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11 October, 2012  ▪  Michael Binyon

Class Divide

Is Britain still obsessed by social class? In recent years, this seemed to be fading. Under the governments of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, British society appeared to be more egalitarian, more meritocratic and less dominated by the way people speak, what school they attended and what position their parents had in society.

But a confrontation between a British cabinet minister and a policeman guarding Downing Street, the Prime Minister's home, has once again stirred up class passions, smeared the Conservatives as a party of privilege and provoked a bitter national debate on the continuing role of class divisions in British politics.

The incident was comparatively trivial. Andrew Mitchell, the Government's chief whip responsible for party discipline in House of Commons votes, was in a hurry to leave Downing Street on his bicycle. But the policeman on duty refused to open the front gate, citing security concerns, and ordered the minister to dismount and wheel his bicycle out through the side gate. Mitchell, furious, swore at the policeman, and called him a "pleb" who should "know his place". The angry policeman reported the incident to his superior, the affair was leaked to the press and there was uproar throughout the country.

It is the word "pleb" - short for "plebian" - that caused the fury. It is not a swear word. But it is a pejorative term for someone from the working class. Not only was the minister suggesting that the policeman was a working class man; he also told him to "know his place", ordering him to show deference to a man who was his social and class superior.

Mitchell admitted that he had been rude and abusive and apologised. But he refused to admit that he used the word "pleb", although the police insist he did. The press and the Labour opposition called for his resignation. David Cameron, the Prime Minister, has backed him, however. But he is deeply embarrassed. For the row has reignited accusations that the Conservatives are still a party representing the rich, the landowners and more privileged sections of society, as it used to be in the 18th and 19th centuries And at a time when austerity and cuts to government programmes have particularly hit the lower paid, there is widespread anger that the rich are not making the sacrifices demanded of others. Many Conservatives insisted that "We are all in this together" when calling for painful reductions in public spending. Labour voters say this is not true.

Adding to the anger is the perception that most top jobs in Britain are still held by those who were privately educated, who comes from wealthy families or who are part of the "establishment". Forty years ago, no one would have been surprised that well-to-do families held most of the leading positions in society. But whereas Conservative Prime Ministers in the 1950s and 60s - Churchill, Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home - were often aristocrats from families with titles, the social revolution of the late 60s and 70s reduced the influence of class. People were promoted in business, politics and the law on merit, not because of "connections" or what Britons call "the old school tie". Margaret Thatcher was a typical product of a lower middle-class family, the daughter of a grocer, who succeeded in getting an Oxford education and going into politics despite her lowly origins. And Tony Blair, although he went to a private school, became leader of the Labour party, which was founded to promote the chances of the working man, and relies heavily on the money and support of the trade unions.

One private school especially, Eton, has dominated British society. It is a very good school. But it costs almost 30,000 a year to send a child there. Today's Etonians include Cameron, the mayor of London Boris Johnson and a senior bishop who is one of the top candidates to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Anglican Church.

Britain is a society still fascinated by class divisions. People from different classes still speak with different accents. And despite attempts by all governments for the past 50 years to give young people equal opportunities to go to university or to gain qualifications, figures show that those from the middle classes do far better in getting the best jobs. A popular television series now running is called "Downton Abbey" and is a drama about the different lifestyles of aristocrats living in a stately home before the First World War and the servants employed in the house. There have been several such series that look at social divisions in the old days and now.

Class divisions are not the same as differences in wealth. But to many people they seem to be the same. Labour's policies have always been to tax the rich heavily to pay for social improvements for the working classes. Mrs Thatcher ridiculed this idea, insisting that anyone with any ambition could get to the top, and it was not the job of governments to engage in "social engineering" to change attitudes, prevent snobbery or abolish privilege. 
But Britain's economy is now in trouble. There has been almost no growth for the past four years, and at present the economy is again in recession. The Coalition government's policies are meant to cut debt to protect the value of Britain's currency in international markets. But cutting spending is painful, and means abolishing many expensive programmes that help poorer people - unemployment benefit, special help for the low-paid, subsidised housing and generous sick-pay. At the same time the top rate of income tax on the highest earniers was reduced this year from 50 per cent to 45 per cent, because the government feared that high tax was destroying ambition and driving away the most enterprising businessmen. 

The trade unions and the Labour party have therefore accused the government of engaging in class war. And figures show that the wealth gap in Britain is one of the biggest in Europe and is still getting wider. The government points out that the top 1 per cent of earners paid 24.8 per cent of all income tax last year; but the opposition argues that bankers are still paying themselves huge salaries and bonuses, and that taxes are being used to rescue banks who behaved irresponsibly, while the bankers themselves have hardly suffered at all.

In the present economic climate all politicians are seen by voters as discredited and ridiculed. And at a time when political parties are desperately trying to regain credibility, they go back to their historic origins. The Conservatives are looking for more support among the well-off, and Labour is appealing again to trade unions and workers, promising more left-wing "socialist" policies designed to penalise the rich.

The government is furious at accusations that it is deepening social divisions, especially when such charges are voiced by the Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in the coalition. That is why the Mitchell affair is so damaging. Many people believe most Conservatives share his attitudes even if they do not use his language. He himself is deeply upset at the row. Ironically, there would have been less of an uproar if he had used obscenities to denounce the policeman. But "pleb" has become such a toxic word that Mitchell may now stay away from the Conservative party conference next week in case there are demonstrations against him or the embarrassing issue of class dominates the debates.

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