Erikka Askeland: Rich get richer no matter the class

John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett in the classic BBC sketch on the class system. Picture: BBC
John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett in the classic BBC sketch on the class system. Picture: BBC
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There’s nothing like a class war to get the British public into a right tizz. While the Philpott case has spurred a festering nonsense of a debate over whether cutting benefits could eradicate evil, this week people could take an online test to determine where we all stood in the new British pecking order.

The test posited that there are no longer just three classes – working, middle and upper – but, rather, there are now seven. These range from wealthy “elites” with broad-ranging social contacts and cultural interests, down to the “precariat”, the poorest and most deprived group, estimated to make up 15 per cent of the population. The classes in between have been subdivided to reflect the impact of economic and technological change on the middle-classes since the days where we were mostly either upstairs drinking Champagne in the drawing room or downstairs having a liaison with the footman.

The survey seemed to baffle most people who took it, which was loads if the number of people posting about it on Twitter is anything to go by. But you have to wonder. According to the widget, I am an “elite” – which is hilarious considering I rent a flat rather than own an estate and I spent part of my childhood living in a static caravan. I guess it is because I clicked the options for liking both “opera” and “hip hop/rap”. I am nothing if not eclectic in my tastes.

When I first arrived in Britain, it bemused me that people seemed so obsessed with their class status. Even if at first they denied it, shrugging nonchalantly and arguing that “everyone is now middle-class”. Eventually, given a few soupçons, they either revealed their grandfather had marched from Jarrow or sheepishly admitted their dad owned Mayfair.

My first intimation of this deep awareness of where Brits figured they stood in the social strata came when I was still living in Canada. On an assignment for a linguistics class, we had set upon this poor bloke, a lanky-haired goth tending to pudginess who was sitting alone in the university cafeteria. Researching people who spoke accented English, we were astounded when the morose young man from Birmingham told us how Brits tended to judge you as soon as you opened your mouth. Having grown up where there is little variation in accent and almost all attended a comprehensive, we were agog that he could be so gloomy about his standing, and thus his prospects back home. But, then again, I’m not sure I have met any Brummie since who doesn’t remind me just a little bit of Eeyore from Winnie-the-Pooh.

Not that the new world doesn’t have a class system. Rather, your place in it is more nakedly predicated on how much cash you have, rather than where you went to school or to whom you are related.

There is an interesting phenomenon among people living in these supposedly meritocratic nations where, rich or poor, everyone tends to think they are middle-class.

A recent study of Argentines, which collected data on people’s incomes as well where they percieved they were on the social spectrum, found that most figured they were about average. Essentially, the rich thought they were poorer than they were and vice versa. The researchers, who clearly spotted a chance for making a bit of mischief, then told the lowest 5 per cent in terms of income that they were actually worse off than they thought in comparison to others. It was only then that the repondents started getting a little upset and demanded wealth redistribution. As Catherine Rampell, a writer for the New York Times put it, the research goes some way to explaining the odd North American phenomenon of low-income voters who support tax cuts for the rich.

Meanwhile, my inclusion in the top strata comes even though I am still not certain whether it is more socially desirable to use the word “napkin” or “serviette”. The Great British Class Calculator seems to suggest social divisions are more porous than they used to be, despite lots of evidence to the contrary that shows the rich are getting richer and the poor, poorer.