Are we still a classless society, Mr Cameron?

Sunday 31 October, 9.45am until 10.30am, Lecture Theatre 1 Breakfast Banter

The last election may have been fought in terms of the ‘national interest’ rather than in the language of class, but since the coalition took power there has been no shortage of comment about the number of public school and Oxbridge alumni in the Cabinet. David Cameron, the son of a stockbroker, a multimillionaire in his own right, educated at Eton and Oxford, seems a far cry from the John Major, son of a bus conductor, who announced that Britain was becoming a classless society. It may appear we are witnessing the return to power of a traditional privileged elite. Can we expect a revival of class tensions that were merely repressed rather than exorcised by the egalitarian rhetoric of recent decades?

As austerity measures bite there perhaps seems cause for a resurgence of traditional class politics. Unemployment in early 2010 reached its highest level since 1994. Inequality has increased in real terms and social mobility is lower than a decade ago. Yet there has been little evidence of working class militancy. Strikes do happen, but there are few signs of any working class solidarity, any sense that workers have a shared interest in standing up to the bosses. During the British Airways dispute earlier in the year, the strikers were widely criticised as selfish. In place of solidarity is a consensus that we should all share the pain, as evidenced by widespread acceptance of pay freezes and reduced working hours. Despite the fingering of the bankers as being to blame for the crisis, it appears we all accept the need for pragmatic austerity measures, since apparently we have all been living beyond our means. Does this mean being working class is now about having the humility to live prudently? Not to demand the earth?

Is the language of class any help in trying to understand, let alone overcome, today’s problems? Or is it more a form of identity politics - with class determined by birth and upbringing rather than political interests - about taking pride in football and pies and disparaging foie gras and polo? Certainly the so-called ‘white working class’ is defined less by a political outlook than a sense of cultural disenfranchisement. It is surely significant that one of the defining moments of the general election came when Gordon Brown dismissed a working class voter as ‘a bigoted woman’, revealing that tensions between the elite and the public don’t conform to the class stereotypes of left versus right. So is the label ‘working class’ any more than a convenient repository for atavistic prejudice and patronising nostalgia? Just what does class mean today?


Listen to session audio:


Neil Davenport
sociology and politics teacher; writer on culture; former music journalist

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

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

Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal
freelance journalist; former sex-advice columnist, Evening Standard; author, Tourism

Suzy Dean
freelance writer; blogger, Free Society

Produced by
Suzy Dean freelance writer; blogger, Free Society
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