What traditionally defined the working, middle and upper classes in Britain?

Having looked at a few class classifications recently (such as the Newspaper Readership Survey) I have been struck by how little some of them accord with common traditional British views on class…

So what does define class?

Money? – A little but not really – you can be rich and working class or poor and upper class.

Job Position? – A little but not really – you can be essentially working class and in a good job or upper class and jobless.

Education? – A little but not really – you can be traditionally working class and highly educated or upper class and an educational dropout.

If you doubt any of these things just look at people like John Prescott – highly educated, comfortably off, the  former Deputy Prime Minister and – very, very, proudly working class. Indeed there are many essentially and proudly working class people who meet the Newspapers Readership Survey classification for “Class A-upper middle class”, “Class B-middle middle class”, or “Class C1-lower middle class” – in this modern economic sense they may belong to these classes but in the traditional British scheme of things they may be very strongly working class and this situation is repeated for all classes.

Likewise a number other over simple class classification systems produce many equally silly results when applied to the British situation. This is because in Britain real class has much more to do with recent ancestry, parent’s class, place of education, use of language, attitudes and taste than it does with modern economic classifications.

It may be true to say that most working class people are less wealthy and most upper middle class people are more wealthy etc, but being working class has no limits to wealth and being upper middle class has no limits to poverty. In the traditional scheme of things a working class person may become middle class by education and employment – but unless their accent and tastes are modified accordingly they will not be usually be recognized as such. Likewise a person from a middle or upper middle class background may fail to get the educational or material attainment associated to their class and eventually end up living on a rough council estate (and in a “bottom end” job or on benefits) but if they don’t modify their accent, tastes, views and attitudes very few people would accept them as really being working class either – despite their being classed in group D (working class) or E (underclass) on the NRS survey.

So what do I think makes sense of class, what are some good and very easy signs of the different classes? Every generalization is to some degree a lie and I am going to make some generalizations below so forgive me for being a big fat liar please, but …Real things which people use to assess someone’s class in Britain include…

How do they talk?

Upper middle class and upper class people are likely to use Received Pronunciation or standard English in which there is little influence of regionalism. 

Middle class people tend to speak Standard English with less or more regional pronunciation.

Working Class People tend to speak with a Regional Accent and with non-Standard English.

Education?

Upper class and upper middle class people often go to Elite Private Schools & Elite Universities.

Middle class people tend to go to the better State Schools or Grammar Schools. 

Working class people tend to go to non-selective State Schools (many of these being awful).

Aesthetic Taste?

Upper and middle class people tend to have a stronger connection to the high arts, classic tastes and high end fashions.

Working class people tend to have a stronger connection to popular culture and “low end fads and fashions”.

Class Associated Sports?

A number of sports such as polo, hunting etc tend to be upper and upper middle classes.

A number of sports such as golf, tennis, rugby and riding tend to be associated more with the middle and upper classes.

A number of sports such as football, ten pin bowling and pigeon racing may be especially associated with the working classes (yes I know these are terrible stereotypes but there are some truths in them – and more importantly we are talking about ‘perception’).

Foods? There is is a strong connection between class in Britain and the types of food consumed. In particular whilst more natural and traditional foods may be associated to higher classes the more processed foods and regular consumption of soft drinks is more associated with the working class – especially the underclass victims of Neo-Liberalism.

Alcoholic Beverages? Just as we may see more upper and middle class people drinking real wine, sherry, brandy and real whiskey than we see amongst the working classes, we may also see that the working classes may be more associated to beer, cider, cheap wine and vodka.

Political Ideologies?

Traditional Upper Class: Common political leaning High Toryism (a hierarchical traditionalism that should not to be confused with the modern Conservatism) – in the 20th century many traditional upper class Brits were Socialists.

Middle Class – Bourgeoisie: Common political leaning – Bourgeois Liberal Politics (the bland politics that are currently represented very strongly in the three main British parties (Conservative, Liberal, Labour) – currently free trade Capitalism is dominant, but liberal Social Democracy was at one time also common and may soon make its come back).

Working Class: Common political leanings… political values originating from various sources including Social Democracy, Trades Unionism, Socialism and traditional Toryism (Queen and country etc). Sadly during the years of Neo-Liberal Capitalist destruction the British working class has been predated upon, abused, broken up and largely depoliticized – through what the Roman’s used to call “bread and circuses” – despite the fact that it is they who are most hard hit by the iniquity of society.

At the end of the day class exists in Britain. It has existed for a very long time and it will almost certainly continue to exist and evolve. As far as I can see the existence of the ancestral type of class is not a problem (any more than religion, ethnicity, race or any other difference) so long as people don’t use it as something to bash each other over the head with or as a tool for nastiness or iniquity (indeed such class identification is something rather like race identification).  

…when middle and upper class people see the working class as “lower or lesser people” there is something very wrong with this…it is only through the grace of God that they themselves are employed in better paid and more “respected” or “powerful” economic activities and if they have a brain at all they will recognize that the working class as the very bricks from which everything is built – the providers of essential labour that enables the existence of society as a whole (cleaners, bin men, healthcare assistants, builder’s labourers and the various lowest paid occupations are all just as crucial to the functioning of society as are doctors, judges, head teachers and entrepreneurs)…     

…when upper class people see themselves in a benevolent paternalistic light and recognize that their larger share of power and influence bring with them responsibilities to the whole of society then they remove any justification for the fantasies of the people, seeking to protect the underclass, of putting them against a wall and machine gunning them…

On the other hand these Capitalism inspired classification systems which take not into account ancestry, parentage, culture, tradition, taste (let alone self-identification) seem to me to be clear examples of how this iniquitous political system distorts human judgement, devalues the public sector and those involved in it, magnifies the importance of the private sector and those involved it and creates a view of “class” based not upon actual “class” in the sense it has been understood for centuries, but rather upon money.

One thought on “What traditionally defined the working, middle and upper classes in Britain?

  1. Some further thoughts on class in Britain…

    CHANGING CLASS?

    For a great parallel to the issue of changing class you may consider the changing of nationality. An Englishman who moves to Ireland and becomes naturalized may be an Irish citizen, but he will still essentially be an Englishman in Ireland. His child however, born in Ireland and brought up with the Irish and learning the world through the Irish experience will of course be Irish more than English. It would be rare for an Englishman to move to Ireland and in his lifetime absorb so much Irishness that people would consider him Irish not an Englishman in Ireland. If it happened it would probably take several decades of immersion in Irishness. Changing class is very like this.

    In the understanding that I have always held – (working class to middle class) working class person may become middle class through higher education and a middle class career, when these things are accompanied by a new self identification of being middle class and an adoption of the habits, tastes and values associated with the middle class, but if someone gets higher education and a “middle class” career it is really their choice whether they identify as middle class or with the class of their birth.

    Indeed many educated people with good careers would hate to be considered middle class because they strongly identify with the tastes and values of the working class and hold many things associated with the middle classes in contempt.

    People from upper class backgrounds don’t suddenly stop being upper class if they get poor and people from working class or middle class backgrounds don’t suddenly start being what they grew up as if they get rich… class change – according to the understanding I have always held (and pretty much everyone I know also) is something that doesn’t happen that quickly.

    Apart from in the case of the working class person who becomes middle class through their education and career, class change usually occurs (when it occurs) over the generations…

    For example (middle class to upper class) – middle class parents send their child to Eton/Winchester/Westminster etc and they get into Oxford/Cambridge graduate, do well in their career and become a high court judge. Has that middle class child become an upper class adult? Not in the view of the people with whom I have listened too or have discussed this matter with – though they have certainly become upper middle class, but if their children go through Eton/Winchester/Westminster etc and then go through Oxford/Cambridge they will be upper class according to most real people.

    Just as working class families move into the middle class and middle class families move into the upper class, (middle class to working class) middle class families (or parts of them) also move into the working class over time. For example… if a middle class family (for whatever reason) ended up living in a working class area, in working class employment (or lack of it) and they absorbed much of the spirit, tastes, values and lifestyle of working class people with whom they lived you would still initially consider them as middle class because many of their attitudes, tastes and ways would reveal their origins. However the next generation, if it continued on the same course, would almost certainly be recognized as working class (both by their working class piers and by middle class people)…

    Do big jumps in class change occur in a single lifetime? They are very rare, but yes sometimes they do, but only in the case of people who change not only in economic status, but also in their culture, values, language, tastes and all the other things associated with class…

    One great example through the ages have been those many (usually beautiful) “lower class” women who have married into the upper classes and by reaching their middle maturity have absorbed the whole upper class spirit, aesthetic, value system, manners system and way of being to the point that if you squeezed them in a grape press only upper class juices would ooze out (OK I mean this metaphorically speaking), but not many people are capable of moving so far away from the strongly embedded initial ‘programming’ by the class of their upbringing (their social world).

    We human beings are creatures of strong habits and many unconscious presuppositions, we have many different ways of doing things, we have many different ways of thinking about things and these things do not change quickly. This is why, most people will die in the same class that they were brought up in, no matter how large their economic fortunes have changed and their estates have grown or shrunk.

    Class change when it happens is rarely beyond the neighbouring class and it rarely happens in an individual life time (apart from the change from working class to middle through education, career and the associated value/taste change).

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