The British Class System


Once upon a time the British Class System to observers was clear-cut and made complete and utter sense. Let us turn firstly to feudal society before the British Isles were formally known as Great Britain; you had the king, the nobles, the Lords, the Knights,  the barons and the peasants your social status couldn’t be more clearly defined. Then we turn to the agricultural revolution around the 15th century various reasons led to agricultural prosperity in the UK, one of the main features being the limitations on government and the king and the protection of private property, as no business man is going to work exceptionally hard for an establishment that could be seized from him on a whim. By the time of the formation of Great Britain in 1707 there had been significant developments. The Cottagers were at the bottom having existed since serfdom, essentially a peasant; then you had your husbandmen a tradesman or farmer with little land, Yeomen with relative land, Gentry living on land already acquired this is the first educated class, then knights, baronets, peers and royals.

In the 1800s the industrial revolution rapidly changes the economic and social structure of the British class system. Technological advancements meant a decline in the necessity of agricultural workers, thus freeing up the labour for newly developed industrial factories in the cities leading to the establishment of the working class. The Industrial Revolution also meant a requirement for skilled professionals, along with successful merchant traders whom had now emerged as the self-proclaimed middle class. The upper classes mainly formed as a result of inheritance whose family would have originated from royals, peers, baronets, knights and successful members of the middle class. Thus the dawn of the industrial revolution created the development of three fairly distinct classes; the working class, the middle class and the upper classes (each group with an upper and lower end), each class serving a complimentary function.

The first half of the 20th century is where we begin to see some alterations to the class system. At the end of the First World War David Lloyd George introduced the Housing Act 1919, which brought a great deal of the working class from inner-city slums into affordable council housing. With the development of the Labour movement the working class gradually began to achieve class consciousness, demanding better pay and better working conditions. In 1926 the first General Strike in the UK was called whilst this did not severely further the trade union movement, nor did it result in a proletariat uprising to overthrow the bourgeoisie but it certainty instilled a passion and pride in the working class. A major shake-up persisted in the 1930s with the Great Depression, driving many of the middle class into poverty at the loss of business and income, whilst the working class driven further still to poverty and unemployment. However with the outbreak of the Second World War more jobs were found within the military, class unity was felt under the united enemy. The Butler Act 1944, radically developed the British class system, providing education up until the age of 15 gave better opportunities to the working classes splitting the education system into three groups; one of which was the Grammar schools presented an education to the standard of many private schools providing new found opportunities for social climbing.

The 1960s marked one of the greatest cultural revolutions that the world has ever seen, in Britain the emergence especially amongst the youth of redefining themselves by an identity that they pursued rather than the lifestyle they had inherited. The Labour Party began introducing comprehensive schools and gradually all grammar schools seized to exist. Whilst this has meant that large leaps in social climbing for individuals are far more difficult, it has meant that relative social mobility on the whole has increased. Immigration from former colonies in the 60s along with the continuity of immigration drastically changed working class identity in many urban areas, this quite often led to race riots and to a large extent has developed an immigration class.

I’d like to turn now to Margret Thatcher’s reign of power which is when the British class system starts to get confusing. The Working Classes that earned their wages from industries such as coal and steel were now finding themselves unemployed as Thatcher perceived a vast proportion of British industry as redundant. However Thatcher didn’t come down as this bourgeois repressor of the working class, what she did created was a division in the working class. The encouragement of small businesses, low mortgage interest rates along with her Right to Buy schemes, meant it was easier for the working class to acquire property and capital. The lack of industry meant a lot more people on the dole these people developed a dependency on the welfare state and here you see the British underclass emerge, which is why you now have second generation welfare claimants.  This was also the time of the Winter of Discontent in which the working class prided themselves as heroes. The working class that made it to the middle class economically still prided themselves on their working class routes therefore failing to acquire the social capital of the middle class.

I’m going to turn now to the USA’s class system. Granted I will agree that it isn’t the best class system in the world and I most certainly do not agree with their welfare state, but I agree with their class culture. Whilst I am defiantly a fan of George Carlin’s phrase “They call it the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it”, their social structure isn’t riddled with the same degree of pompous, pretentious, phony traits as our own. Perhaps it’s their cult of the self-made pioneer, the ideal of wealth built on merit rather than inheritance. Practicality makes social climbing far more difficult in America, paying for education growing up in the Projects. But the culture of aspiration and to achieve that is placed upon Americans means that when someone from the working-class climbs to the middle-class they’re not some pompous class traitor, they’re people who worked hard to get where they wanted to get. Rather than sticking to this working class solidarity, a class so divided that it essentially no longer exists in the way that it is still paraded. Who are the common people anyway? In America it’s the 99% anyone who isn’t part of the super-rich that owns 1% of all of America’s wealth, the average hard working middle-class citizen. Here in the UK are common people are the working-class at least it was perhaps when we could define it in a clear pyramid of upper class, middle class and working class but that’s not the country we live in anymore our service sector economy has meant the working class are no longer as necessary, therefore we need less people there, giving them the option to rise higher up the social strata or fall lower, whilst a few stay as they are. This means the pyramid your now picturing appears more as a hexagon.  The BBC recently brought out a class survey and whilst I agree with their groupings I think their test needs a bit of work. The Precariat at 15% total population, Emergent Service Workers 19%, Traditional Working Class at 14%, New Affluent Workers at 15%, Technical Middle at 6%, Established Middle Class 25%, Elite 6%. Find me the common people there because you’re not salt of the earth if you come from a council estate you’re just poor. I’m not saying that the super-rich and the utterly poor do not exist rather that this whole image of the proletariat fighting against the bourgeoisie is now redundant as our class structure is far too complicated for things to be a simple as this. What I purpose is that we as a society work hard together to dismiss all class traits, whether it is the posh pompous traits that linger so strongly in the upper and middle classes and worse yet the pride in being poor mentality that exists not only within the traditional working class but also the precariat and the new affluent workers.

Whilst I would love to live in a world where we’re all equal whilst unfortunately we do not and until that day comes I’d like it if we could have a system of; those with no money, those with some money and those with lots of money.  In some respects similar to the USA, we need to do away with all the pretentious upper class accents because bottom line posh doesn’t mean you’re rich anymore, more importantly we need to do away with the self-defeating working class pride mentality (that’s not to say you should be ashamed just that you shouldn’t put chains around your ankles) and lastly but certainly not least the middle class should cut out all they’re pretentious aspirations to the upper class. Then perhaps we can finally dissolve all the redundant class features that persist from a structure that no longer exists.Facebooktwitter

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