Hannah McGill: Why class act still poisons the well

John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett in the Class Sketch, written by Marty Feldman and John Law, from The Frost Report of 1966. Picture: BBC Pictures
John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett in the Class Sketch, written by Marty Feldman and John Law, from The Frost Report of 1966. Picture: BBC Pictures
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We often hear that the British are uniquely preoccupied with social class. It seems ever clearer that “preoccupied by” needs to shuffle up and make space for “thoroughly confused about”.

It’s increasingly baffling just what measures are being deployed when the social class of a person or group of people is brought into an argument about authenticity, or validity, or life experience.

We no longer live in a society clearly delineated between people who make things, people who employ other people to make things, and people who do very little and then inherit a castle: globalisation, deindustrialisation and all the associated shifts in how and where we work have seen to that. Those who work with their hands these days are as likely to be shudderingly posh and refer to themselves as “artisans” as they are to be part of the traditional working class. Tradespeople and labourers might well find readier markets for their skills than artists, writers or academics; plenty of people from all sorts of backgrounds have mountains of debt and no family cushion to fall back on; and zero hours contracts afflict journalists and lecturers as well as carers and call centre operatives. Class isn’t precisely a matter of what you do or how much you make, or a successful builder would be middle class and a graduate nannying to make ends meet would be working class. So is it family lineage? Or education? The sense of a shared culture? Or of a shared lack of something – confidence, stability, access?

The vagueness is such that many of us just fall back on judging people’s backgrounds by their accents. But not only is that somewhat unreliable as a strategy, it helps not one jot with another altered circumstance, which is that many of the UK’s most disadvantaged people are migrants and refugees who were highly qualified professionals back in their countries of origin. What we call “middle class” is a bafflingly broad band, taking in permanently comfortable silver spoon suckers and those who grew up on low incomes but read a bunch of books and learned how to speak nice. Just to mix things up even further, the UK association of the term “middle class” with complacent privilege differs from its American usage, which tends to denote those ordinary, striving people who do not live in poverty.

Perhaps class identity just doesn’t matter much. How can it, when its definitions are so unstable? And yet it will keep rearing its head – around Brexit; around the future of the Labour party; around issues of equality and social mobility. For something so hard to define, it certainly gets people agitated, with “the working class” depicted as uneducated bigots or suffering paragons, and middle class people as grasping monsters or naïve, bleeding-hearted hypocrites, depending who you talk to. And such judgments, in turn, encourage secrecy and spin: celebrities and politicians alike getting sensitive about their backgrounds.

The prolific and admired writer Caitlin Moran talks a lot about the fact that her family lived on a council estate, and has told interviewees: “I think there is a distinct cultural difference between working and middle classes. I am distinctly working class.” And yet the background she comes from – musician father, mother with a middle class background and a university degree, home-schooling – doesn’t necessarily fit most people’s notion of working class culture.

The extremely socially conscious poet and rapper Kate Tempest is highly evasive about her training at the Brit School for the Performing Arts and Goldsmiths University, and her father’s career as a prominent entertainment lawyer. Then there’s the fact that Tempest’s Glastonbury co-star, Jeremy Corbyn, went to boarding school, which is a bit awkward for his most privilege-scorning supporters – although if you want to make Corbyn look less posh, you can always compare him to his spin doctor and close adviser Seumas Milne, who went to the stupendously exclusive Winchester College, and whose dad was director-general of the BBC.

To be clear, I don’t care at all about these people’s backgrounds. Affecting to be commoner than they are doesn’t make Moran or Tempest any more or less relevant to me; and I don’t think it’s necessarily insincere or contradictory for Corbyn and Milne to style themselves champions of a class to which they don’t belong. What’s interesting is the judgment that attends talk of class, and the wariness that results. Interviewers of Tempest are cautioned not to ask her about her background; the only time Moran’s flow of chat faltered during a recent Desert Island Discs interview was when Kirsty Young gently probed her much-vaunted class identity. To fudge or deny having had an education and a reasonably comfortable upbringing is a strange impulse. So too is the related effort to conflate working class roots with substance and moral rectitude. In a recent Spectator piece, fervent Brexiteer Julie Burchill drew a negative comparison between privileged left-wing “Remoaners” and her own late father, noting that the latter’s socialism “was a product of being genuinely working class, rather than a pose struck to impress/shame others”.

Whatever you think of Brexit or Burchill, that’s a scary place for current divisions to take us. Not just because it positions class as a deep marker of personal value, but because it makes a nonsense of social mobility. Why strive for everyone to have the comforts and opportunities extended to the upper-middle and upper classes, if you believe that the having of those things effects some sort of poisoning of the soul? According to the stringent Burchill moral code, have working class people who raise middle class children betrayed their genuineness?

Whichever way your snobbery runs, attacking someone else for their social class is as pointless as trying to rewrite your own. Perhaps if we all got better at assessing people on what they’ve done rather than where we think they’re from, there’d be less of this embarrassing “pooring up” – because if there’s one thing we might all be able to agree on, it’s that neither hyper-sensitivity nor play-acting around social class do much to help people who actually live in need.