning to adopt the ‘you can be anything you want to be’ mantra. Too many people are being told that if they want something enough, they will get it, as though desire is some kind of supernatural force that moulds the world to your fancy.

This is the kind of pernicious nonsense behind the runaway success on both sides of the Atlantic of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, a book which explains the ‘law of attraction’, a widely held new-age view that your thoughts determine your experience. As is so often the case, the irony of an apparently spiritual world view teaching such rampantly narcissistic egoism is usually lost.

The danger of such positive thinking gone nuclear is that it blinds people to hard realities. We already see thousands of people auditioning to TV talent shows convinced that they will be pop stars if they believe enough, even though they clearly can’t hold a note. Yet we seem to accept now that it is wrong to question anyone’s dream. We don’t only have to believe in ourselves, we have to believe in everyone else too.

 A little more American-style inculcation of the possibilities the world has to offer would be no bad thing, especially for children who miss out on private education’s greatest benefit: a sense that the world is your oyster. But perhaps it is better to meet new world optimism halfway, somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, and keep it tempered with some sober realism.

The British way does have some other advantages over more ostentatiously pro-success cultures. For instance, there has always been room in British culture for freelancers, mavericks and outsiders. In many European countries, such as Italy, intellectual life is firmly the monopoly of the professoriate. We may lament the way in which Oxbridge produces so many of the ruling elite, but France’s Grandes Ecoles have an even greater stranglehold on the routes to power. There is a respect for difference and diversity here which again sits oddly with the general conservatism of class and tradition.

Our peculiar mix of convention and innovation is explained by the fact that Britain is the land of evolution, not revolution. We may be conservative, but unlike many traditional societies, we are not rigid in our social rules and practices. The Victorians, for example, invented the middle classes: people who were neither born to money nor destined to forever be employees, but entrepreneurs who provided the missing link between the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate.

The comparison with the new middle classes in many of the emerging economies is revealing. People sometimes celebrate the bullish entrepreneurs of India and the far east and think we could learn something from their can-do attitude. Perhaps we can, but we need to remember that we are an old economy and the frontier spirit which sees every opportunity as a blank slate is simply not appropriate here.

British success is rooted in a collective experience of a rich, fruitful past. We are cautious and sceptical, but that means that when we do something new, it is more likely to be built on firm foundations, not just the utopian desire for a better future.

We may be quiet and even disparaging about success when it comes, but in our understated way, we’re well equipped to achieve it.”

Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. His most recent book is Welcome to Everytown: A Journey into the English Mind (Granta)