Opinion

It's self interest that keeps our class system exactly where it is 

Class is one of the last bastions of power over the daily running of our lives... and it continues to be a hot potato

The People’s Budget, An Altruistic Process, a 1909 cartoon from Punch on the evergreen subject of class. Image: Historical Images Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

N Smith stuck out like a sore thumb in our detention centre in 1960, where a few hundred boys were being punished with a ‘short, sharp shock’. N Smith walked differently from us. When he marched it was as if he was a toy soldier. When he spoke, he spoke with rounded vowels and careful diction.  

We were surprised. We who ran words into each other, who cut the corners of a word by dropping the ‘h’. Did not march like toy soldiers. Did not exude culture and careful rearing, good food and clean laundry. N Smith was picked on and humiliated – though not by me, I hasten to add – for the peculiar, middle-class culture he brought into our working-class world.  

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I was reminded of this last week when police recruitment was being discussed in parliament. The locker room roughness of many police officers. The struggle the authorities have been going through to get rid of misogyny, racism, homophobia and general chauvinism in the ranks.  

I had to stick my three pennies’ worth in by pointing out that, like the army, the police are run largely by the educated and comfortable class, lording it over the ranks made up largely of working-class people. Until the middle classes get mixed in and assume a responsibility for law and order, it will always be the rough-hewn, not-quite polished ranks of the working class that will provide the majority of the constabulary.  

My contribution to the debate seemed to drop to the floor of the Lords like a cold chill. Usually a few “hear, hears” greet you when you sit down. But this time there was nothing of the sort. Later a former leading police officer told me that there were more graduates in the police force than all the armed forces put together. When I pointed out that they would mostly be on a programme to get out of the ranks into high command, he agreed.  

Class is one of the last bastions of power over the daily running of our lives – in spite of the thousands of examples of working-class people who over the last 50 years have ascended into the comfortable classes. Class continues to be a hot potato.   

We are always running into the problems thrown up by class. Middle-class life seems less real, less exciting, causing our children to imitate the language of people caught in the grip of working-class need.  

But then you get defenders of working-class life as if it was the highest point of realness and truth, manifesting a genuineness that evades the less financially squeezed.  

British filmmakers and TV producers love nothing better than describing the heroics of working-class life, befuddling our minds with a defence of people often caught in and around poverty. Drawing qualities out of need, as if to prove that there is something more human about being caught in the trap of not having enough in life. Enough education, enough quality work to move you up and away from poverty – still the big bad wolf that lurks on the horizon of many working people’s lives.  

Many defenders of working-class life are trying to do the decent thing of highlighting a humanity present even in the face of hardship and privation. Certainly we know that 60% of all recipients of universal credit are in work. And we know that the fight to rid us of poverty, and of the cumbersome class system that perpetuates poverty, is a commendable concern.  

Yet still we are not willing to accept the contradictions that are thrown up by working-class life. That it does not often give those at the bottom of the pay scale the chance to develop a fuller life. The truck drivers, builders, police officers, postal staff and others that we rely on get little time to move on
to concerns about environmentalism and politics.  

When I had the temerity to say in an interview that I got out of the particular part of the working class that
I came from – almost an underclass  of beaten wives and brutalised children – I was castigated. Castigated by a writer who had had the golden opportunity of rising from his own limited circumstances to go to Oxford and then join the defenders of working-class life – having first exited it.  

But the class is still the big issue. However many people puncture the ceiling and ascend into the comfortable classes, the system still needs dismantling. Starting with coppers, the rough life of doing a working-class job does not leave much room for self improvement.  

If we dismantled the class system, however, many people would have their noses put out of joint. Especially all those filmmakers, novelists and TV makers who would lose their subject. What is there to write or film about, except the class system?  

Poverty embodies the class system. To get rid of it we might have to say goodbye to the zestful characters who rise out of working-class life. But then the bland take over.   

John Bird is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

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