The Continued Trouble with Talking about Class
December 30th 2009
Laurie Taylor’s ‘Thinking Allowed’ today on Radio Four took as its subject for discussion the issue of class (1). With the format of a panel discussion and audience, Taylor framed the debate around the question of whatever happened to the working class, social class and social mobility? The panellists were Lynsey Hanley, author of ‘Estates’, Richard Reeves, of Demos, Danny Dorling, of Sheffield University, and Dick Hobbs, of the LSE.
Some people don’t like Laurie Taylor, seeing him as the inspiration for the 1970s ‘The History Man’ novel, feel jealous about his multi-disciplinary media career, or even annoyed about who his son is (the ghastly Matthew Taylor, New Labourite and RSA head), but ‘Thinking Allowed’ is a superb achievement. It consistently addresses complex themes and research in revealing, illuminating ways, and draws in new and emerging voices from the world of academia.
This programme explored in a thoughtful way what has happened to class in post-war Britain, hanging this on the recent 50th anniversary of the publication of Richard Hoggart’s ‘The Uses of Literacy’.
What it showed is how difficult it is to recognise the multi-dimensional character and changing nature of class, inequality and power in Britain, what has happened and where we are. A thirty minute programme can only by dint of time touch on some themes while dwelling on others, but this told us quite a bit about how the British do and don’t talk about class.
All four panellists at the outset identified themselves as ‘middle class’ and then Danny Dorling proceeded to examine the nature of geographic inequality and sense of a ‘postcode non-lottery’ where rich areas get more affluent and poorer areas more disadvantaged in a society which was increasingly hierarchical and status driven.
This then led Richard Reeves to talk of the diminishing relevance of working class v. middle class. To Reeves what mattered more now was working class v. worklessness with as he put it ‘access to the labour market being more important than divisions within the labour market’.
This seems a major fallacy about class which has grown up in the last decade or so. The division Reeves talks about matters, but what he chooses to remain silent on, despite the crash, bankers’ bailout etc, is the division between the working and middle classes and the very rich and affluent.
Those groups around the City of London or earning top salaries in the private or public sector or media, have changed the whole basis of society, how we judge reward and remuneration, and how we think of ourselves. Yet not a word on this from Reeves, who would prefer to talk of the old policy wonk obsession of the worklessness.
This was implicitly later challenged when Dorling spoke of the term ‘white working class’ as ‘a mistaken term in the way ‘the underclass’ was a decade or so ago’, but was not brought to the fore. Lynsey Hanley spoke of ‘white working class’ as being situated in a culture of minorities, where ethnicity, disability and other identities have had attention and funding, and now it was the moment for a narrow focus on class which professional groups could understand.
Asked by a member of the audience about ‘chav culture’, Dick Hobbs commented that fifty years ago there was a respect for large parts of working class culture, whereas today this is mostly represented in the figures of clowns, comedians and criminals, reflecting the continued problem the British have discussing and understanding class.
It took Danny Dorling to attempt to contextualise things. Britain and the US have the lowest social mobility of any advanced capitalist country; at the same time of the top 25 richest countries only the USA, Singapore and Portugal are more unequal than the UK.
This then brought us to the return of privilege and power which the programme barely mentioned. Dorling spoke of the Cameron Conservatives and Nick Cleggs of this world, people from narrow, exclusive backgrounds who now go to great efforts to pass themselves off as ordinary and just like the rest of us.
A decent, intelligent attempt to open a debate which our politicians, media and elites show every sign of wanting to prevent with their obsessional misuse of the word ‘meritocracy’ (invented by Michael Young in the 1950s and seen as a bad thing, about a very narrow notion of intelligence), and going on about what people contribute being more important than ‘background’ and where you come from. A fascinating ‘Thinking Allowed’, but can we begin to have a serious discussion about class and inequalities, and include it in it power, privilege and the issue of the ‘overclass’?