I am working-class.
I live in a middle class home, surrounded by middle-class books, computer sand media; I have a middle-class job (actually, it’s worse than that: I have a “career”); I went to one of the higher ranking Universities (not Oxbridge, but one where lots of the ‘Oxbridge rejects’ go – I’ve written before about the lottery of the Oxbridge admissions interview); I eat middle-class food (though I draw the line at polenta and quinoa); I watch BBC Four and listen to the Today programme some mornings. But I’m not really middle-class, and I never will be. I spent most of my formative years on a council estate in Middlesbrough, at a comprehensive school. Whatever my circumstances now, the experiences and the culture that shaped me were essentially working class. I am a prole.
Perhaps that’s why I bridle at the article in today’s Daily Telegraph, where it was reported that Peter Brant*, head of policy at the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (no, really!), said that children from poor homes need help to change the way they eat, dress and conduct personal relationships to get ahead in life. Basically, to have any chance in modern society they have to “act middle-class”. Ah! So this is what “social mobility” means. One response, by Suzanne Moore in the Grauniad, talked about the absurdity of this situation. It seems strange at best to consider a situation where kids from the working classes are expected to act like performing monkeys in an effort to fit a set of self-appointed social norms in order not to feel somehow inferior and inadequate.
Brant, it was claimed, goes on to claim that “middle-class politicians are placing too much focus on education, and often fail to realise the need to make poorer children feel ‘comfortable’ in middle class settings” and that “It seems likely that worries about ‘not fitting in’ will be one reason highly able children from less well-off backgrounds are less likely to apply to the most selective universities”.
It’s interesting that the focus here constantly, as with social mobility, is that those outside the middle classes must be assimilated into middle-class conventions; indeed, this seems almost to be based on the comfort of the middle classes; there should be no movement on their part, and all of the values of the middle class should be taken on by we unfortunate proles who wish to participate in some of the institutions and pursuits which are seemingly “beyond” us. I feel oddly disquieted by this rather complacent social engineering, and the sense that everyone should simply aspire to middle class values and ideals. Social mobility doesn’t see many people moving through to the working classes from elsewhere, it must be said. Why is that, I wonder? It must also be said that it’s not that I have anything against the middle classes, who are perfectly respectable, merely against the nagging suggestion that there is something inherently superior about their values and conduct. ‘Twas ever thus, I suppose.
As I said earlier, I may carry some of the accoutrements of middle class life (occupational hazard), but in my head, I’m still the same prole I always was. It’s just that I don’t feel like a hugely convincing class warrior any more.
* I’ve put a link into Peter Brant, who contacted me on Twitter, and have corrected my misspelling of his name. I’ve also fiddled with the text a little, but have not changed much of the original sense since I first published.
What he actually said appears at the gov.uk website. The Telegraph, as one might expect, have spun the comments a particular way, but I am still left with a faintly uneasy feeling that the wrong problem is being addressed, and that the inherent bias is still shifted towards the morals and mores of the middle classes. The questions always seem to ask “how do we make the poorer adjust?” without ever really considering why some of those structural “advantages” exist. As an example, in an article from BBC News today, it is pointed out that there is an increasing division between “reading” cultures and “watching” cultures in England. There is clearly an income inequality there. Indeed, there has been much talk in the past about the correlation between income and access to books. But other factors are coming into play here, and they are wider political ones: issues such as provision of libraries and access to education. These things are increasingly being ripped away from the poorest. They are being cut adrift; the nation is dividing before our eyes, but there are many who don’t want to see, because to do so would be to admit far too many uncomfortable truths about the way out society works.