Exploring Englishness, Part 3: Englishness and the Class System
(This is the third in a series of articles in which we attempt to pin down and dissect various aspects of the English character.)
Whenever one tries to examine Englishness, particularly its expression in English culture, the class system invariably comes up. To say that class has been a central fact of the English experience is almost an understatement; class resentment amd class privilege have informed and driven a great deal of English culture, particularly literature and film. The class system has also produced deep, almost unbridgeable schisms within English society itself, so deep that the difficulty of pinning down Englishness largely stems from these divisions. This is because the classes have historically been very different from one another, with radically divergent mores, attitudes and lifestyles, so that when you factor in regional differences as well, it is very difficult to look at the English as a single people. And as English society has been characterised by rigid social divides for most of its history, ever since the Norman Conquest, in fact, it is impossible to look back on a time when the nation was not so split.
Why has our class system been especially rigid, and the attitudes produced by it so durable and long lasting? The answer lies in fairly ancient history. England has had a feudal aristocracy based not simply on wealth and influence, but on the fact that the Normans felt themselves to be of distinct and superior ‘stock’ to the rest of the English population, an idea that lingered in phrases such as “Blood will tell” and affected everyone below ruling-class level. When Tennyson in the high Victorian age proclaimed defiantly that “Kind hearts are more than coronets/ And simple faith than Norman blood,” it was his challenge to the idea of “Norman blood” that was key. This taint to the class system is one of the main reasons why the system has been so hard to shake, and why we are still suffering its effects.
How, though, did the system survive in practice? First of all, the upper classes ran the feudal network, the church and the law courts, and also had control of education and culture until very recent times, so that they were able to exert their power over those beneath them and condition them to accept this idea of upper-class ethnic superiority. This is why we find, up until modern times, members of the working classes reported as making many pathetic pronouncements about knowing their station and not presuming to better themselves, a mindset which only began to undergo serious questioning with the later part of the Industrial Revolution and the advent of organised labour.
The system itself was so tight that it was almost impossible for a working class person to advance socially, since there were various infallible methods of distinguishing people based on class origin. Of these, linguistic markers have always been profoundly important. Originally, this method consisted of a basic distinction between those who could and could not speak French: the former were members of the aristocracy, while the latter were peasants. However, the most durable linguistic means of distinguishing between people has been, of course, accent, and discrimination based on it is still with us today. The tacit understanding is that one cannot have a working class accent or (usually) a strong regional accent and be socially acceptable to the middle and upper classes. Address and occupation were also powerful indicators of class. Economic forces had the effect of segregating the working classes off into poorer areas of towns, of which London’s East End was the most famous example. This meant that they could be socially categorised according to address, just as they could be distinguished in work by the fact that they did manual labour. Discrimination on the basis of accent or address is unofficial, unadmitted to and thus very difficult to fight, but it is still common and the principle is widely applied.
Education, yet another powerful indicator of class, is still extremely important to the system, as the influence of the old school tie on getting good jobs in the Establishment and business worlds makes clear. The class system has had a power to bestow or withhold opportunities and privileges, based on class origins, that is truly horrifying. This explains why, when class resentment has reared its head in England in the past century, its expression has often been marked by a vitriol and bitterness out of character with the overall working class temperament. The obdurate nature of the class system, the built-in social checks against people of humble birth advancing themselves, forming a veritable brick wall of subtle and not-so-subtle snubs, illusory chances and withheld privileges around those who tried to do so, explains the bile of a John Osborne (he who famously snarled “damn you England”), and of his most famous creation, the hate-filled working class intellectual Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger. It also explains why, when adequate (although still not socially advantageous) education was finally made available to the working classes after the war, the expressions of working class experience by the generation that came of age during the fifties and sixties were frequently bitter, from Arnold Wesker (whose Chips with Everything satirised the barriers to understanding between young people of different classes) to the Kinks’ mockery of the upper middle class hypocritical world of the Well-Respected Man, the black social comedy of Joe Orton and the almost uniformly bleak working-class films of Tony Richardson, Ken Loach, et al. Given this catalogue, it is perhaps a sign of a neurotically positive outlook on the part of society at the time that this outburst of grievances could possibly be absorbed into “swinging” sixties youth culture. Giving the means of self-expression through better education into the hands of the young working classes produced a new world of English music and fashion undreamt of before, but it also opened up a whole tin of worms containing inherited and experienced frustrations, anger and grudges.
The class system has also been self-perpetuating in the huge differences it has created between the classes. One wonders whether those members of the middle and upper classes who wished to understand the grievances expressed by the Angry Young Men had the means to do so, given the radically divergent worldviews and attitudes of the three groups. Very different mores governing family, neighbourliness, property, relationships, displayed emotion, and so on pertained to each class. Added to regional variations, these are the factors that make it exceptionally difficult to come up with any consistent theory of English character and culture.
Snobbishness has had a detrimental effect on the practice of English parliamentary democracy, since it has made it extremely hard to operate a system of government which has as its basis the idea that everyone should have a say in how the country is run. The element of class hatred that is produced by so rigid a society makes it very hard to have a civilised debate on any issue in which class interest is involved, as the controversy surrounding the fox-hunting ban demonstrated. The whole Establishment, in fact, with its connections to the privileged classes, has got in the way of truly democratic government. English democracy in operation sometimes reminds one strangely of Orwell’s satire of communism, Animal Farm: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”
How influential is class today? It is very hard to say, since most of the effects of class go uncatalogued and unquantified. There is no doubt that it is still having its effects, but the picture is complicated by the advent of the nouveau riche and the working class celebrity. It is certainly true, however, that the Thatcher era seriously set back the cause of social equality. With its cultural elitism and middle class aspirations, sanctioning of greed and privatisation of essential services, along with neglect of the poor, degradation of the environment, and the championing of “Victorian values,” it was a singularly noxious time. It says a lot that prior to the 1980s working class culture was flourishing, whereas during the eighties, films and television series which paid breathless homage to the virtues and/or lifestyle of the privileged classes were the most popular products of English film studios. After the drooling over posh interiors and vilification of the poor of the Thatcher years, we now seem to be into a slightly kinder age, in which many people at least pay lip service to the idea of social welfare. It is also culturally a more working class age, with the pendulum swinging, at least superficially, more to the other extreme; we have many more working class pop stars and groups, and the levelling tide of Estaury speech is sweeping through the linguistic heartlands of many of the Home Counties. The BBC has taken to featuring more presenters with regional and working class accents, in a move away from Received Pronunciation (which itself has become progressively less posh over the decades). Acknowledging a working class background seems to have again become a matter of defiant pride, much as it was in the sixties. Nevertheless, the Establishment is still largely made up by the public school educated. We also cannot ignore the fact that “New Labour” only came to power because they were able to successfully rebrand themselves as a middle class party. Things are not as bad as they were class-wise in the eighties, but the picture is still very mixed.
Even though class has had such a long and negative influence on English culture and society, it is possible to make advances, if only people have the will to start demanding that government represent the concerns, not just of the upper classes and the middle classes, but of the working classes as well. To do that, people have to stop buying into the system in the hope of their own future social advancement. We must prevent Englishness from being forever identified with the culture and lifestyle of the upper classes, and overcome the “even if it is broke, don’t fix it” mentality. It is very difficult to break with social history to this extent and get a fresh start, but it can be done.--Isabel Taylor