Class. Like politics and religion, it’s one of those things that is supposed to make fastidious Brits uncomfortable if the subject comes up in polite conversation. Yet everyone’s talking about it.
I used to be a very simple soul. I thought that class was, in essence, a category used in social science to describe and explain the distinctive patterns of experience and behaviour of large social groups. There are major disagreements in sociology about definitions, of course; the Marxist idea of classes that power social and economic change through a war of wills and agency (“All history is the history of class struggle”), is very different from essentially descriptive definitions, such as those bloodless categories used by psephologists – AB, C1, C2, DE. But Marx, Weber, Durkheim, poor things, are not the source of today’s arguments about class on this island.
Class is now overwhelmingly a badge of identity. A manufactured identity sometimes pinned on others, sometimes claimed for oneself, and linked materially to consumption , and emotionally to sentiment. It’s become a tabloid concept for a vapid age.
The dominant class, hailed for its ‘authenticity’, is the “white working class”. Old Etonians and academics on the make write books about these stout, commonsensical folk, mostly male, in their distinctive white vans, with their proud banner, the cross of St George. They hate immigrants, especially darker skinned ones, and that is why they commonsensically voted to leave the Pakistani-led European Union. These salt of the earth types love fish and the fishing industry, but won’t eat mackerel, preferring a good British curry. Very importantly, they must not make any effort at school. They must reject the damaging practice of reading books, although they are allowed to “do their own research”. Educational achievement confers no benefits on these people, as evidence shows that white working class men earn more than many professional workers of colour, despite their lack of qualifications. They can be found in towns, preferably those without a university. Their main social activities are watching football in pubs, and giving interviews to the BBC in Dudley market. They used to vote Labour, but now they say that their dad will be spinning in his grave, but they just had to vote for ‘Boris’.
The non-white working class does not exist. Nor can any white working class be found in cities, except, occasionally, in constituencies on the poignant peripheral areas.
When I say that the non-white working class does not exist, I am taking the theorists of the white working class at their word. But not everyone agrees with them.
For there are other definitions which include people of colour. This is where people ostensibly on the left, but eschewing Marxism in favour of identity labels, see ‘working class’ as applying to anyone with a sentimental attachment to some real or imagined aspect of their family history. Generally speaking, such working class people do not have working lives spent on the factory floor, or Amazon warehouse. They are more likely to be found in the creative industries, in education, and other professions, as a study this year from the LSE and published in the journal Sociology, reported.
The middle class has always been a minefield in this island. There are many gradations of class within this category, as the eminent sociologist Grayson Perry has described so well. But ‘middle class’, as James O’Brien has quite rightly suggested, is now primarily a synonym for ‘educated’. Many live in cities, which, far from being large and dynamic places, are actually voids, rendering their middle class inhabitants ‘citizens of nowhere’. They are also known as the ‘metropolitan elite’.
People who went to public schools, attended posh universities, and entertain themselves with ‘work’ in the media, in right-wing ‘think tanks’, or who take interludes doing serious work in The City or the law, before entering politics at the highest level, are not ‘middle class’ in this sense. These people are above labels. They can safely sneer at the labelled ones.
Or at least, that’s what they tell themselves. I have made a study of these people. It’s quite right not to see them as a class, or even as a sub-section of a class. They are a court.
Courts are places of hierarchy. Traditionally the top of the pyramid has been hereditary, but these days to ascend to the top of the court requires a series of markers to be passed, rather like ascent through the levels of a computer game. Prep school, public school, Oxford, the Bullingdon Club, Oxford Union presidency, The Spectator, perhaps a right-wing tabloid or a Murdoch or Barclay Brothers broadsheet, before the inevitable Tory seat, preferably in the ‘Home Counties’.
Others admitted to the court are there as supplicants. Thus they must learn to speak a code, a ‘court patois’ that amuses those who are there by divine right. Phrases like ‘cultural Marxist’ and ‘critical race theory’ are used as incantations, praise songs.
But this metropolis-dwelling, exclusive set (not a ‘metropolitan elite’, nothing so common), somehow brings to mind not the complacent upper classes of the past, but something new, something befitting ‘Global Britain’. For in this court, Johnson, Cameron, Osborne, they are men sliding down the ladder of privilege, and their hangers on, Patel, Williamson, Raab, Javid, et al, descend with them.
Rishi is the cuckoo in this nest. Johnson surely fears him not because he is more popular in polls, or with the party membership, or because his Thatcherite orthodoxy is more in tune with the party’s self-image than Borisian excess. Sunak, unlike any of the rest of them, is a real Sun King.
The angst at the top of the Tory Party, and in the ruling class of this island more generally, has been stoked by class envy. Old Toryism was built on a successful cross-class alliance between the wealthiest in society (Johnson isn’t one of those by a long chalk – the Johnson family faked it till they made it), the ‘respectable’ middle classes, the professions, and business, with a large, but minority tranche of the deferential working class to add voter ballast. But globalisation, the continuing free movement of capital, has unanchored business and most finance from a need to have deep bonds with a ruling class in one country. The expansion of education has democratised the middle class, who no longer cling to one party as a defence against a no-longer organised working class. And London has become a global city, (second) home to the international billionaire class.
The psychological stress this has caused to the old ruling class ought not be to underestimated. All accounts of Johnson, even from his friends, speak of his money worries, his status anxiety. But the chillaxed, insouciance of the likes of Cameron is an act now. His desperate pursuit of Lex Greensill, his fawning over the killers of Jamal Khashoggi, his anxiety to ingratiate himself with Rupert Murdoch, these are the signs of a decaying class desperate to retain wealth and status in the face of the stark reality of their relative fall from the summit.
But Rishi Sunak is one of the new, global citizens. His own efforts (with a leg up from wealthy parents and a public school education) made him seriously rich, and marriage into the billionaire class puts him in a different place to the plodding, dreary millionaires at the top of the Tories. He represents power in a way that they do not. And they hate it.
Class isn’t about identity, it isn’t about morality. It’s about power, who, collectively, has it, who doesn’t, and how that is contested.
The rest is a lot of mildly diverting nonsense.
Me? I’m a socially mobile peasant from the tea growing hills of Asia. A middle class pauper. An authentic white working class kid turned citizen of nowhere. The metropolitan elite. I’m quite content with that.