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Friday 15 January 2010

Class - A peculiarly English Trait?

It's amusing that in the run-up to this year's election, some of the first 'shots over the bow' have been an attempt to raise class-consciousness again. It's a sure-fire starter for raising hackles and getting the underdog to feel abused and inspiring the victim to feel the injustice of his/her plight. Without a doubt the class system, which harks back to the days of feudal overlords, still exists in Britain but nowadays it is very much misunderstood.

In the beautiful days of yore (i.e. prior to the 1914-1918 war!) some of the strongest advocates of a hierarchy dwelt in the basements of the well-to-do. 'Below stairs' where the servants lived, there were more stringent rules than ever existed 'upstairs'. The butler was above everyone; the housemaids and the kitchen maids kept their distance from one another; who was served first at dinner mattered far more downstairs than it ever did upstairs - in short, the class system was very much an invention of the 'working classes' as an excuse for their own unhappiness.

The whole system was and still is, of course, utterly bizarre. Either you succeed or you don't and it has nothing to do with where you are born or what opportunities you have. Some people are born with the advantage of a wealthy family to support them; others are born into families who struggle to survive but neither of these situations is a guarantee of success or failure and no government can take from or add to the individual's choice of what to make of his/her life. The only choice we really have is to create our own lives and live according to what we feel to be true.

If, as politicians sometimes claim, the poor are deprived of opportunity and so cannot succeed, why is it that so many of our cities were built by those who came from apparently nowhere but simply held to their dreams of what they might achieve? If the rich are so blessed, why is it that we hear to many stories of drug-addicted aristocrats or public school boys who squander their opportunities? And the stories of 'poor little rich girls' are as old as the hills.

The truth is that whatever the circumstances of our birth, we make of our lives what we will. The politics of envy is the most pernicious of all. It panders to a victim mentality and, rather than raising everyone to his/her full potential, drags everyone down into the sense that 'if I had their money, I'd be okay....' No, you wouldn't. No amount of outside intervention can save you if you cannot save yourself. No amount of hand-outs will ever help beyond a temporary stop-gap until you find your feet again and step up to your own potential.

Personally, I was not born to privilege - though, one of the greatest treasures of my life is the wonderful education I received - but I write this as the granddaughter of a mill worker who said that when she was young Schofield's Department Store in Leeds didn't allow millworkers in shawls to enter the shop for fear of them 'lowering the tone'. Rather than creating envy, it created aspiration and my grandmother, who worked in all kinds of places as a cleaner and a cook amongst other things, continued her interest in poetry and literature, in spite of the poverty and many tragedies of her early life. Maintaining her accent she always remained in her 'class' but rather than being envious, simply enjoyed the beauty of what other people had.

Class does exist in England and always will, I think, but it isn't a bad thing - it's not about how much money you have or where you come from. It's just about what you choose to do with your life.


Hels said...

As far as I can tell, class in the UK is largely inherited from one's
parents. A working class lad may not go down the mines any more, but he will still think of himself as a member of the working class. A member of the upper middle class will cling to that category, even if he is a fall-down drunk and a womanising clod.

In Victorian and Edwardian times, if an upper class family was totally humiliated by their offspring, they could hardly disinherit him. So they sent him off on colonial service, or into the army or onto a cattle farm in the Outback Australia. I bet there are many families who wish they could do that with their sons today :)

In the new world, class cannot be inherited in the same way. People in Australia would laugh at the idea. But class certainly exists. The only difference here is that class is based on money and education. Not much better, you say? I agree.

Christina said...

Thank you, Hels, for your comment and your interesting comparison with Australia!

I love your suggestion that some people might still want to send their sons to the Outback!

There does seem to be a strong sense of 'loyalty' to the class you happen to be born into, among the upper and working class, but I think there is now a huge area in the middle that is far more fluid.

Thank you for commenting!