Why on Earth should working-class parents not want their children to be middle class, asks Kenny Farquharson
OK, here’s my handy checklist to help you establish if your childhood was authentically working-class.
1. You did The Slosh at wedding receptions, with your aunties, to one or more of the following songs: Beautiful Sunday; Ten Guitars; Sugar Sugar; Knock Three Times.
2. Whenever you met up with your younger cousins, you would realise they were wearing the very same items of clothing you grew out of five years previously.
3. Your summer holiday was spent in a caravan in Arbroath, Largs or Pitlochry, often with said cousins in attendance.
4. You eventually realised that the various options for your tea – mince and tatties, stovies, cottage pie – had exactly the same ingredients, but arranged in a slightly different way. The rare exception was Findus Crispy Pancakes.
5. Olive oil was only to be used for removing ear wax.
Of cou rse, you may no longer be working class. You may be middle class these days. But maybe you’re uncomfortable about admitting this to yourself, or to others. Maybe you still call yourself working class, despite all evidence to the contrary. Maybe, in fact, the whole business of class in Scotland is still fraught with guilt, self-doubt and false consciousness.
Into this difficult territory this week walked Jim Murphy, the new leader of the Scottish Labour Party. In a speech to the David Hume Institute on Wednesday night, he outlined the values he said would underpin his manifesto for the coming election.
“People are desperate for change,” he said, “for a sense that their lives will be easier, but more importantly, that their children will enjoy a better standard of life, with more opportunities than they enjoyed. The richest brains are sometimes locked behind the doors of the poorest homes.”
A nice enough line. But then came the soundbite: “I want working-class parents to have the chance to have middle-class kids.”
The reaction to this was interesting to watch. In a BBC TV studio discussion, a respected author expressed bafflement that anyone might suggest being middle class was better than being working class. “The middle classification of Scotland is a bad thing,” he said. Alongside him the boss of a leading Third Sector organisation said she thought working-class Scots would be offended, and middle-class Scots terrified. A senior SNP press officer tweeted that the Scottish Labour leader’s take on class was “crass”.
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But to this observer, Mr Murphy was talking simple good sense. Why wouldn’t working-class parents want their kids to be middle class?
People make the transition from working class to middle class with the help of one or more of the following: education, hard work or luck. Who would deny their child the life chances these can open up?
In Scotland it is easier than one might imagine to find examples of tall poppy syndrome, where people are gently – almost imperceptibly – discouraged from standing out from the crowd. It’s a vile mutation of our otherwise admirable instinct for communitarianism.
Please, let’s not let it infect our children. That would be unconscionable. The message would be: “Don’t get above yourself, son.” Or: “It’s not for the likes of us, sweetheart.”
I’m struck by the number of people I know who are Middle Class Deniers. By any measure, they are middle class through and through, the whole Byres Road, but they still insist on calling themselves working class.
For some the motive is solidarity. Admirable on one level, but ultimately as nonsensical as a white person calling themselves black. Class only makes sense as an empirical measurement of housing tenure, income and occupation, coupled with a quick glance at their lifestyle. Class is no use at all if it’s just a self-serving political badge, used as an accessory to present a certain self-image to the outside world.
Middle Class Deniers can usually be exposed by their tastes. As the potter Grayson Perry observes, the middle class can be easily identified by their enthusiasm for things like recycling and organic food, as well as “a book-lined study, a modest grubby car, a full wine rack and original window frames”. They have a deep need to demonstrate “discreet good taste”.
The truth, of course, is that the working class is capable of being every bit as reductive, narrow-minded and socially conservative as the middle class can be. There are just fewer means of escape.
I’m not saying that you can’t make a success of your life or be fulfilled if you remain working class. Of course not. Many of the fundamentals of life, including some of its most exquisite pleasures, can be had in a happy home in modest circumstances.
And yet one of the secrets of happiness is freedom. To be truly free you need choices, you need possibilities, you need options. These are more available to someone in the middle class than they are to someone in the working class. Sometimes people want to change the world, not just live in the world.
I should declare my own position. I started life as working class. My father was a toolmaker, my mother a shorthand typist. The early years of my childhood were spent in rented two-room flats with a shared toilet on the tenement stair. It was an idyllic childhood in all kinds of different ways, rich in love and experience. But now, by any sensible way of calibrating such things, I’m middle-class, albeit from a background that is clear in my accent and a thousand quirks and mannerisms I would never want to relinquish.
Having been both, I can safely say that being middle class is better. The food, for one thing. In working-class homes, food is fuel. In middle-class homes, it is pleasure. It turns out olive oil has uses other than dislodging ear wax.
I do still like a Findus Crispy Pancake, though.