Pure class

Polly Toynbee hits it out of the park with her latest column, looking at how talk of a “classless society” has masked the continuing class divisions within Britain.

After a brief sortie against idiotic so-called “Christians” who have been sending her hate-mail – hate-mail is so very Christ-like, don’t you think? – Toynbee starts with an account of how “class and misogyny fuse together” in the viciousness of right-wing attacks on middle-class left-wing women (such as Toynbee herself or the likes of Harriet Harman and Margaret Jay), and continues:

Rightwingers have long used class against any middle-class leftist, a bullying that sidesteps the real political argument. It implies anyone middle class is a traitor to their own by supporting fairer shares. The abuser never explains what’s hypocritical about those born privileged arguing on the side of those who are not.

As a result, the idea is promoted that:

Only those on low incomes are entitled to speak up for themselves – which is convenient, since almost by definition, fewer low earners have access to political platforms. If they did, they’d earn political or journalistic salaries and get the same contempt for “hypocrisy”

Meanwhile, the Tory front-bench – stuffed with Old Etonians – prepares self-interested plans to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £2m, tilting the tax system in favour of their own class interests while proclaiming society now to be “classless”.

Toynbee marshals a few facts to highlight the class divisions that remain:

  • 50% of all employees earn less than £23,000, but “the low-paid imagine they are nearer the middle-income range than they are”.
  • “Half the population has seen very little real growth in recent years, and the bottom third has suffered an absolute fall in income for five years. People feel it, yet no one says it.
  • The benefits of “high GDP growth” over the past decade were enjoyed by the top 20% of the population, and mostly by the top 5%.

As Toynbee continues:

By sleight of hand, Britain abandoned class politics in a still deeply class-bound society. The illusion that anyone can make it is created by fixating on a few who do – or an older generation who did in the 50s and 60s. … Gut resentment rankles, but since Labour is silent on obscenely ostentatious wealth, there is no coherent political channel for it.

And she concludes:

The right spits venom at talk of class, except to sneer at middle-class leftists, but avoids hard facts: a working-class child is 15 times less likely to move upwards than a middle-class child is to stay put. This is no classless society, but a society whose politics conspire to deny it.

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3 thoughts on “Pure class”

  1. “Only those on low incomes are entitled to speak up for themselves – which is convenient, since almost by definition, fewer low earners have access to political platforms.”

    And when they do speak, they’d jolly well better agree with Toynbee’s political line, right? What would she do if the working classes spoke, and said that all they wanted was for the government to stop taxing them so much, stop legislating at them all the time, and introduce education policies which let their kids learn at a level appropriate to their ability?

    “The illusion that anyone can make it is created by fixating on a few who do – or an older generation who did in the 50s and 60s.”

    And how did they do it in the 50s and 60s (not to mention the 30s and 40s, when my grandparents ‘made it’)? Mostly through measures which Toynbee opposes, like grammar schools.

    “a working-class child is 15 times less likely to move upwards than a middle-class child is to stay put.”

    But the solution isn’t to try and get the middle-class children to move downwards. We need to drop the ideological blinkers, go back to square one, and work out how we get working-class kids to move upwards.

  2. What would she do if the working classes spoke, and said that all they wanted was for the government to stop taxing them so much, stop legislating at them all the time, and introduce education policies which let their kids learn at a level appropriate to their ability?

    Put it down to “false consciousness”, I expect. 😉

    And how did they do it in the 50s and 60s (not to mention the 30s and 40s, when my grandparents ‘made it’)? Mostly through measures which Toynbee opposes, like grammar schools.

    Nick Cohen in What’s Left puts it down to changes in the economy in the 50s and 60s creating an one-off influx of people into new white-collar jobs, and providing an opportunity for working class people to get into the middle classes. Once that had happened and the new jobs had been filled, there was no need for further social mobility on that scale, and indeed it wasn’t in the “new” middle class’s interests for it to continue. (The relevant chapter in his book is fascinating reading, and a long way from usual left-wing orthodoxy.)

    Case study: the Halton family. My paternal grandfather worked in an abattoir. My father (born 1942) became an accountant in the late 1950s, and his son (that’d be me) went to university and became a lawyer.

    But the solution isn’t to try and get the middle-class children to move downwards. We need to drop the ideological blinkers, go back to square one, and work out how we get working-class kids to move upwards.

    I don’t think Toynbee was saying that more middle-class children should move downwards, rather she was highlighting how little mobility there currently is, and that this is by no means coincidental but rather the outcome of political decisions whose effect (and indeed intention) is to entrench middle-class privilege.

    Frankly, middle-class people are all in favour of social mobility until they realise it might mean their own children find it harder to get into a good school or a good university or find a good career. And I say that as a middle-class person with a keen interest in the education of his children (who are, of course, all exceptionally gifted in a way that could be dreadfully endangered by the wrong, ah, mix of children in their schools). 😉

  3. Our family’s case in point is my paternal grandfather, too. From solid Yorkshire railwayman’s stock, he and all his siblings won scholarships to the local grammar. The whole family must have been pretty bright, but they were definitely working-class.

    His sisters were able to go on to university; one even became a lecturer at Cambridge, I think it was. Granddad was the eldest, so didn’t have the option of further study; he had to go onto the rails to earn money for the family. The war, of course, brought new opportunities and his grammar school education came in handy as he passed the tests for the post of navigator and took a commission. In a sense, the RAF was his ‘university’, and ‘graduation’ provided him with greater career ambitions as well as the skills to achieve them.

    But just you try telling that to the Toynbees of today, and they won’t believe you. 😉

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