…and the divisions are more bitterly felt than ever
Until recently, the British middle classes felt quite good about themselves. The class war was over, and they had won it. Pretty much everyone wanted to join the middle classes. If they were not already members, the way things were going they very soon would be. ‘Embourgeoisement’ was the sociologists’ word for what was happening. Contrary to Marx’s flight plan, the bourgeoisie was turning out to be the preferred destination of History. No longer was British society shaped like a pyramid, with a steepling summit of idle toffs and an enormous broad base of deprived and discontented proles. It had already become more or less diamond-shaped, tapering sharply in numbers and influence at both the top and the bottom. At this rate, Britain would soon look rather like a cottage loaf, with both its upper and lower crusts nicely rounded into conformity with middle-class values and lifestyles. This was the ideal type of society, the sort that Aristotle had identified 2,500 years ago as the best possible, a society in which people of the middling sort formed the dominant class, ran the politics and grew the culture. For a century and more, that had been a glimmer on the horizon. Now it was here.
As a result, class was no longer a live subject of discussion. Its noxious effects had been eradicated by progress, just as TB and rickets had been. Bright young TV producers would not think of making programmes about it. Only fogeys were still noticing whether people said toilet or loo or put Esquire when addressing envelopes to other fogeys. Racism, gender, gay rights — these were hot topics, but class? Forget it, and we did our best to.
Yet as we crawled into the new millennium, class began to seep back on to the agenda, like the smell of an old drain you never knew was there.
There was, first, the unmistakable economic evidence. In terms of take-home cash, the differences between top and bottom were widening, not narrowing as they had been throughout the post-war years, and probably the years before that too. It was the crash of 2007-09 that really woke us up to the unwelcome news, but the trend had been gathering strength for some time. The average ratio of CEOs’ pay to that of their employees rose from 47 to 120 over the first decade of the 21st century. Sir Terry Leahy of Tesco was paid nearly 900 times as much as the average Tesco worker, Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP received 631 times the wage of his staff — and he considered himself somewhat underpaid. Real wages had nearly doubled over the past 30 years, but only 8 per cent of that growth went to the bottom earners. Their wages, in Britain as in the United States, remained more or less stagnant.
What’s more, the crash imposed no restraint at all on the appetites of the fat cats. Even larger dollops of honey stuck to their prehensile paws. Last October, at a time when average living standards were being severely squeezed and millions of workers were enduring pay freezes or actual pay cuts, Incomes Data Services reported that the annual pay packages of directors of FTSE100 companies had risen by no less than 49 per cent in a single year, to an average figure of £2.7 million.
Nor could we console ourselves that at least we were now living in a much more open society, in which children from the most disadvantaged homes had a far better chance of becoming fat cats themselves. On the contrary, social mobility seemed to have stalled, or, even on the more optimistic computations, slowed to the pace of Friday-night traffic on the M25. In many ways, Britain was still one of the more open societies known to history, as it had been for centuries. There were still plenty of cases where people made it from the most unpromising beginnings in life. But suddenly upward mobility seemed to be getting harder again.
Successive Prime Ministers from Harold Macmillan to John Major and Tony Blair had promised that we were well on the way to a classless society. But that promise began to look a little hollow. The new Labour leader Ed Miliband started talking about ‘the squeezed middle’. Nobody was sure exactly what he meant, but it didn’t sound very nice. Were we heading back to the days of Hilaire Belloc’s hoary social curse when
‘The People in Between
Looked underdone and harassed,
And out of place and mean
And horribly embarrassed’ ?
What caught my attention, though, was not only the growing evidence of income inequality. This was becoming impossible to miss. What struck me was another sort of relative deprivation, one which the sociologists and statisticians were less eager to identify, what for want of a better phrase could be called cultural deprivation. What I am talking about in my book Mind the Gap and in Melvyn Bragg’s new BBC TV series Class and Culture is a hollowing out of the lives of the worst off. Materially, of course, there is no comparison with the bad old days. The expectation of life for all classes has improved beyond recognition, and the NHS, with all its faults, ensures that even the poorest experience infinitely less pain and discomfort on the way. It seems near sacrilege to say that, amongst these wonderful advances, the poorest have also lost something, in fact quite a lot. What has happened to working-class culture in the old sense: to the Nonconformist churches and schools, to the friendly societies and the working men’s institutes? Whatever became of the hundreds of working-class men and women that the trade unions used to put into Parliament? It is impossible to read great books like Jonathan Rose’s Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes and not wonder where all the old sense of self-worth and desire for self-improvement have gone to. Do The X-Factor and Big Brother really fill the gap? Is reality TV the only kind of reality the masses are thought capable of hoisting in now?
If you think this is just a reactionary lament, I recommend a look back at Gordon Brown’s speech at the 2009 Labour party conference, which turned out to be his last conference as Prime Minister. It was a remarkable performance. This driven, supremely confident man seemed sunk in self-doubt and paralysed by a loss of direction that was embarrassing to watch. For the first time, Brown acknowledged, not in anything you could call an apology (he is not a Man of Sorries) but unmistakably enough, that something had gone terribly wrong with his whole mission. It had turned out that public spending alone had not brought, perhaps could never bring, the New Jerusalem. After 12 years of New Labour, there were still symptoms of social decay, disorder and division on a scale that no Labour leader in the grimmest years of the 1930s would have suspected, let alone admitted to. The poor were still with us, and they were still different from the rich. And whose fault was this? For a long portion of his speech — a good ten minutes I would guess — Gordon Brown did something weird and unprecedented for a Labour leader. He deplored the behaviour not of the rich but of the poor.
‘We have to be honest,’ he said. ‘it’s not just the bankers and politicians that have lost the people’s trust.’ Things had gone wrong at the bottom of the heap too. Anti-social behaviour made a life a misery for ‘the decent, hard-working majority’ who were ‘sick and tired of others playing by different rules or no rules at all’. Despite Labour’s fond hope that relaxing the licensing hours would teach the British to drink like civilised Continentals, the ‘youth drinking culture’ had made some city centres no-go areas at night. Family breakdown was more common, children were at risk on the internet, elderly people were more often isolated in their own homes. And, Brown lamented, ‘it cannot be right for a girl of 16 to get pregnant, to be given the keys to a council flat and be left on her own’. Society had to spell out the boundaries between right and wrong and make clear ‘the new responsibilities we demand of people in return for the rights they have’. No embittered colonel could have spoken with more indignation and distaste.
In the most unexpected admission of all, Brown said, ‘if you ask your neighbours or your workmates how they feel right now in this fast-changing world, they will probably talk about their sense of unease.’
Unease! After 12 years of New Labour, after the greatest expansion of expenditure ever known on health, welfare, education and the other amenities of life, people are uneasy? It seems that what Bernard Shaw called the Undeserving Poor had let Brown down. In fact, this seems to be what Labour’s Respect Agenda was really all about. Not teaching the comfortably off to respect the poor for the hardships they endured. No, it was to hector the poor into respecting their betters, and adopting those standards of conduct which the middle classes had appropriated as their own: hard work, law-abidingness and decency — qualities which even in the hardest days of the 1930s George Orwell had found just as common among the miners in Wigan as among solicitors in Surrey.
If you want to see what the middle classes think of the poor now, you need to look at the hospital soaps and the cop shows and EastEnders, or the sitcoms of recent years such as Shameless. In these programmes, the lower classes are depicted with a sneering relish in all their supposed moral and physical degradation. The women who turn up in Casualty or who open the door to the DI are slags, either scrawny dyed blondes or obese and bulging out of their tracksuit bottoms. The children are surly, whining and inarticulate. The men are equally surly and incoherent, callous and faithless to their women, sentimental about their children but liable to forget to pick them up from school, interested only in sex, drink and football.
As the TV critic of the Sunday Times remarked a few years back, ‘If you switch on at any point during EastEnders you will nearly always find people arguing furiously. About 12 million people watch EastEnders, and it’s sometimes difficult to see why. Nobody really seems to like each other much.’ The viewing figures may have slipped a bit, but the level of acrimony has not.
For a scriptwriter to introduce an upstanding idealistic purposeful character of the sort that regularly appeared in When the Boat Comes In, let alone Dixon of Dock Green, would be regarded as hopelessly sentimental — which is why the success of Call the Midwife has taken the chattering classes by surprise, because it is a throwback to those more innocent upbeat days. For the edgy producer, ‘gritty’ goes with ‘realism’ like feta cheese goes with sun-dried tomatoes.
By contrast, if you want to know what the middle classes think of the rich, there is only one show to watch. In Downton Abbey, noblesse always obliges, with the odd human lapse which only gives his Lordship another chance to display his forgiving nature. There is no hint here that the Edwardian upper class was as notorious for the number of adulteries it chalked up as for the number of pheasants it brought down, notorious too for its cold-hearted, money-grubbing cynicism, which made sensitive souls like Rupert Brooke and Raymond Asquith long for the cleansing of a Great War. Nor is there much mention in Downton Abbey of the scams and sharp practice that defiled the City then as now, and the aristocracy were up to their necks in most of it. Only in the back pages of the tabloids do you now and then read a letter from some elderly lady whose mother had been a housemaid in a great house and who recalled that the great ladies were not always so sweet.
It is hard to resist the thought that our present views of class in Britain are just as warped and incomplete as those of earlier generations — and rather less kindhearted. What is worse is that we continue to pretend that the subject no longer exists. Perhaps we should sink our pride a little and take a closer look at the way we really live now.
Ferdinand Mount is a series consultant to Melvyn Bragg’s three programmes on Class and Culture which will be shown on BBC2 over the next three Fridays. His book, Mind the Gap: the New Class Divide in Britain, is published by Short Books at £8.99.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 25, 2012