OK, what do I have to report this week? I said in my last post the processes in the Labour Party grind on, and that continues. A recent court case has ruled that 130,000 (out of 500,000) previously barred from voting for Corbyn by the NEC are now being able to vote. However, a horrified NEC has appealed that decision – we await that ruling. Processes, internal processes, that, my friends, is all that Labour has to offer at the moment. And, for sure, I will return to this, in another post.
But I thought I might tell you about Cameron’s last fling and its relationship (and indeed our relationship in England) with class.
Cameron has been no different to any departing PM. He has bestowed some honours to some of his faithful followers. But this time even the Tory press has noted that there are a few jobsworths in the list.
Who are they and what are they receiving? OK, amongst the several CBs, CBEs (Commander of the British Empire), DBEs (Dame of the British Empire) and Kts (Knight or Sir) and the 16 MBEs (Members of the British Empire) of which of the latter there are two drivers (good) there are 13 so-called resignation peerages. Before I get on to these peerages note the word ‘Empire’. Do we have one? No. But we hang on to not only an archaic system of patronage, we also use the term ‘Empire’, to which I say – why?
Anyway, these 13 people have become Life Peers, as in, their children will not inherit the title but can call themselves ‘The Honourable’ (I’m not making this up). As peers they will sit in the House of Lords (our unelected upper House) and call themselves Baron or Baroness of whatever, which means their title could be Baron Westminster, Baroness Croydon or, shades of pantomime, Baron Hard-up, it’s their choice.
Well, well, a Baron. How lovely. Well, actually, no. Because, these are people who were either doing jobs for the Tory Party (e.g. Special Advisor; Head of the Policy Unit at Number 10; Director of External Relations at No 10. No, no idea. Probably managed the diary) or they’ve donated buckets of money to said party.
You understand, this is sooooo not-classy. OK, if they’re not-classy, who is classy? And what is class anyway? Actually, it’s a quagmire. Class has been, and continues to be, our downfall because, while it’s not exactly like the Indian caste system, movement between classes is not that easy here in England, and I say England because, for example, Scotland is a very different country to England, and status in Scotland is not directly related to either the English aristocracy, and certainly not to anything going on in Westminster.
To move away from this tricky, thorny and almost impenetrable idea of class academics now have a system of ABCs to depict class. But really we still see people as being upper, middle and lower class, best exemplified by a wonderful (quite old) sketch with John Cleese, and the two Ronnies. It’s absolutely part of our DNA.
So here’s a quick guide to class, and please don’t read on if you’re easily offended. What follows is an attempt to set out what some see in seconds, and others never fathom. To some extent I’m writing this for overseas readers of this blog, and especially Americans, whose definition of middle class is different, I think.
I think it’s fair to say that there is a class of people who can be called the underclass. They are predominantly the long-term unemployed. These people have little money and are dependent on state benefits. Many, but not all, are desperate to get out of this class, but it can be very difficult to do so.
Now a melange of workers in many service and low-paid industries, the idea of the working class has undergone some changes over the past few decades. Moreover, there is often a certain amount of misunderstanding about who is exactly working class (deliberate in some instances, ‘we’re all working class now’ says some toff who’s been to a public school). Let’s take two opposing views: there’s an idealised view of the working class of heroic men (usually) working in heavy industry who often possess a love for education, and have a distinct and admirable culture – see Richard Hogget’s seminal work (a wonderful book). And then there are the ‘chavs’ who, while not exactly despised, are very much looked down upon for their values, beliefs and appearance – see Owen Jones book on this aspect of our society.
This is a minefield as there’s several versions and/or types within this class. So let’s start with a brief description of three of these.
Lower middle class: aspirational office workers moving away from the working class, but with many of the same views and ideas as the working class.
Middle middle class: even more aspirational with some earning quite a considerable amount of money. But money has little to do with class, as education is key to moving out of the working class and up and down within the middle class and, possibly, beyond it. (see Lynsey Hanley’s book Respectable: the Experience of Class) These members of the middle class are way beyond lower middle class, but can be anxious about their status. They’ll have immaculate vacuumed carpets and the furniture will be new (see below at the end about furniture and the aristocracy). There will be few books in their house, and they may ask you to take your shoes off as you come into their house.
Middle class intellectual. Books, objects and paintings will be everywhere and their carpets will be un-vacuumed, and could have visible crumbs and sometimes (in an old, damp house) slug trails, but they don’t care about that, or many of the mores and customs of society, as what’s in their head is the key to the way they see life. They’d rather read a book or do some gardening than do housework. Furniture is a mix of second-hand furniture and Ikea, with one or two hand-me-downs from their parents, maybe.
Upper middle class and the establishment,
You’re usually born into this class, and wealth begins to come into the equation, but not entirely, as education is key. All the judges, all higher professionals and some politicians who are part of this class will have gone to public schools, which ironically in England, are the private schools for the very wealthy. These schools give them a good education, but over and above that, what has to be understood it gives them confidence and a certain brio that only they have. You must appreciate that this confident outlook on life is the fundamental and core explanation to understanding how they see themselves.
Take for instance the example of Hugh Christopher Edmund Fearnley-Whittingstall who is an English celebrity chef, journalist, food writer, television personality and campaigner on food and environmental issues. Early on in his career on television, as a chef with some good ideas, his hair was long and actually looked unwashed, on a chef! His hair is shorter now but he continued with this scruffy hair style for a long time. Ok, his latest television programme is his ‘war on waste’ and very good it is, too. The one I watched was about the disgraceful amount of polystyrene cups we get from coffee shops, which are then thrown away and dealt with who knows how. So there he was on an open-deck London bus (which incidentally was covered all over in said polystyrene cups) shouting through a megaphone at bemused passer-byers. He looked not one whit abashed. His place was on that bus making a fool of himself. Well not, actually, because he was so self-assuredly delivering his vision through the megaphone. It was his idea, and he owned it, on that bus. And, of course, he was educated at Eton – it’s that confidence again.
But, also note, it’s not necessary to have a large amount of money. In fact, we don’t actually rate wealth or, certainly, extreme wealth, all that highly, here in the UK. People in this class have to have enough to buy their children a private education, after that it doesn’t really matter how you live, apart that is from having too much new furniture (see below). A lot of them live in the country and their garden (and gardening) is more important to them than the way their house looks which will, nevertheless, be subtly furnished with mainly old furniture with patina. They may also not do much housework and won’t mind if you come into their house with muddy shoes – they will have dogs and possibly horses.
So do those wealthy foreign oligarchs living (some of the time) in London have class? Nope. Bankers and financiers? Chief Executive Officers of industries earning millions. Well, they might be public school boys (or just possibly women, but that’s another post on the place of women in our society) they might have the right voice and the house in Mayfair. But all that wealth? Not really, really classy (see Aristocracy below). Because you must never, ever be seen to be buying your way into this class. A very good example of someone thinking he could buy himself into this class would be a certain Sir ….. …. (Being careful here, but if you’ve been reading the British press you’ll know who I mean). Sir….! See how debased that honour is.
Classy, metropolitan and urban, and moreover, can-be-wealthy elite type
But you can be wealthy and classy at the same time. And in this category (which is an extra here) are all the people who don’t quite fit into any category and are not quite establishment. Here you’d put media and arts people, literary and journalist types and some personalities, but not celebrities! A good example of a wealthy and classy type would be David Beckham and his wife Victoria who, once known as Posh Spice, now has a fabulous fashion house and good for her! All the London literati are in this class.
This you have to be been born into. Although always ask yourself how this earldom or that ancient dukedom made it into the aristocracy – think Game of Thrones. They probably either got their power by backing the right King at the right time, sometimes with advice and sometimes with an actual sword, or were robber barons even further back in our past. Or worse, made their money and then bought their power, when that was possible, through slavery or expropriating wealth from the colonies including India – awful. But now, you absolutely can’t buy your way into this class, or be put into it, although, of course, you could marry into it.
Land is important to the people in this class, and by this, I mean more land than a large garden. An aside here; the idea that we are small island is correct, but the idea that we are a small island over-crowded with people is not quite accurate. It’s an illusion fostered by land ownership. Because in actuality 69% of British acreage is owned by 1% of the population, or 158,000 families. We, the people, are squeezed into a very small proportion of our island (6 million acres) the rest is considered agricultural (42 million acres) or forests rivers and mountains (12 million acres). Next time there is a furore around building very much needed housing on so-called green areas ask yourself who owns that land.
Being a landlord of large acres of this land, and/or in towns, is where many of these aristos get their wealth. This week we’ve heard that one of the wealthiest of these has died. This is the Duke of Westminster with a fortune of £9 billion, all due to his owning the best bits of London – think, Belgravia and Mayfair. I am sorry about his early passing, but can I just point to a paragraph in the Guardian’s obituary which reads:
“…..Born in 1951 in Omagh, County Tyrone, he left Harrow with two O-levels and later joined the Territorial Army before attending the military academy at Sandhurst and working his way up to the rank of general.”
Btw, the furniture in the houses of the aristocracy (and they could have several) will always be old with a patina, which you don’t get rid of (the patina that is) because it is the signature that the furniture was bought many, many generations ago. Not that you’d call this old furniture antique because antique furniture is bought from an antique shop while in these great houses where people in these families still live, that chair or table or side board bought, possibly, in the time of the Georgians (between 1714 and 1830) and which once was shining and new will now be ‘oh, that old thing’. They will definitely have dogs and horses, plus a separate entrance for your muddy shoes.
Some of these aristocrats, may, ironically, not have a lot of money, because over the decades and generations, the upkeep, taxes and general family stuff like gambling away large parts of the family inheritance will have made inroads into the fortunes of these aristocratic dynasties. But as long as there’s enough to educate the children in non-state schools, that doesn’t matter, as it’s their place in society and their name that matters.
So the knights and the soon-to-be peers of the Cameron’s honours list are not in any way in this class of aristocrats, they can’t be. They may be part of the establishment, but with their life peerages given to them by a PM, who will go down in history but not in the way he wanted, ergo, they are completely and unutterably not-classy.
Penny Kocher 11th August 2016