Class is such a slippery concept in the UK that while the latest survey claiming we now have seven classes is interesting, it's not even very important
A new survey has released results to shake-up class obsessed Britain, or at least give Brits something to mull over while they sip their afternoon mugs of tea or glasses of champagne.
Having studied 161,000 individuals in the UK, the Great British Class Survey has concluded that the conventional categories of working, middle and upper class only fit 39 per cent of people, and it has instead come up with seven new classes. The BBC has also included a little quiz to help you work out which of these new classes you now fit into, which is really quite fun, even if it’s all a load of codswallop.
Most Spear’s readers will fall into the new ‘elite’ class, which unlike the other classes is defined simply according to wealth. Equally most Spear’s readers will recognise that British attitudes towards class are far more nuanced and complex than this — a bunch of millionaires out for dinner together will probably be able to order themselves into their own mini class hierarchy. They’d never talk about it of course, but they’d be able to do it.
Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced 'bouquet') tries to navigate the UK's complex class system in the TV programme Keeping Up Appearances
They would call upon those little class indicators that would be hard to pin down in a survey: does the furniture in someone’s living room match? What are their children called, and how do they spell those names? Where do they spend their summer holidays?
We don’t have seven classes in the UK. We might have 7,000. The British attitude towards class is a bit like our attitude towards sex — we don’t like to talk about it, but it’s rarely out of mind. And the boundaries between classes are fifty shades of grey.
The Today programme this morning illustrated our weird attitude towards class— the presenters went a bit giggly when defining their own class status, perhaps because it’s such a taboo subject. One interviewee sounded affronted when it was suggested she was ‘elite'. Regardless of her income, she clearly defined herself otherwise.
Does self-perception matter when it comes to defining class identity? Again it’s a bit fuzzy. I’d suggest self-perception isn’t a decisive factor: if someone defines themselves as upper-class, but everyone else disagrees, they’re probably just deluded. Then again, most people have a clear idea of where they fit in Britain’s class system, and this idea tends to be one that most of their friends and family would agree with — precisely because they understand all of those subtle class indicators that escape survey-writers.
One aspect that the BBC’s quiz has failed to consider for instance is that class in the UK sticks to you — it’s hard to shake off. A working class entrepreneur who makes a fortune doesn’t automatically become upper class. Nor does the lord of the manor become working class when he loses his mansion. We tend to consider our parents’ class when trying to define our own, and you have to do something quite special to justify defining yourself differently.
All of this is very fun to ponder — but precisely because class is such a strange, slippery concept in Britain, and as much about social ideas as economic or even cultural ones — it’s not that important, from a policy perspective at least.
Take social mobility for instance, given that the UK has one of the lowest rates of social mobility in the OECD. It’s completely possible to understand statistics such as that someone from the richest quintile in the UK is five times more likely to go to university than someone from the poorest quintile without any reference to class at all. We like to think of class as the elephant in the room, in fact it's more of a red herring.
Read more by Sophie McBain