Fat cats and top dogs

A Class Act
November 14, 1997

Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard here destroy the myth that Britain is a classless society. Ordinary readers and even some sociologists will agree, never having accepted it anyway. What will surprise them, and is convincingly documented and dramatically illustrated, is the rise of a new class - the "super class" of private-sector so-called "professionals". New international opportunities for making money are provided by the market, or by privatising politicians, or by ancient monopolies in the case of lawyers; and old British institutions such as private ("public") schools and Oxford and Cambridge colleges feed the flow, while the National Health Service, the BBC and Victor (Lord) Rothschild's National Lottery reflect the outcomes. The march of the authors through British stratification is both compelling and rather breathless.

Almost all Tory grandees will dismiss it as an impertinent and vulgar attack on the legitimate earnings of the rich - the politics of envy. Adonis and Pollard have anticipated this reaction by making the point that discussion of class has been systematically excommunicated from the realms of respectable debate by the influence of notables in recent and current fashion.

Some academics, in their characteristically more ascetic and more polite style, will deplore the descent of the authors into journalistic presentation. "X says it all" or "the bottom line" or "seriously rich" or "on a hiding to nothing" are newspaper cliches that do not compensate for lively expressions such as "peers to proles" or Fleet Street quips such as the dismissal of Heseltine as "obviously not a proper gent" because he had "bought all his own furniture". Yet Adonis and Pollard offer a more general treatment than most academic specialists: they do borrow adroitly and extensively, from the arid arithmetic of stratification research (nine in ten hereditary peers are public-school educated and well over half went to Eton), and they do, here and there, add their own numbers: for example, their estimates of the size and make-up of the super class and the salaries of top barristers and City directors. Super-class members, we are left in no doubt, award themselves monstrous incomes, including salaries, bonuses, share options and the like. What is more threatening to a political democracy is that they thereby cut themselves off from the daily lives of ordinary citizens. I doubt whether this distinguishes the new rich from the old rich. Rather it is that today the camera and the newspaper have developed new modes of intrusion into guarded privacies.

The "critical event" for Adonis and Pollard has been the rise since the mid-1960s of the super class - "a new elite of top professionals and managers, at once meritocratic yet exclusive, very highly paid yet powerfully convinced of the justice of its rewards and increasingly divorced from the rest of society by wealth, education, values, residence and lifestyle"... London, servants, second homes, the best of private education, health and leisure, exotic foreign holidays, modern art, intermarriage between professionals with both partners on large incomes. These are the marks of the new affluence.

A deep fault in the construction of the book lies in the description, or rather lack of it, of the poor. The underclass is, no doubt properly, rejected as an Americanism or as an invalid inference from social genetics. Much more needs to be said. It is not enough to reject genetics. There is a large literature on assortative mating, on the measurement of intelligence and on meritocracy that is not confined to the political right and deserves serious review. Perhaps such a review could have replaced the story of the National Lottery, though that is also told with flair as a contemporary illustration of the "gentling of the masses". Of course we could also do with a sociological study of the class fate of the winners. Is this a "good cause" worthy of inclusion in the list of New Labour additions on health and education? At all events we may be sure that such a study would reveal that this is no harmless and classless flutter.

Another weakness is the excessively parochial character of the book. In fact Britain is not distinctive in its continuing use of the power of class. The phenomenon is global. Polarisation of income, wealth and power is a growing fact of industrial and post-industrial countries the world over. And corruption, despite democracy, accompanies power as it always did. For the United States the origins lie in business; for the USSR the collapse of the state arose from the failure of the nomenklatura to avoid exploiting ordinary people; France is plagued by pantouflages; Japan's LDP was overthrown by corruption in 1993.

Will Britain escape from ancient and modern injustice? A necessary first step is to read and take seriously this admittedly incomplete description of the condition of our country.

A. H. Halsey is emeritus professor of sociology, University of Oxford.

A Class Act: The Myth of Britain's Classless Society

Author - Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard
ISBN - 0 241 13720 9
Publisher - Hamish Hamilton
Price - £17.99
Pages - 308

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