Britain’s class obsession

Britain has a rather strange obsession with labeling things according to “class”. Before I moved here, I had never thought very much about the fact that I was “middle class” growing up, in that I had a certain set of white-collar parents and a suburban home. I most certainly would not have used the c-word in order to describe or define myself. It does not surprise me, however, given the local obsession with class, that there is a new BBC 3-part special about class and culture. I tried to watch the first part tonight, and gave up rather quickly but felt that it defined a certain part of the local ethos that I, as a foreigner, would never quite understand.

The bit of the program(me) that I watched was chock full of stereotypes. This class did this, while this other class did that. It was largely historical in its gaze, and was looking at classes in the past and how they had changed in the 20th century. But it was the broad-brush stereotyping that I found a bit disturbing. These people did this and those people, on the other hand, did that. A quote from the above-linked TV review might help here:

While his latest documentary is in many ways an objective piece of social history, Bragg does steer us towards a conclusion. Orwell was wrong when he said the middle class would eventually sink into the working class, he argues, because the working class has risen and risen.

Again, he doesn’t need to spell it out, but he is an example of this. After all, here he is with traces of the North still detectable in his voice, presenting a programme on the BBC. Yet when the BBC was founded in the Twenties its voice was that of the south, specifically the public school-educated south.

Bragg describes himself as a class mongrel. His parents were working class but he ended up in the House of Lords, thanks to his grammar school, which got him into Oxford, which in turn got him into what he calls “the media class”. Yet not only does Bragg bring his formidable learning to the subject of class, he is also willing to examine his own prejudices about it.

An American would not be surprised by the fact that someone managed to shift from a modest background into the higher echelons of politics, we would celebrate it as the model of upward mobility that defines America. (Not that I am saying anything positive about modern American politics, that is a different blog post.) But ideas like, “he made it big in spite of his northern accent” are more surprising, as well as the general attitude towards being “northern” which seems to be a significant barrier to progress here.

The funny thing that seems to me to be a problem in Britain right now is the constant class chatter. All of the love for Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs seems to me to be centered on a certain nostalgia for a time when class boundaries were more clear. I feel like the new BBC documentary on class is worsening the situation for the next generation, by being nostalgic about the ages in which class may (or may not) have followed broad-brush stereotypes that were easy for people to assign and digest. More than anything, I feel like the obsession with class in Britain would necessarily diminish if people would just STOP TALKING ABOUT IT SO MUCH. By continuing with the discussion, and by continuing to portray the differences in “period dramas” we are just keeping alive an idea which no longer makes any sense in terms of trying to divide up the modern people into mass stereotypes. Time for this to end, and for the British electorate to be considered as a bunch of people, not a bunch of classes.

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6 responses to “Britain’s class obsession

  1. I find the difference in the concept of classes between the US and UK totally fascinating. There’s definitely a perception here in the UK of it being a more static thing, whereas I feel like Americans are more likely to define class based on their personal SES, rather than their ancestral past.
    The northern prejudice really gets me as well. Though, my husband points out that you’d have been just as unlikely to hear a cockney accent on the BBC as a northern one…

  2. Two things-regional accents have really only had a relatively short timespan on the BBC. It wasn’t long ago that you had to have the received pronunciation to be a newsreader, etc.

    The northern thing isn’t just prejudice-there is a very real north/south divide that’s pretty well documented, researched, etc. (or beaten to death if you’re tired of it!). If you look at areas of deprivation, under-investment by central government, health problems, etc., they are predominantly in the north. Late last year it was revealed how Thatcher had endorsed ‘managed decline’ in Liverpool, as an example. This is all happening again, as central government grants have been slashed. Northern towns/cities, where industry was de-nationalised and/or those sectors moved and/or ceased to exist, became more dependent on local government for jobs, etc. are being hit doubly hard by these cuts (see Liverpool, Newcastle, etc., etc.). They are losing roughly 25% of their central government funding but as their population are more dependent on that funding, you are finding disproportionate levels of unemployment (relative to the south.) I’ve been here a decade, am married to a working class Bristolian-who I find slightly obsessed by class. Until you start to see how every sector-education, politics, entertainment, etc. etc is inevitably made up of old Etonians/Oxford/Cambridge graduates and how fee-paying schools are disproportionately made up of upper-middle class/upper-class folks, who then take up disproportionate places at Russell Group universities (mostly Oxford/Cambridge.) It’s all rather more complicated than Americans think (or at least what I thought when I first came over!) I don’t think the British are obsessed with class, I just think that so many institutions, legacies, etc., are completely ingratiated with class-and with the cuts that are pretty much going to turn many places back a few years in terms of improvement, I can only see it getting worse. Rant over.

    Great blog, by the way-loved what you wrote about travel blogging-how do people do it?

  3. It’s only really since the 1960s that the BBC started introducing regional accents on television. I too have thoughts on this topic, but Katherine S expressed them so well above. 🙂 The class issue seems to express itself in a particular reactionary fashion when the Tories are in power. I agree that it’s a nonsensical, but it will continue to be an issue until people stop being aware of it. I’m not sure if not talking about it would make the issue disappear or not.

  4. I can’t agree with Megan “it will continue to be an issue until people stop being aware of it”. Surely it’s just an issue, in all cultures, at all times, whether people are aware of it or not. There’s no society where it’s all a level playing field. That’s just naive. Though I do agree that the British are particularly obsessed.

    Have linked to this post from my blog – though only tangentially. I’m not writing about class.

  5. I always think the main point here should be The Bristish Media’s Class obsession. I am not sure the last time I heard anyone at all mention in conversation.

  6. “More than anything, I feel like the obsession with class in Britain would necessarily diminish if people would just STOP TALKING ABOUT IT SO MUCH.”

    Looks like you’ve been listening to Mr. Freeman. 😉

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