When, as is rumoured, David Beckham receives a knighthood at Buckingham Palace next year, Britain should be celebrating the death knell of its crazy class system, and welcoming an American-style meritocracy in its place.
For there, receiving the ultimate honorary title from The Queen, will be a man who left school at 16 and was so badly educated that he couldn’t spell the word “professional” when he became a pro soccer player. Yet now he boasts fabulous wealth, global brand recognition and a contacts book to die for. If ever there was proof that what you do and what you’re like can be more important than where you come from, Sir David (as he will be) is it. And I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more.
Not bad for a working-class boy from Leytonstone. Wait! Did I say working class? Ahh, damn it. We British just can’t stop placing each other on this wretched social scale. Someone need only start speaking and we know exactly what they are – working, middle or upper class. Some can even split the middle bit into lower middle, middle middle and upper middle, and can give a detailed explanation based on your job, your father’s job, your accent (regional accents take you down a notch), certain words you use (e.g. lavatory is upper, toilet lower), the type of school you went to and, incredibly, the way you hold your knife and fork. Money, of course, plays no part, making it possible to be an upper-class pauper or, like Sir David, a working-class multi-millionaire.
Faced with someone exhibiting inconsistencies, such as a plumber from a top private school or a teacher who speaks like Prince Charles yet whose father swept streets, British people get all sweaty and panicky as they hover around the specimen desperate to place them on the scale – like they’ve come across an awkward crossword clue.
It’s no good trying to opt out of this charade, unless you’re lucky enough to be a foreigner. It just doesn’t wash. “You’re middle class, aren’t you!”, a girl from Liverpool said to me accusingly during a university debate in the late ‘80s, which clearly put me in the enemy camp. Often since then I’ve declared my classlessness, in the sense that I don’t want to be placed and don’t want to place others, just to be told: “only someone as middle class as you would say a thing like that”.
Earlier this year, a couple of well-meaning academics tried to shake up our attitudes to class. Having analysed a huge range of social data, they suggested that there were not three, but seven classes in the UK, which could be measured according to people’s “economic, cultural and social capital”.
This was a worthy idea, and could be useful for marketers and government planners. Unfortunately, the academics made the terrible mistake of choosing divisive and pejorative terms to describe the categories – ranging from “Elite” for those, like Beckham, with lots of money and social contacts to “Precariat” for those with nothing. In one fell swoop they merely created new divisions in society – or they did for a few weeks until the novelty wore off and everyone reverted to thinking of themselves as upper, middle or working.
At least it’s better than it used to be. When I was growing up someone aspiring to be, say, a broadcaster, would take elocution classes to “correct” their regional accent. Alistair Cooke was known on both sides of the Atlantic as the archetypal upper-crust Englishman with velvety, plumby tones. But he grew up near Manchester, the son of a metal smith, and had the accent to go with it until be learned to speak BBC English.
People don’t tend to go that far now. Beckham certainly hasn’t, and I applaud him for it. But classism is still as damaging as ever. It means the talented businessman I know who’s almost reached the top of his company “despite being just an ordinary working-class lad from Birmingham” won’t push for a seat on the board “because they’re all toffs”. It means that people from poorer areas might have even greater feelings of alienation and vulnerability than they would otherwise have when they look for work in more prosperous communities.
When Kate Middleton, popularly described as middle class, married into the ultimate upper class family, commentators hailed it as proof of increasing social mobility. In fact it was merely an eye-catching exception (official government research shows social mobility at an all-time low), and apparently it hasn’t stopped some in royal circles greeting the arrival of Kate’s ex-air-stewardess mother with whispers of "here comes doors-to-manual".
Classism stifles opportunity and creates yet another reason for people to feel divided rather than united. There are no benefits. So how about we just get rid of it – finally kill it off? All that preserves it is people talking about it. Unlike, say, money, it doesn’t exist outside people’s imagination. Even though some Brits might give the impression that their class is as scientifically provable as the colour of their eyes, it isn’t. Nobody can drop their pants and reveal the stamp on their left buttock given to them at birth by Her Majesty’s chief inspector of social classification. Simply, if we all stopped thinking about class, and stopped labelling people according to its strictures, it would die.
Of course, there would still be divisions and unfairness – and in Britain there’s much to be done to promote opportunity for all, starting with education. But at least, if we stopped categorising people into classes, you wouldn’t be held back or judged according to irrelevances like what your father did 50 years ago, how you pronounce the word “bath” and whether you hold your fork like a pencil. Things that should matter more, would matter more. Like your abilities. It would be easier for talented kids from humble backgrounds to achieve it like Beckham. It would be easier for people from different walks of life to mix and work with each other. It would be a more cohesive society.
The reason Britain won’t, or can’t, rid itself of class obsession is because thinking of themselves as a member of a class is so engrained in many people that it gives them a sense of belonging, sometimes mission – even if their life path has rendered it all meaningless. If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard someone who has achieved vast wealth say they are “proud to be working class” I’d be pretty wealthy myself. John (now Lord) Prescott proclaimed himself working class at every opportunity even after he’d risen to the office of Deputy Prime Minister with a huge apartment overlooking Trafalgar Square and a country estate in Kent where he liked to play croquet.
And of course there’s the language of class warfare, which suits some politicians to use, even though it merely gives succour to the system it purports to attack. Ed Milliband, Labour Party leader, doesn’t seek to abolish Britain’s private schooling system, which some might think logical, even honourable, for a left-wing politician. Instead, he shamelessly personalises it, using Prime Minister David Cameron’s private schooling 30 years ago as a political weapon against him (conveniently failing to mention that Tony Blair, one of his predecessors as Labour leader, attended a top private school himself). What’s even more depressing is that such attacks on Cameron’s boyhood education appear to be a vote-winner among Britain’s class-conscious, and some would say gullible, electorate.
Sadly, then, David Beckham’s knighthood won’t make a jot of difference to our obsession with class, and those of us who plead for a classless society – one where we don’t categorise and label each other – find our words falling on deaf ears.
Frankly, I give up. So in the spirit of old-fashioned British classism, I say a hearty well done to Beckham. Considering your dad was a kitchen fitter, you went to a state school, you speak with an accent that Americans are not alone in finding baffling and you probably hold your fork all wrong – all of which means I could never be seen in your company – you’ve done incredibly well for yourself.
Now, I’m off to read Brideshead Revisited.
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