In Britain, people’s lives have been determined by the class they born into for centuries. The country still has its royals, its lords and ladies and its subjects.
But over time, many of the rules have changed.
As in the United States, more Britons than ever call themselves middle class. In 1997, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott famously said “We are all middle class now.”
If everyone is middle class, does class exist anymore in Britain? Does it matter?
And what about the working class, the class whose labors powered the Industrial Revolution? The class that gave the world the Beatles and David Beckham.
Where have they gone?
Working class culture in Britain was always strong underground in the coal mines. In fact the deeper you travel, the more you need the help of those around you.
It’s been that way for generations of mineworkers.
“We’re watching for each other all the time,” said mineworker Mick Green. “That’s why they called us brothers. You find no matter where you work, when you come across each other, you’ve got that bond together. You always will have.“
The mine where Green works now is different. There’s no coal production here. No miners. There are guys dressed as miners who used to be miners. But this mine stopped production in 1985. It’s a museum now; The National Coal Mining Museum.
Green used to work at the Grimethorpe mine, a dozen miles away. A lot people know Grimethorpe: it has a famous brass band whose struggles after the mine closed were the subject of the movie, Brassed Off.
Today, Green says, you wouldn’t even know there’d been any mining at Grimethorpe. There’s an industrial park there now, with a call center.
Soon after the mine closed down, the European Union named Grimethorpe the poorest village in Britain. It was never rich, but when the mine was open, there was an infrastructure of working class life in place. The brass band was part of that. So was the miners’ institute with its recreational facilities, including a cricket ground and a football ground.
The miners’ institute was paid for “from our wages because we paid into those donations every week,” Green said. “There’s no institute at Grimethorpe now, it’s been flattened.”
Most of the pubs have gone too, and much of the housing. Together, they added up to a sense of community. Communities like Grimethorpe dotted Britain’s landscape. The men who labored at the coal face were almost mythic figures in working class culture and British society.
But in the 1980s, words like community and society became tainted with the politics of socialism.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once declared there was “no such thing as society.” And she said class was unimportant. Thatcher wanted to re-order British public life away from the upper, middle and working classes into a nation of consumers, owners and shareholders.
“It should as natural for people to own shares as it is to own their own home or own a car,” said Thatcher. “People should not be classified as either earners or owners, as either employees or shareholders. They should be both.”
To accomplish this, she demanded that government-owned industries privatize, or at least show a profit, starting with the coal mines. Miners were laid off. Mines began shutting down.
The miners went on strike, and for several bitter, often violent, months the outcome was uncertain. But eventually the union lost. The mines closed down, one after another. Britain’s working class lost not only jobs but a part of their identity.
Margaret Thatcher’s successor, John Major, offered a gentler version of Thatcher’s vision. He didn’t mind the word society, but he was, if anything, even more determined to rid Britain of its class system. Here’s Major, the day after voters returned him to power in 1992.
“When I first had the opportunity of standing on the steps of Downing Street, I said that I believed in a nation at ease with itself. The development of a truly classless society, with opportunities for all, from wherever they came, to do whatever they can with their own lives, by their own efforts, and with encouragement to achieve everything that they can. That is the sort of society that my colleagues and I will be working hard to build in the next few years.”
Not only did Major work to this end, but so did the man who beat him at the next election. Tony Blair’s Labor Party was traditionally the party of the working class, but Blair wanted to “modernize”.
Blair’s attempt to appeal to a cross-section of the British public worked. New Labor won three consecutive general elections. By then, everyone was supposed to be middle class.
Two years ago. Labor finally lost out, to a Conservative-led coalition. Not that you could tell the difference, says Owen Jones. Jones has written a book about class attitudes in today’s Britain. He says both main parties think the same way.
“The political consensus has developed around the idea that being working class is something to escape from,” Jones said. “And that being working class is almost being on the wrong side of history, a throwback to an industrial past which has disappeared. And it’s this idea that all politicians on left and right have embraced, we’re all middle class.”
But Britain is far from all middle class. About one in five Britons live below the official poverty line, and many others are struggling. And unlike in the past, this group of people doesn’t have much of a collective identity, or much or a voice.
Union membership is barely half what it was when Margaret Thatcher came to power. And the jobs available – like at the call center where the Grimethorpe mine used to be – are far less secure.
“It’s not a job for life often,” Jones said. “There’s a huge turnover, there’s more part time work, there’s lots of temporary workers who don’t have basic rights. So for this work force—this new working class, if you like—the jobs are cleaner, less back-breaking. But less prestigious and far less pay.”
The people who get by on these jobs are not courted by politicians or represented by unions. In fact they’re often lumped in the same category as pretty much anyone else who doesn’t fit into the middle class. The people, for example, who took to the streets of many British cities last summer.
“Either through lack of any family structure in their lives, or lack of any real sense of values, far too many young people are led into organised looting, or violent disorder on the streets,” said British Justice Secretary Ken Clarke.
Others described the looters as uneducated, work shy and immoral. The descriptions had a lot in common with a certain popular TV character.
Underclass is a word that’s been in vogue in Britain for the past decade, as have TV shows that caricature poor, uneducated people. Vicky Pollard was the poster child for these types, a character from the show Little Britain. She’s lazy, promiscuous, thieving and violent.
Vicky Pollard went to the United States in the HBO version of Little Britain. At a boot camp for wayward youth, a counsellor questions her:
Counsellor: “And what about school?”
Vicky Pollard: “Oh yeah I went there once, it was alright.”
Counsellor: ”You went there once?”
Vicky Pollard: “Yeah, I done math, histography, biomestry, and what’s the thing where they all talk in some weird language and that and you can’t really understand it?”
Vicky Pollard: “No, English.”
It’s one thing, of course, to mock the so-called underclass on TV. Vicky Pollard is pretty funny. But it’s a different thing in real life, when one contemptible woman is held up as the personification of a whole group of people.
Four years ago a mother named Karen Matthews reported her 9-year-old daughter missing.
Matthews lived on a housing project, didn’t work, had lots of kids and appeared to have lots of sexual partners. A few days after she made that call, Matthews appealed to the public.
“Somebody’s out there that has actually got Shannon. It’s just broken the family that we had apart,” Matthews told the cameras.
Matthews was lying. She knew where her daughter Shannon was, hidden in the house of a family friend. The plan had been for the family friend to “discover” Shannon in central Dewsbury, and then claim the reward money that a newspaper had put up. But a fewer weeks after Shannon’s disappearance, police raided the friend’s host and found the girl.
The resulting media feeding frenzy became known as “Shannonmania.” For Britain’s tabloids, Karen Matthews became the sick representative of an entire class.
A writer for the now-defunct News of the World wrote of a “sub-human class who contribute nothing to society yet believe it owes them a living—good-for-nothing scroungers who have no morals, no compassion.”
The reverend Kathy Robertson drives me around the public housing project where the Matthews family lived. It’s on the edge of Dewsbury, a town in the north of England.
The buildings are squat, red brick. A few are boarded up, but most have well kept yards. The housing estate is set against the backdrop of the Pennine Hills.
Even a few years after Shannonmania, Kathy Robertson is wary of the snap judgment of outsiders.
“I feel very protective, and I feel very angry,” Robertson said. “And I meet people on a regular basis that will talk in a very condescending and a very disrespectful way of this area and this community and it just really makes me feel very cross.”
The community house at Dewsbury Moor was a neighborhood hub in the effort to find Shannon four years ago. It was the one good thing that came out of that time, locals say. People got to know each as they wrote flyers and made calls.
Naomi Fisher grew up here and lives four doors from where the Matthews lived. Fisher shudders as she recalls what was said and written about people like her who lived on the housing estate.
“The worst part of it is because Karen Matthews’ family itself was completely different fathers here there and everywhere, and because her sense of family was the way it was, that they just assumed that the entire estate was like that,” Fisher said. “But there are so many married couples on the estate, with children who all have the same father, who go out to work. But they didn’t focus on that. They focused on the negative.“
Fisher tells me she herself has four kids, and has been out of work. Her husband is out of work as well.
Kathy Robertson, the priest, chimes in here. Give the tabloids that set of facts, she says, and they’ll make you think you’re a loser.
“And then you see you lose that sense of achievement and aspiration,” Robertson said. “The more you’re told something about yourself, the more likely you are believe it, even if it’s right or not. You read things and –you know, it can get you down.”
There’s been a lot of that here, says Naomi Fisher. That’s why she and a few others started some neighborhood groups—a book club, a group that plays rugby, job training workshops.
Still it’s tough—even more so now with the country in recession. Fisher figures she’ll be able to afford to send just one of her kids to college. It’s not like the old days when college was free.
But subsidizing education is less of a priority these days, even at a time when government officials say there’s a shortage of well-trained teachers and medical professionals.
“They’re complaining that there’s a lack of nurses, a lack of doctors,” Fisher said. “Well pay then, for these children, for these young adults to train and do that. Don’t sit there and complain about it, pay for for it. Never mind the banker and his big bonus.”
The bankers’ big bonuses have struck a nerve across the country, just when Britain’s economy is shrinking.
Suddenly, class divisions are back in the limelight.
It’s come as a shock to some politicians. The political parties, it seemed, had successfully written off class as a phase that Britain went through.
When David Cameron became Prime Minister two years ago, for example, it wasn’t a big deal that his cabinet was overwhelmingly made up of privileged men and women, educated in elite private schools.
But the anger over bankers and the recession has changed that. Just this month, Conservative MP Nadine Dorries labeled Cameron and his finance minister George Osborne “posh” and out of touch.
“Not only are Cameron and Osborne two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk,” Dorries said. “They’re two arrogant posh boys, who show no remorse, no contrition and no passion to want to understand the lives of others.”
This attack from a Conservative MP directed at her own party leaders has raised eyebrows.
This comes in the midst of a debate over whether the government’s economic vision is off-kilter—whether it’s too reliant on banking and financial services, and not enough on manufacturing.
People who work in banking don’t tend to belong to a union. In manufacturing, they do. So, a move toward manufacturing would likely revive the unions. Writer Owen Jones would welcome that. He says Britain’s poor, its underclass, its working class—whatever name you want to call them—need their interests represented.
“The problem there’s been a real sense of defeatism in the labor movement – the miners’ strike being the classic example – often romanticized a glorious fight but the miners lost,” Jones said. “What the labor movement needs to go is to pick struggles where they can win and then to really yell about them.”
Owen looks to a couple of unlikely places for inspiration. To China, where independent unions are outlawed, but groups representing workers have won concessions in factories. Also to the United States, where a ban on collective bargaining has met with surprisingly strong opposition.
“When I was in America I went on an AFL-CIO rally in Michigan on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination,” Jones said. “It attracted a broad range of people, creative approach to this attack on union rights. And that’s what has to happen in this country too. Trade union activists in particular have to look, not least because we’re so weak to community groups and wider activists groups for wider public support. But America shows it can be done.”
But in Britain right now, unions are relatively weak. The working class has lost much of its culture and identity. And the country is being run by men and women from the upper crust.
Filmmaker Mike Leigh has been trading in the nuances of class difference for his entire career, in films like “Secrets and Lies” and “Vera Drake”.
For Leigh, classlessness is a mirage.
“There are the haves and the have-nots, there are the rich and the poor…and there is always class ” said Leigh. “You can certainly look at the current political landscape and apply that very accurately to what’s going on, and who’s in charge and who are on the losing end and who are on the winning end.”
It may be true that Britain is among the world’s most class-obsessed nations.
But the story of these past few decades—this attempt by politicians of all political stripes to transcend class—may tell a broader story. Can any society completely free itself of such social markings?
In Britain, and elsewhere, there may be no getting beyond class.