Cash and trash trump class

Privilege clings to wealth as mores change, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto

January 22, 2009

When I was an undergraduate, I argued with my tutor over whether Napoleon was bourgeois. To enter the artillery academy, the future emperor had to prove that he was entitled to four quarterings on his scutcheon. This seemed to me an objective measure of his status as an impoverished aristocrat, which his habits of command, his egregious self-esteem and the company his family kept in Corsica all confirmed.

To my tutor, however, Napoleon's father's occupation as a lawyer disqualified him. This sort of reasoning, I complained, would exclude Bertrand Russell, David Cecil and Patrick Lichfield from the ranks of the aristocracy. "Exactly!" exclaimed my tutor triumphantly.

I still think I was right. Class is a state of mind and a code of behaviour, not a job description or an index of income. Sociologists cannot measure it - much less economists, who define it in terms of wealth. In the US, where the only form of derogation is poverty, money is a suitable criterion; but on this side of the Atlantic it is useless as an indicator of class. In Europe, the "loadsamoney" will always seem vulgar to impecunious aristocrats.

The current debate on "social mobility" and "class" involves the abuse of both terms. Properly understood, social mobility has not stagnated in Britain. Rather, the country has become the homeland of a newly configured society that we cannot understand, because it is novel, and cannot describe, because of the poverty of our vocabulary.

In one respect, social mobility has increased: the classes have merged. The embourgeoisement of the workers parallels the proletarianisation of the old upper and middle classes. John "Two Jags" Prescott reasonably assures us that we are all middle class. Tastes converge. Tesco has gone upmarket, while the canny bourgeoise shops at Aldi. Public schools have music technology labs dedicated to the production of hip hop. My children's generation talks and dresses almost uniformly from Eton to the estuary. Their circle of friends is thoroughly permeable and infinitely elastic.

The honours system puts the cream of the old-boy network on the same level as Sir Alan Sugar and Sir Elton John. Celebrity, which anyone can attain through the sedulous pursuit of meretricious values, has replaced nobility and respectability - those old defining prerogatives of the upper and middle classes.

Prince Harry is the representative figure of our times. He had the benefit of the most protracted and expensive education ever devised in the history of the world, and the additional benefit of permanent exposure to great art and to the company - had he wanted it - of great minds. He has ended up apparently as ignorant and boorish as almost any lout in the back row of a sink-school detention class. He may still be welcomed, for his family's sake, by snobbishly fastidious hostesses, but his language, values and behaviour belong to a white-trash stag night. New barriers are far more effective than class consciousness in keeping people apart and frustrating generous ambitions: the ghettoes of race and religion, websites of the like-minded, cliques of the merely rich, sodalities of the stupid.

To climb out of the furrows and gutters of life, moreover, you need realistic targets and supportive structures. Chinese families used to club together to get bright youngsters the kind of education that would admit them to the mandarinate.

The same kind of back-up used to be available in Britain. The British mandarins who are now desperately seeking a formula for social mobility had the benefit of it. Liam Byrne, the Minister for the Cabinet Office who is leading the Government's efforts to tackle social exclusion, says he had "parents who loved me and pushed me". Alan Milburn, the MP and former Cabinet Minister who is leading the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, ascribes his own ascent to the support of family and community. The networks that sustained them, the values that elevated them, are pointless to people whose only goal is to be a "star" or whose best support is a gang. Ministers should be thinking about how to restore working-class self-pride rather than trying to force the professions to experiment in social engineering.

The poor find it hard to escape poverty because the wealth gap has increased shamefully, not because the rich are hostile to outsiders. That the professions are unattractive to the children of the poor is not, I suspect, because the barriers are daunting but because the rewards are unattractive. At the age of 11, according to some of the recent survey evidence, many children in sink schools want to be doctors or teachers. If by the age of 16 they have changed their minds, that may just be because they are older and cannier.

In our new Lotto-loving society, where cash and trash matter more than morals and merits, it is inevitable that privilege will cling to wealth. People who are pushy for themselves will be pushy for their children. Where money buys everything, it will buy jobs, esteem and power. A society with no sense of the value of poverty will never recognise the potential of the poor. A society that has lost the sense of the value of work will never esteem its working classes.

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