Mind the Gap

Does the class system still have an impact in Britain?


Cosmo Landesman debates with Róisín Lanigan

Cosmo: At a lunch party the other day a topic came up that I haven’t heard for years: the horrors of the English class system. A young filmmaker opposite me was ranting about how class is the great English disease and is, basically, responsible for all that is wrong with contemporary Britain and… blah blah blah.

Later I got into a conversation with a young woman sitting next to him and she confessed she could never marry a man who was “posh”. I asked her what if he was nice and posh? No. Sweet, sexy and smart and posh? No. The most wonderful guy in the world, but posh? No. She explained she had posh friends, but a posh husband was out of the question. Actually – she looked a lot like you Róisín. Come to think of it, it was you!

In this age of identity politics it’s rare to hear a rant about class. Class was at the very centre of political discourse and dinner party debates in the 1970s and ’80s, but it got marginalised by talk of gender, sexuality, feminism, non-binary-this and transitioning-that. And you can’t blame this one on us old boomers. You and your social justice warrior pals did that one.

I’m always tempted – when I hear a middle-class, Oxbridge-educated person like that guy (funny, they’re usually men) getting into a rage about the evils of the class system, the horrors of Boris and the injustices of Eton – to dismiss their argument as the mere moral dyspepsia of the failed social climber. OK, that’s unfair but there was a note of ressentiment that rang out loud and clear in his voice.

Such people will tell you we’re “obsessed by class” in this country. It’s just not true. Certain liberal-leftish intellectuals are obsessed by class, but the working class and the upper class rarely talk about class or care about it. It’s the socially anxious and ambitious middle class who care about class distinctions.

They hate the inequities of the class system because they stop working-class people from moving up the social scale and becoming nice middle-class people like them who go to the theatre, read literary fiction and holiday in the South of France. But working-class life has its own cultural values and way of life that is equally valid.

Only a fool would argue that we are a post-class society. It can and does influence life opportunities, employment, income, health etc. But I don’t believe it dominates British life the way it used to. That view of class domination was summed up in an Observer headline for a Will Hutton piece on class that declared: “Of course class still matters. It influences everything we do.”

Everything? Really? Technology, global trade, financial markets – aren’t they important influences too? The class system of old is alive – but it has lost a considerable amount of power over people’s lives and the way they see our society and the way we see each other.

It’s hard to believe there was a time when one was expected to show deference to people who were known as one’s “social betters”. Who does that now? To look down on someone who is working class is the pre-eminent social sin – known as snobbery – of our time.

Who argues in our meritocratic-minded society that the social distinctions of birth are more important than merit? It is the self-made man or woman and not the one born with the silver spoon in the mouth who is the hero of the age.

Class is no longer the primary and inescapable determinant of self-identity the way it once was. Your central definition of who you are came from your family/class background – and the kind of work you did. But increasingly in our individualistic world identity is based on gender, race, sexuality, consumer choices, lifestyles, and yes, class too. And isn’t that a good thing?

Róisín: There was a time in my life when I would have agreed with you, Cosmo. I didn’t like to think class existed – well, certainly not anymore, anyway. I believed, as you do, that there were other things more important than class divisions and that we lived in a brave new, socially mobile world. Then I moved to London, met lots of people all at once with lots of family money, and I realised that it does.

Until then I probably would have been okay with the idea of spending the rest of my life with a posh person. I had my regrettable phases (as did my equally common boyfriend). In my early 20s, for instance, I went through an era where I tried to sleep exclusively with men who wore signet rings (this is deeply embarrassing and painful to admit, but also necessary, for personal growth reasons). In retrospect these phases were mainly motivated by the acute kind of self-hatred you only have in your early 20s, together with a kind of posh-boy novelty. Before I moved to London I had never seen one before! They were so shiny and new!

But like all novelties the shine quickly wore off and the tarnish underneath began to come through in an absolutely intolerable way. For example, they are often Tories and their parents are Tories; their houses are always dusty; making friends with their friendship circle always requires talking to recreational cokeheads with inexplicable names (Minty, Buffy, Higgles); and I don’t believe in the concept of fee-paying schools, which is awkward because they’ve literally all been to them.

Actually, marrying out of the concept of social climbing is an unexpected blessing. Yes, I will probably pay for my entire wedding on Klarna and have to live in mouldy rental flats until we are elderly. But I will be happy to do it because, Christ, at least I’ll never have to name any of our children Hugo, or pretend I know how to ski.

Marriages aside, I don’t agree with you that working-class people and upper-class people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about class (and I think it’s naive to lump both of them in together, as if their class concerns aren’t diametrically opposed). Even before I rubbed shoulders with veritable poshos I knew that I was demonstrably not posh. Outside of the way class shapes your attitude to opportunity, education, job choice and money, awareness of class (particularly if the entire society you live in insinuates that you have none of those assets) permeates all aspects of public life. It’s just that it’s done so in a particularly hush-hush, nudge-nudge, wink-wink British way. Nobody might tell you they think less of someone a class below them, but they don’t have to. British public speech, as with British public life, is dominated by dog whistles. Until I met people who had a different background to me, I didn’t know I had anything to be embarrassed about in my own background.

The fact is it’s too easy to pretend class doesn’t exist, or that it doesn’t matter. Modern-day Britain is not a place defined by “social mobility”, whatever that is supposed to mean. It’s too easy to say class doesn’t exist, because if it doesn’t then we’re absolved of having to deal with it. If class doesn’t exist then it’s a happy accident that the politicians who govern us are Old Etonians, and a fluke that adults who went to private school earn around 21% more than state school kids. If there’s no class, and just a weird coincidence that industries like law, politics and (sadly) journalism are still dominated by privilege. Admitting that we still live in some modern simulacrum of feudalism – one that dictates who runs the country and educates our children and decides who gets to go on telly – is obviously embarrassing, and British people are fundamentally bad with embarrassing things, but it’s necessary.

Cosmo: I’ve heard that young women sometimes express their self-loathing through self-destructive acts like drug and alcohol abuse or eating disorders – but shagging posh boys? That’s a new one! I wish I’d gone to Eton!

Unlike you I like posh people – well, some posh people. Maybe I just know a better class of posh than you? Also, you don’t like the fact they’re usually Tories. Guess what, so are a lot of working-class people. Do you not like them either?

You say I’m mistaken to lump posh people and working-class people together, because their class interests are so different. Really? They have a lot in common – a love of monarchy, patriotism, horse-racing, excessive drinking and dressing-up.

But you’re wrong to suggest they express snobbery and discrimination in the form of dog whistles. Truly posh people do not whistle – they bray loudly! Dog whistling is for the suburban middle classes.

Róisín: There’s something quite funny in claiming with one breath that class doesn’t exist and then in another suggesting that dog whistling is a vice reserved for the “middle classes”, and that “posh people” and the “working class” love the Queen, gambling, and alcoholism. Perhaps there’s something funny, too, in that these claims are themselves both dog whistles and classism. If you look really hard, or have a dark sense of humour?

I think I do have a pretty dark sense of humour (how else to explain the dating history), but I can’t actually see the funny ha-ha side of it, just funny-peculiar. What a strange farce it is to be alive in Britain, where how you dress for a night out, and how many pints you’ll sink when the Queen dies, are said to be indications of class (even when we’re told class doesn’t exist). A country where, if you point out that British society is still divided by archaic class lines, you’re called a snob. Tedious little place!

Journalist Cosmo Landesman believes that journalists should not bore readers with lists of publications they’ve written for or books they’ve published

Róisín Lanigan is a writer and editor based in Belfast and London

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