An account of becoming middle class is too pious but worth arguing with, says David Goodhartby / May 19, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
A few months ago, the comedian David Baddiel gave a newspaper interview in which he described himself as lower middle class. As he went to the north London private school Haberdashers’ Aske’s (albeit on a scholarship) and Cambridge University, I thought that was stretching a point and tweeted something about it.
He was unhappy about being accused of inverted snobbery and I got a clobbering from his many fans on Twitter. But I thought his self-description said something interesting about the increasing fluidity and subjectivity of social class.
Lynsey Hanley might also be described as lower middle class. Her father had a white-collar job and her family owned their own home. They had expectations of upward mobility for their precocious only child. The fact that she chooses to describe herself as respectable working class, rather than lower middle class, is partly to do with her centre-left politics but also because she was raised on the Chelmsley Wood council estate in Solihull, near Birmingham.
Such large council estates—both pre-war and post-war, ranging from high-rise blocks to estates of semi-detached houses with gardens—used to be home to a quarter of British people. In 1979, half the population lived in public housing of some kind (it is now just 16 per cent including housing association tenure). In their heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, when incomes were rising steadily, the better estates were proper communities with tenants from a range of occupations, including teachers and policemen. But by the time Hanley was growing up in “the Wood” in the 1980s and 1990s, it had a reputation as a ghetto of deprivation and anti-social behaviour—its main secondary school was a far cry from Haberdashers’ Aske’s.
Hanley has already written a well-received semi-autobiographical book about council housing—Estates—but in Respectable she attempts something more ambitious: a semi-autobiographical reflection on class, social mobility and popular culture in deferential mimicry of Richard Hoggart’s 1957 The Uses of Literacy.
It doesn’t quite come off. There is not enough autobiography to give us a strong sense of her or her family or friends, so the much-trumpeted dislocation associated with movement from the working class to the middle class rings rather hollow; she tells rather than shows. The interweaving analysis of class and mobility is also a bit thin, at least for anyone already interested in the subject. And although she tries to steer past clichés of left and right, too much of her indignation is aimed at straw men.
The biggest straw man of all is that the dominant narrative in Britain today is that class is unimportant and/or that we are all middle class now. By contrast she wants to maintain, with wavering conviction, that nothing very much has changed since Hoggart. Despite rising living standards, the cultural walls surrounding social class remain as high as ever and upward social mobility is only achieved, she says, by “scattered individuals.”
Far from being a radical idea, this merely reproduces the conventional wisdom, at least among a large part of the political and media class, that social mobility ceased at some point about 30 years ago. This turns out to be a half-truth based on a selective reading of the data, as I will discuss later.
Where Hanley departs from the conventional wisdom is in her understanding of the attachment that most people have to stability and familiarity in their everyday lives. Human beings are group creatures and the upwardly mobile, like the immigrant, voluntarily relinquishes the security of the group for the advantages of belonging to a higher social class or, in the case of the immigrant, to a richer, more successful country.
When politicians talk about social mobility as an unqualified good they often seem not to understand the costs involved in that trade off. They disregard group attachment and describe a frictionless society of individuals moving up the social hierarchy thanks to hard work or cognitive ability.
Hanley’s anomie is a corrective to this account. Moreover she puts her finger on one of the central conundrums of societies such as Britain: how can we achieve an open society—and elite—without casting a shadow of failure over those who do not or cannot move, and while also continuing to value strong, meaning relatively stable, communities.
“When politicians talk about social mobility as an unqualified good they often seem not to understand the costs involved”
If everyone could have a higher status career then this problem would obviously not exist but that is not logically possible, and in any case there are millions of basic jobs that still need doing—in care, retail, transport, cleaning, construction and so on. The combination of large-scale, low-skill immigration and the declining relative wages and status of such jobs means that too many of them are now regarded as “for failures or foreigners.”
The status issue has become more complicated precisely because of the loosening and reshuffling of the class system that Hanley says has not really happened. When Harold Wilson was elected in 1964 more than half of employees were manual workers and 70 per cent had no educational qualifications.
In the two generations since then the labour market and the status system has moved from a pyramid shape to something more like a light bulb, and it may now be mutating into an hourglass with a top 40 per cent of skilled, productive, well-paid jobs (mainly professional but some manual), a shrinking middle and a bottom one third of jobs requiring only basic qualifications.
The working class has not disappeared but it has shrunk. Only about 20 per cent of jobs are described as routine-manual. And between a quarter and third of people still self-identify as working class.
But for all the advances in material goods and quality of life since 1964, being working class now comes with less psychological protection, precisely because it is a minority experience. When almost everyone in your class at school went on to do similar jobs it did not make sense to feel a social failure; there was comfort in numbers. Now that one third might go on to higher education of some kind it is a different story.
In the past two generations, we have seen the unmaking of a distinctive working-class culture of factory villages and large council estates and a language, set of attitudes and a way of life that went with it. Hoggart was a witness to the start of that decline, Hanley is a witness to the end.
Moreover the famous “relative deprivation” thesis—the idea that people compare their incomes and status only with those one or two rungs up or down the ladder from them—has also had its day thanks to the transparency of the media society, and the idea that every schoolchild can be whatever he or she wants to be.
Hanley is right, of course, that it is far easier for middle-class and upper-middle-class children to achieve their goals than for the children from the Wood. But to claim, as she does, that only a few outward forms of the old class system have changed and that we are still stuck in the 1960s seems like politicised blindness.
Meritocracy and social mobility are flawed and inadequate but they are far from a cruel illusion. Sociologist John Goldthorpe has shown that relative mobility—bright people from lower social classes rising and dim people from higher social classes falling—was always rare. Once you pass a certain point in the class system you are protected from falling too far, something Hanley notes—without reflecting on how her own actions will ensure that outcome for her children.
Movement up depends on the creation of more middle-class jobs, more room at the top. There was a golden age of expansion of those jobs in the 1960s and 1970s, but movement up remains much more common than most people think. And that is true of movement into top jobs too—more than half of those in elite occupations come from non-professional/managerial backgrounds (see the London School of Economics paper “Class Ceiling.”) The continuing public school stranglehold applies only to a few niches such as the judiciary.
Nonetheless, Hanley tussles with the idea that her individual advance is a betrayal of her class. Looked at historically this is rather odd. In the 19th century and for much of the 20th century, the opportunity to rise up the social hierarchy was usually seen as an uncomplicated good—David Baddiel 100 years ago would have been highlighting every scrap of gentility at his disposal rather than his humble origins. Even in the 1930s, George Orwell could say that socialism was about turning working-class people into middle-class people.
Then with the arrival of a more democratic, egalitarian consciousness in the mid-20th century, all social classes came to be regarded as in some sense of equal worth, snobbery towards the working class became illegitimate and movement out of it more morally complex.
The partial elimination of the distinction between high and low forms of culture has reinforced this idea. Hanley refuses to choose between being an upwardly mobile snob and a relativist. But I suspect the self-confessed swot is not impressed by Essex man/woman who has, as the writer Michael Collins notes, risen economically into the middle class while preserving a distinctive southern/London working-class culture.
One reason for Hanley’s ambivalence about such issues is that, rather like Hoggart, her experience is about upward mobility into the intelligentsia not so much the broader middle class. I imagine that most of the middle-class people Hanley knows have degrees and watch Newsnight, but they are a minority.
“Few children from the shrunken working class make it into the elite and those whose parents reach the top do not fall far”
In confusing modern Britain does the Daily Mail reader really have such different cultural norms from the reader of the Mirror or Sun? As Hanley herself points out, the columnist Keith Waterhouse moved seamlessly from the Mirror to the Mail. And if Waterhouse is a dated reference, consider the cross-class appeal of so much popular culture in sport, music and even television drama. My upper-middle-class children share far more with their working-class opposite numbers than was true for my parents.
Few children from the shrunken working class make it into the elite and those whose parents reach the top do not fall far. But in between Britain is a furious social churn, so much so that I imagine variations on Hanley’s experience to be increasingly normal. As the historian Lewis Namier pointed out about late 18th-century Britain, one of the reasons for acute class consciousness at that time was the frequent movement between classes, not class rigidity.
Hanley brushes aside the considerable social movement we have achieved and unfavourably compares current reality with some imaginary future when social groups will no longer be based on cultural and economic inheritance (maybe on temperament instead?).
For all its flaws and pious leftism this is a book worth arguing with and is redeemed by some entertaining mini-essays on such things as libraries and children’s magazines. And it includes the pinpoint observation of the rock band Oasis as “updating the pub singalong.”
David Goodhart is Prospect’s Editor-at-Large