The meaning of class in Britain

A thoughtful analysis of the English Working Class has just aired on Radio 4. Historian Jon Lawrence struggled with definitions of the traditional class categories.  He observed that, perversely, the English tend to associate being “middle class” with being posh.  Why?  Surely if you’re in the middle, you’re… average (and few would claim that posh means average).  Consequently, people tend to avoid calling themselves middle class.  Equally troublesome is the definition of “working class”.  Lots of British people claim to be working class on the grounds that they work for a living.  Well, you can’t fault that logic, but it’s hardly what the term historically implied.  Are the millionaires of the City or those aristocrats who run wedding businesses out of their stately homes also to be considered working class?

In surveys, when given a straight choice between upper, middle and working class, the majority of British people declare themselves to be working class (see the British Social Attitudes Survey, 2013).  This, despite the assertion of the British Sociological Association that the traditional working class has fallen to just 14% of the total population.  Yet if another option is offered — “lower middle class” — apparently most survey respondents will opt for that.  Average, without the danger of seeming posh.

Change the question and you change the standing of a nation in a second.

Class in Britain is a famously complex and messy business.  Some of us prefer to pretend it no longer exists at all.  But even these few examples show how many different truths are available to anyone wanting to indulge in a little class warfare.

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One thought on “The meaning of class in Britain

  1. I always thought that to be middle class you had to do a job which was considered academic, and have a degree. e.g. teacher, Dr etc Working class usually meant working with your hands not your mind. and distinguishing between lower and upper middle class was dependant on how much money one earned. If you were a female in the past to be middle class you had to be married to a middle class man. These days the class system is less talked about, but still very much there, however it is possible to be working class and have the same money as an upperclass individual from making enough money from a manually skilled job. And I was always taught that the upper class were the aristocracy and born into wealth, not dependant on how much money one earned.

    Therefore a working class man may see a middle class Dr to be ‘posh’ as he is posher than he is. But most middle classes don’t like to associate themselves as being middle class.

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