The new class war?

Saturday 20 March, 3.15pm until 4.15pm, The Great Hall

Only ten years ago, Conservative Prime Minister John Major, the son of a bus conductor, announced that Britain was becoming a classless society. Today we are faced with the prospect of a new Tory prime minister and cabinet who seem to conform to every stereotype of the old British elite, from their Eton and Oxbridge educations to their substantial private fortunes. Following Major, New Labour made a point of distancing itself from its own working class origins and tradition, leaving Gordon Brown and co looking hypocritical as well as hamfisted if they try to make political hay from the Tories’ now rather embarrassing pedigree. But does the old elite character of the Tory leadership signify the return to the surface of class tensions that were suppressed rather than superceded by the egalitarian rhetoric of recent decades?

Whether the papers are making fun of ‘Lord Snooty’ or bashing the ghastly ‘chavs’, the ‘class debate’ today seems to involve more name-calling than political depth, so what is at stake? When ‘Eton toffs’ are disparaged for their arrogance, and the middle classes for their materialistic aspirations, the implication seems to be that ‘working class values’ are about humility and making do. Has class then been divorced from political struggle to become just another form of identity politics? Or are concerns about class privilege legitimate, as the gap between rich and poor widens? Can we expect a new resolve to redistribute wealth and increase opportunities for all? Should we aspire to social mobility and meritocracy, or are such ideas just a smokescreen for selfish individualism? Is there any place for class interests and solidarity in the 21st century, and if so what do these things mean? Or is the real issue simply respect for those in different walks of life?

Kevin Maguire
associate editor, Daily Mirror; columnist, New Statesman and Tribune

Mike Savage
professor of sociology, University of Manchester; Director, ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change; author, Culture, Class, Distinction

Peter Saunders
professorial research fellow, Civitas; professor emeritus, University of Sussex; distinguished fellow, Centre for Independent Studies, Australia

Bruno Waterfield
Brussels correspondent, The Times; co-author, No Means No

Geoff Kidder
director, membership and events, Academy of Ideas; convenor, IoI Book Club; IoI’s resident expert in all sporting matters

Produced by
Geoff Kidder director, membership and events, Academy of Ideas; convenor, IoI Book Club; IoI’s resident expert in all sporting matters
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