At a lunch party last Sunday with a group of journalists, the conversation inevitably turned to class and how this ancient English obsession has come to dominate the political news agenda. It’s now such a hot topic that the moment a member of the government does anything that can be construed as remotely snobbish — such as sit in a first-class carriage with a standard-class ticket — he is guaranteed to appear on the front pages the following day.
For a leftie, the answer is obvious. We live in the most class-bound society in the developed world and this government of millionaires, led by a toffee-nosed public schoolboy, is determined to make it even more so. That’s the barely concealed agenda behind raising university tuition fees, cutting the Education Maintenance Allowance, reducing the top rate of income tax, protecting the City of London and slashing benefits. As Alan Johnson said when George Osborne first unveiled his austerity programme in 2010, ‘This is what they came into politics for.’
Now, it’s plainly not true that Britain is more hamstrung by class than any other western country. Institutions like Oxford University and the BBC are often attacked for failing to do more to promote social mobility, but actually Britain doesn’t fare too badly in the international league tables. If you measure inter-generational social mobility according to occupation (typically a seven-class model with ‘higher managerial and professional’ at the top and ‘routine’ at the bottom), Britain sits somewhere in the middle of the table of developed countries, level-pegging with Germany.
True, if you measure social mobility by income instead, Britain fares worse. But even according to that metric, we’re still not the most class-bound society in the developed world. Not as class-bound as America, for instance.
So the leftie’s explanation for why class is back at the forefront of our minds — and his crude analysis of what motivates senior Conservative politicians — is wrong. This government is as committed as the previous one to extending opportunities, with Exhibit A in the case for the defence being Michael Gove’s education reforms. As a nation, we remain obsessed with class in spite of our track record on social mobility, not because of it.
I think it has more to do with psychology than sociology. When we think about ourselves as a people, we quickly fall back on class stereotypes, not least because they’re so familiar to us from our literary classics, our great works of drama, our favourite films and television shows, etc. It’s as if British public life is a shadow play, an echo of another, more vivid comedy drama in which the toffs and the plebs are constantly battling it out. When we look at figures like David Cameron and Ed Miliband, the nuances of their particular backgrounds don’t register, and, instead, we cast them as the latest actors in this never-ending Punch-and-Judy show.
I’m not saying our public life is always filtered through this prism. During the Blair years, this long-running West End farce began to fade from the national consciousness. But it doesn’t take much for it to be revived. I don’t mean the double-dip recession. I mean the appearance of a series of psychological triggers in quick succession: the granny tax, pasty-gate, pleb-gate. It doesn’t help that Cameron’s wife’s stepfather is a viscount, or Osborne’s father a baronet. Suddenly, the class paradigm is rampant again, distorting our perception of life inside the Westminster village.
The American sociologist Stein Ringen had it right when he wrote: ‘What is peculiar in Britain is not the reality of the class system and its continuing existence, but class psychology: the preoccupation with class, the belief in class, and the symbols of class in manners, dress and language.’
Why should this be so? Why do we cling to this outdated national mythology, in spite of all the conflict it gives rise to? It’s all the more peculiar given that the English class system is generally considered to be the curse of our great nation — it literally hasn’t got any defenders. I think it has something to do with the comic aspects of the class stereo-types, with Peter Sellers in I’m All Right Jack at one end of the spectrum and Terry-Thomas in School for Scoundrels at the other. We may profess to hate our class system, but we cannot help but feel a wry affection for it. It’s part of who we are and we’re loath to give that up.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 27 October 2012