The British class system revisited

social-classes-britain-britishRecently the BBC came up with a test (with the pretentious name of “Great British Class Survey”) so that every Brit could be able to ascertain the class they belong in. To start with, I could find it hard to imagine any other people or nation (especially when the initiative comes from one of its staid institutions like the BBC in this case) that would need to categorize themselves according to “class” (with the possible exception of the Indians whose class system is very well defined anyway):

It’s said that the British are obsessed with class, but does the traditional hierarchy of ‘working’, ‘middle’ and ‘upper’ class really exist anymore? And does social class even matter in 21st century Britain?

But we do not really need this study to tells us about the British being obsessed with class? According to George Orwell:

Britain is the most class-ridden society under the sun

Not only Britain is class-ridden, but one can instantly tell, by hearing an accent, the location, education and class of that person. As George Bernard Shaw says in Pygmalion:

It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.

But I am diverging here. The findings of the test I mentioned earlier are that the above-mentioned demarcations have become more complex and that currently there is a different system at work and instead of only three classes, now there are seven:

Precariat: This is the most deprived class of all with low levels of economic, cultural and social capital. The every day lives of members of this class are precarious.
Traditional Working Class: This class scores low on all forms of the three capitals although they are not the poorest group. The average age of this class is older than the others.
Emergent Service Workers: This new class has low economic capital but has high levels of ’emerging’ cultural capital and high social capital. This group are young and often found in urban areas.
Technical Middle Class: This is a new, small class with high economic capital but seem less culturally engaged. They have relatively few social contacts and so are less socially engaged.
New Affluent Workers: This class has medium levels of economic capital and higher levels of cultural and social capital. They are a young and active group.
Established Middle Class: Members of this class have high levels of all three capitals although not as high as the Elite. They are a gregarious and culturally engaged class.
Elite: This is the most privileged class in Great Britain who have high levels of all three capitals. Their high amount of economic capital sets them apart from everyone else.

I know that the BBC algorithm is quite complex and it takes social as well as economical aspects into account, however, in my book No Sex Please, We’re Brutish, I have recommended, 15 years before this survey, some alternative ways of “measuring” class. I quote:

One fairly reliable way of measuring the working classness of an area is by the density of lollipop persons (constable-free traffic regulators) per 1/4 of a square mile […] Similarly, one can decide class by the supermarket used. Hence, people inhabiting in density 0-2 areas buy their food from Mark and Spencers; 2-6 from Tesco and Safeways…

A different view of the class system is proposed by Oscar Wilde. His saying:

Work is the curse of the drinking classes

although may sound jocular, has more substance to it than anyone would imagine. Why is that so? Because, in my humble opinion, there is one attitude that unites all classes in the UK, and that attitude is heavy drinking. So, if “work is the curse of the drinking classes” and, according to my perception of UK, all classes in the UK are drinking classes, then we have found one common denominator which unites them all Brits—the joyful abandon into the “pleasures” of inebriated excess. After all, as William Blake noted:

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom

There is one incident however, which is so characteristic about the British perception of class, and how specific that is to their national identity, that is not mentioned in my book.

It was in 2005 when an English friend, who had lived and worked in Greece for 2 years in the past, paid me a visit in Athens. He was middle-aged and well educated (having worked for many years as Science teacher in the UK and as English teacher in Greece). Moreover, he had studied and practiced Buddhism for a considerably long amount of time. We had to take a taxi but on our way the taxi driver stopped to pick up an extra passenger who hailed the taxi (just a note here: taxis in Greece may stop and pick up extra passengers, also, passengers may sit at the front next to the driver). The new passenger sat at the front next to the driver. Next thing you know, the new passenger started chatting happily and lively with the taxi driver. The passenger was a solicitor on his way to Court, all dressed-up for the occasion, in stark contrast with the taxi driver’s shabby appearance. My British friend was rather bemused with all this and his question to me was: “How come and they talk to each other, aren’t they a different class?

See also: Social structure of the United Kingdom

2 Responses to “The British class system revisited”
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