Social Class in England: The Catalyst in a poisonous brew that is undermining Society.
Once upon a time it was rather simple, as the old hymn (now amended) proclaimed:
“The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, He made them, high or lowly, And ordered their estate”.
The English class system in one form or the other is deeply embedded in English society. Its roots go back to the Norman Conquest and the destruction of the established Anglo-Saxon social system. This entailed the wholesale destruction of the ruling class, and its replacement by a different structure based on an alien aristocracy, which excluded a large part of the Old society.
An acquaintance used to describe himself and his acquaintances as being of “pure Norman descent”. This seemed to give him comfort and an effortless sense of superiority!
In the vicinity of my village in Suffolk, an old well-established order can still be glimpsed. The aristocracy is represented by Lord Tollemache (pure Norman!), who has a massive castle with extensive grounds and a huge estate. In descending order is the owner of the manor house, who features large in charitable institutions, the leader of the parish council and then the wider community, a widely polyglot bunch of people. Many of the wider community spend a lot of time in the local pub, to some degree segregated by class and economic backgrounds. Lord Tollemache seems to have his own circle of acquaintances.
All of this is of course over-simple, but it is true that English society is very segmented along educational, social, cultural, political and economic lines.
Snobbery – the essential lubricant
For aeons, English society has suffered from an inbuilt way of enabling division and fracturing. This is a subtly pernicious tendency that allowed people from different backgrounds and of different occupations to differentiate themselves from others.
It is most evident as a way of enabling people to look down on those who are fairly close in education, occupation and wealth. This makes many people feel good about themselves because some others speak with a regional accent or dress differently.
The subtle effect is that many can feel more sympathy for the very poor or tolerate the very rich, but feel hostile from those who might constitute a threat. So, the Middle Class is segmented in many ways – from administrative to skilled manual workers for example.
I once worked in a factory in which secretaries felt superior to foremen (despite the fact that many were foremens’ daughters). Many secretaries felt anxious about descending into the factory, because they might be laughed at.
Today, snobbery has taken quite subtle clothing, but those sensitised to class differences can recognise signals such as accents, names, clothing, entertainment habits, TV and other media interests; as well as the more obvious occupational and educational markers. One class “tic” that seems to be disappearing is the middle class obsession with table manners and “give-away” words like settee, toilet, and serviette.
The conclusion of the author of “Social Class in the Twenty-First Century” (thoroughly recommended) is that snobbery is a constant in English society, but has evolved and become more subtle.
Breakdown of old orders, whilst maintaining differentials
In recent years, there has been a huge upheaval that has resulted in a blurring of the older established order.
England (as opposed to Scotland) now manifests some noticeable characteristics:
- Gross and growing economic inequality, which is drawing close to that of the United States
- A highly segregated educational system, topped by a group of fee-paying boarding schools that feed their graduates into a higher education system with the universities of Oxford and Cambridge at its peak both educationally and socially.
- Onward from “Oxbridge” opportunities in highly rewarded finance and legal careers are disproportionately open to the children of the social and economic elite
- The virtual destruction of the old Working Class, based on a now shattered industrial system and its accompanying system of solidarity based around trades unions
- A complete upheaval of the old economic order, with a new professional/industrial middle class, and a growing class of people with totally insecure and often temporary employment. The state of this “precariat” as it has been named, is not a happy one, but below this is another grouping, those without education or any real prospects of earning a living. This most noticeable feature of the “lower” classes is the fact that they tend to be permanent with little chance of escape for those trapped in states of socio-economic deprivation
- The wholesale destruction of the support mechanisms offered by the state. Unlike the Scandinavian countries, which have extensive safety nets to help economically deprived and socially disadvantaged people survive and prosper, successive Conservative- led governments have undermined the system of government support for the disadvantaged. This destruction was (and is) based on the false notion of Austerity, which resulted in a gross lack of investment in productive enterprise and a declining economy. Behind the notion of national indebtedness
- Digging deeper, it is possible to detect ideology and class prejudice – in other words “Austerity” was an attack on the institutions of the state.
Margaret Thatcher and the Middle Class Revolution
Premier Thatcher fell upon the then established social and economic order with a determination bordering on fanaticism. When she became premier, the Trades Unions exercised enormous power on the economy and society generally. The State played a large part in providing a social safety net and also controlled many utilities such as water, energy, railways – as well as regulating the banking and financial system.
Margaret Thatcher had two major convictions, first that a household economic model would gain the most traction – and second that communitarian values were anathema – she worshipped individual and family values. This meant that the epitome of collectivism, the Trades Unions were the enemy and must be crippled or destroyed. This and her utter conviction expressed as TINA, “There is no other Way” gained her a loyal following from across the middle class spectrum. True to her free market convictions, the state had no role in meddling with businesses; so wholesale privatisation of state utilities was absolutely necessary. Thus private companies would be more efficient and serve customers better.
The Thatcher revolution reached deep into society, but nowhere deeper than in the financial system. She shared with Ronald Reagan a conviction that the free market would release individuals’ energy and creativity and the state was a corrupt and smothering force that should be vigorously cut back. They also believed that people should be allowed to keep their hard-earned cash, and that taxation was a social evil.
The Thatcher Legacy
The slow burn disaster that slowly eviscerated British society and economy has been well researched and exposed, but maybe two effects stand out – Social and Economic Inequality. England today is a grossly unequal society and the condition is hard to reverse. Since her time, successive governments have taken little effective action to heal society’s wounds – and in some cases have acted to make them worse. The Blair government was a sort of pale shadow of Thatcherism, and succeeding Conservative-dominated regimes have in general carried on with her free market dominated thinking.
The Majority fight back?
Recent political events have given rise to hope that many people, especially the younger segments of society, have finally had enough of the grim legacy of free market dominance. The performance of declared Socialist, Bernie Sanders, in America, and the rise of communitarian Socialism in Britain give hope of a counter revolution that could destroy the established order and replace it with a more healthy system.
What should be done?
Agendas for Improvement
Many of the points covered here are contained in a sort of Agenda for Change. Many of them are unlikely to be easy to achieve, but many are essential if English society is to be healed.
First: Control the banks
The banking and financial systems are the root cause of the economic crash of 2007-? (Not as Conservative governments claim, Socialist overspending).
This is a multi-faceted agenda, from creating a healthy national investment bank, which would be tasked to invest in industrial investment and skills training, to forcing the release of land for house-building – and turning the public sector loose to borrow and build affordable homes.
Second; ensure that everyone makes a proper contribution to Society.
It has been comprehensively revealed that many wealthy individuals and corporations have been supported to avoid tax. Tax avoidance is Immoral.
But maybe a proportion of the recovered tax should be invested in Charity and Social Enterprise rather than simply poured into the general exchequer.
Third, and most difficult, remove privilege from the education system and ensure proper support and education for all.
Tackle the Private Education System
First, there is an urgent need to take social and economic privilege out of education. A system that enables a rich and privileged elite to purchase education for their children cut off from the majority in society, and then enables them to fast track into a higher education system that provides (with continued Parental support) a gilded route into top jobs in finance and the law, needs urgent reform. What I am about to propose is likely to cause apoplexy in the more privileged segments of society and politics. But this bubble of privilege is more like a cancer in the body of society.
I would propose for a start removing charitable status from the public school system and placing heavy tax charges on school fees. This might tempt more parents to steer their offspring towards the state system and academies, which might place healthy pressure to improve standards. Crucial to all of this is the need for children of all social and economic backgrounds to mix freely from an early age.
Design a system that suits many diverse needs with practical solutions
British children are forced into a disastrous system dominated by exams and tests at the age of 5. In Sweden, which seems to have a system that produces better outcomes, children are able to grow until the age of 7 until they enter the school system.
Before we even reach the school system, there is a crying need for early years experience that supports parents and enables young people to learn social skills and some basic abilities in a stress free environment. In Britain, successive governments have destroyed such healthy systems as Sure Start. Also, many parents are not supported with children’s upbringing, having to work excessive hours in a low wage economy.
Challenge a “One Size fits all” system that pressurises teachers and stresses young people.
It would appear that some educationalists and politicians have been impressed by education systems which suit societies that are uniform, with huge pressures to conform. There appears to be a distinct class bias in some politicians, given their love of rote learning of literature and history. The UK education system needs to serve a diverse population in a flexible manner. For example:
- Enabling all children to learn basic Life Skills. This would include: Critical Appraisal and basic literacy so that children are less likely to be conned in later life; how to manage money and make decisions about risk; basic social skills to enable the development of constructive relationships - and diet and health. No child of either sex should leave school without basic household skills, such as changing an electric plug!
- Of course, many children will need specialist support to reach a basic level of competence in Life Skills, and this should be provided.
Reducing the obsession with examinations and testing. Make education interesting
Passing an exam for most people is not a way of developing skills. The current system is rather like training pilots in a classroom and then expecting them to go straight out and fly!
First, there needs to be a solid base of project work that demonstrates that learners can Apply classroom learning.
Then, it is important to segment pupils into groups based on interests and skills. In some schools in previous times, classes were split into applied sciences and Arts and Languages, with a crossover segment of basic life skills.
This will enable pupils to follow their interests, pursue subjects that suit their abilities and engage in healthy practical project work.
Then, education needs to be converted into learning life and employment skills.
There is a renewed interest in Britain in Apprenticeships, traineeships and basic work skills programmes. The problem faced is enormous – it is akin to playing “catch-up” after 40 years of neglect. In the free market, the state was progressively excluded from the skills and further education system, leaving the field to companies and local authorities, the latter being progressively underfunded, especially as a result of the damage caused by the financial system began to bite.