I remember reading an article by David Mitchell a while back in which he criticised viewers of Would I Lie to You? who would take seriously the casual class warfare between him and Lee Mack. He used this as a basis to emphasise the need to base opinions on actions rather than backgrounds. "It's wrong to infer from the jokes that being born into a rich family means you're a bad person or that judging politicians on their backgrounds rather than their actions is fair." All sounds very noble coming from the Oxbridge-educated, private school comedian whose status as a well-loved entertainer and columnist for a major newspaper of course has nothing to do with his background.
Watching Sunday Morning Live with Francis Boulle from Made in Chelsea this week kind of pushed me over the edge though - the suggestion that classism or prejudice of people based on their upper-class backgrounds is akin to racism was just too much to take. But it's symbolic of the way that class consciousness has been completely trampled over in this country and a taboo has been created around the suggestion that maybe some people in life actually do more opportunities than others based on their background.
The post-war Labour government did more than any government before or since to eliminate the class barrier with its introduction of high tax rates for the wealthy, the creation of the welfare state, expansion of the public sector, free education, free healthcare etc. and there was a conscious belief among a large percentage of the population in the following decades, even through Tory governments, that things were getting better and that class was no longer the barrier to success it had been before the war.
In spite of this, class consciousness was still on a high. Labour supporters were divided from Conservative supporters and whole communities were structured this way - Labour supported the working class, Conservatives were the party of privilege.
Harold Wilson, in stark contrast to today's RP-speaking politicians, consciously modified his accent to try and emphasise his Yorkshire roots, in spite of the fact that his father spoke upper-class English. Being seen as coming from the working-class gave a sense of familiarity to people; it could be worn with pride.
The problems started in the 80s - Thatcher played down class more than any leader before by attempting to emphasise a free market system which opened up opportunities to all. The phrase "there's no such thing as society" stood to emphasise the pointlessness of class loyalties as much as anything else. The fact that it was completely untrue was irrelevant.
Starting then, and continuing throughout the neo-Thatcherism of the Blair years, an indescribably wealthy uber-class of bankers, investors, businessmen, hedge fund managers and various celebrity types grew as the Labour party became more relaxed about "people getting filthy rich."
Behind this, a massive middle-class grew as well as an increasingly disenfranchised working and unskilled class mainly in the post-industrial North and ghettoised ethnic minorities. With the onset of the financial crisis - caused by the filthy rich - the middle-class are declining again and wealth inequality is going through the roof. Wages are falling, the private sector is contracting, more and more people are unemployed and yet executive pay rose on average 12% in the UK last year, in spite of the FTSE 100 losing 6% of its value. Occupy highlighted this effectively with the 99% campaign - the class divide is not only not shrinking, it is more massive than any time since World War II. Bob Diamond earned last year more money than your average nurse could earn in 21 lifetimes. That's a class divide.
But people don't want to hear it. The Diamond Jubilee summarises this total lack of class awareness - the huge popularity of the event and the register of approval for the monarchy that arose from it signifies this. The Jubilee was immense spectacle of privilege, wealth and hereditary superiority. And the public lapped it up.
Similarly, the election of Boris Johnson as Mayor of London was based on his cartoonish toffery, a self-parody of his own immense wealth and privilege - again the public lapped it up. The cabinet of millionaires hardly needs to be mentioned. Cameron and Osborne belong to an Etonian, Oxbridge, Bullingdon Club heritage which almost guarantees them power; if not as politicians, then as businessmen. Their opportunities in life were guaranteed by their extreme wealth and connections and now they are telling the rest of us that we need to save more, that the public sector needs to be reduced and that the NHS needs reform - even though they haven't the faintest idea of what any of this means for those of us who do not have unlimited wealth.
And yet all the polls are suggesting that they are still trusted on the economy more than the opposition, in spite of the fact that the economy is crashing like a ton of bricks. How much of this is based on an attitude of deference to class superiority? The idea that some people are just "born for power" and should be left to run the country - which is not for the likes of the rest of us?
The idea that someone should not be criticised on the basis of their background sounds pretty noble on paper - but it's in fact a far more regressive and reactionary notion to apply this to those born into wealth and privilege.
Being "posh" is neither a genetic trait nor an irreconcilable accident of birth. It is an establishment of superiority which will almost certainly guarantee you a better lot in life. While it might seem nice to suggest that you shouldn't then criticise the children of the wealthy for something they had no power to be born into, by withdrawing criticism you silence any possibility of the situation improving.
The children of Bob Diamond will do much better in life than any of us will. The children of Ian Donald Cameron and Sir Peter Osborne have done much better in life because of their inherited wealth. We do not all have the same opportunities in life for success. There is a class divide and it's as huge now as it ever has been and rather than accusing everyone who points it out of being a "class warrior" or "communist" we should start to address it and realise that inequality is rampant in our society - and that we CAN and SHOULD do something about it.
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