More than most other countries, Britain is generally regarded as a class-bound society. After all, we have a house of Lords and also a royal family which many foreigners believe actually rules over us or at least has a significant role in government. We encourage this view by the success of various of our television series around the world, including Brideshead Revisited, Downton Abbey, Poirot, Miss Marple and Midsummer Murders, a series I first heard about from a French friend who had seen it on French TV under the name ‘Barnaby’. We are shown as defining ourselves in terms of a range of classes and sub-classes from upper class to working class. And we look down on or up to each other accordingly.

Class, however, is a very strange concept. It can be very vague or can reflect raw power.

Following the takeover of England by William the Conqueror, it was he and his entourage who took the positions of power in this country and became the new upper class, as confirmed by the Bayeux Tapestry. This was no doubt much to the chagrin of the previous Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, who would have regarded them as ‘nouveaux' and ‘arrivistes' and just, well, too français.

We didn't really have any other sudden changes in the upper echelons until Oliver Cromwell tried to alter the social order. The fact that he didn't really do class, however, was probably the reason why his new order didn't last much after his death. After all, at the top level, in those days the trappings of class and the rights and land which went with it, were a reward for faithful service. If you don’t reward your followers well, particularly after a civil war, then they'll transfer their allegiance to someone who will. And they did. And so we had Charles II, a sort of anti-Cromwell who released us from the Taliban-like piety of the Roundheads and restored the position of the former aristocracy.

A very discordant example of class is to be found in the history of music. The composer Joseph Hayden is best remembered as the "Father of the Symphony", one of the greats. But In the middle ages in Austria there were laws which prevented you from wearing clothes that were reserved for those above your station in life. He spent much of his career as a court musician for the aristocratic Esterházy family. As a "house officer" in the Esterházy establishment, Haydn therefore wore livery just as his mother and father had as servants of other aristocratic families and he followed the Esterházy family as they moved among their various palaces.

This sort of extreme class system has though largely disappeared and so I wonder to what extent class is still important in society, rather than being simply an echo from earlier times. It is true that there is still a nebulous idea of class which permeates society and much time and ink has been used in trying to categorise people by their titles, manners, accents and use of the word ‘lavatory'.

Advertisers, though, faced with getting a good return on their budgets categorise us in terms of income, job type, educational attainment and many other measurable factors and target adverts accordingly. They do not take much notice of the traditional class divisions. Algorithms watch our every move on-line and feed us more of the same on behalf of their clients.

But do the class divisions even have any generally agreed definition? Are they useful as a description? Personally, I find them to be a hollow shell, telling me nothing of significance about any given individual.

Most of us have characteristics which cross traditional class divides. I dare say that even the toffs like bangers and mash from time to time. If we look at individuals, we see that each will belong to many different social groups: the banker who goes to Aston Villa matches; the lawyer who goes to evening classes at the local comp to improve his French; the newspaper editor who belongs to the local bowls club. In the detail of what we do, we are able to see each other in more than the monochromatic light of class.

It is perhaps an irony of our times that the stately homes are now largely owned by the National Trust (i.e us), or else by aristocratic owners reduced to making ends meet by letting the public parade around them and hiring them out for corporate events.

Billionaires tend to have huge new houses built for them and are now the main employers of (very well paid) butlers. Such is the relevance of our old class system.

Indeed probably the most visible ‘class' nowadays (in the media, at least) is a new group of people - the Celebrity Class, which is a mixture of everyone who has somehow contrived to get in the public eye, from actors and billionaires to the latest winner of Love Island or Big Brother. It is a class of all classes and possibly both the most desired and most despised of all of them. And also the most irrelevant to the reality of our lives.

But whatever I may think about the relevance of class to my social circle, it is true that I am not likely to mix much with other groups of people who do not share one or more of my interests. Why would I?

And my interests are quite likely to be influenced considerably by how I was brought up, my education and the type of work I do or did. In itself this is not a difficulty: we do what we want to do and mix with those with whom we want to mix.

So then, if an aristocrat does not want to mix with me simply because of his perception that he is somehow superior to me, then his blinkered vision is his problem. Equally, there are many on the left who are fixated on viewing everything through a working class prism and so are similarly blinkered.

I was born into working class circumstances, with the tin bath hanging on the kitchen wall, but do not define myself by that. I had my opportunities, as did my parents, and we took them. With the support of my parents, I have moved on. I suppose that as a (retired) lawyer, I am now at least middle class and possibly upper middle class. So important!

But this type of change is not open to everyone. And it is here that a real class problem exists: amongst that underclass of people, who live in dreadful conditions and who do not have the choices which the rest of us have. They cannot take advantage of the chances that education gives if they are not encouraged to attend school, if they take drugs or are in prison. They will not maximise their chances of good health if chips are their only vegetable.

For us to talk about equality of opportunity for them is vacuous: even if excellent schools and health systems are there for them, the major influence in peoples' lives remains that of their parents or indeed parent. Statistically, the children of well-educated, well-off parents will usually progress just as well if they go to reasonably well-performing state schools as if they go to private schools.

For the other extreme in society, there is a very substantial problem in overcoming the malign influence of a home where there is no thought of trying to improve their position; where it is perfectly normal for state benefits, rather than work, to put burgers on the table and to keep the TV turned on in the corner of the room.

Measures, such as school breakfast clubs, free school lunches for all, including during school holidays, are used, along with trying to raise the standard of teaching in all schools. But enabling people to take responsibility for their own lives is very difficult and, almost, a contradiction in terms.

So then, it seems to me that we can live with most of our class system: its influence on most of our lives is largely imaginary and so benign, a means of encouraging foreign tourists to see our castles. What we do not want them to see, however are the conditions of those at the bottom of the heap. And that is where the influence of class is, sadly, not imaginary but real - and malign.

7 August 2023

Paul Buckingham

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