We sometimes forget just how polarised British society is. Class underpins everything that we think and do, however subconsciously. Whereas in most of the world, the mere presence of loadsamoney is enough to open doors and define your social status, in England that only nudges the door ajar. Class – the division of society by various historic criteria, including breeding, schooling, marriage, voice and dress is used to define those who are ‘establishment’ and those who are not. The Honours system, sometimes used to embed social class and money and over time, effects the transfer, but it is hard to overstate just how deep and pernicious the class system remains and its success in keeping its monopoly on privilege and all that it affords.
The establishment have always been quick to ingratiate themselves, through flattery and patronage with those who are truly talented in our society. Hence rock stars, footballers, actors and musicians are seized upon, invited to adorn social gatherings then discarded when they have passed the sell-buy date, but mainly it is just an incestuous strata of society who live as they have always live, inter-marrying, living and schooled together and whose disdain and condescension are as natural as breathing.
We don’t have to dig very far to see how deeply engrained are our views on class. Most people of a certain age remember John Cleese and the Two Ronnies in their famous sketch on class with John Cleese and Ronnie Barker representing the upper and middle classes and Ronnie Corbett whose only refrain is ‘I know my place.’ Not now, alas, I can hear the gentry sigh.
Social stratification is an habitual subject of humour, and is often used to provide dramatic tension: In ‘Would I lie to You’ Lee Mack is pitted up against David Mitchell; in ‘Have I got News For You’ Ian Hislop pitted against Paul Merton – allowing for a constant banter about schools and upbringing.
It’s in the papers, that divide along class lines, from red tops to and is ever-present in the gossip columns and the news if it concerns a former public schoolboy who transgresses or in features such as ‘How Posh are You?’ (if you have to think about it, you’re not).
Famously, the divide is even famously exploited by our supermarkets, where we have Waitrose for the posh, Sainsburys and possibly Morrisons (Tesco?) for the middle class and Asda, Lidl and Iceland for the lower class. Of course, many people ignore such descriptors and shop for the best deal, but there is a social cost as Judith Woods, a self-described supermarket snob’ wrote recently, ‘buying frozen food in bulk just makes the middle-class feel like uncomfortable cheapskates.’
The dividing marks are numerous: opening your mouth can give you away – try teaching at a public school without the right accent or schooling. Television which divides between reality shows and East Enders and those who are drawn to Downton Abbey and Victoria. Sport where football and rugby represent different worlds; vocabulary where there are common words (‘toilet’ ‘dinner) and posh words (‘loo’ ‘supper’) to divide us. In the hyphenated name; in the emphasis placed on the school attended; in the food we eat where the most healthy is the most expensive; in the papers we read; and in public schools that are largely staffed by their own alma mater. And so the situation perpetuates.
As a detached outsider, an observer of the society I inhabit but feel scant attachment to, class is a fascinating although ultimately destructive phenomenon. I would never want to sound like Owen Jones, forever bemoaning inequality, which is a fact of life, although I would always fight to improve the equality of educational opportunity, but it is sad to see a country so stratified, so divided, without the will or wherewithal to put it together, bar some process of metamorphosis – and that, as geologists know, requires the application of extreme heat and pressure.