“The most right-wing, extreme and militant government we’ve ever had that is declaring class war on ordinary people,” said RMT leader Mick Lynch on LBC over the weekend. This was far from a unique response to the government’s “mini-budget” that was announced on Friday, which sought to help British citizens muddle their way through the cost of living crisis by introducing tax cuts that will disproportionately benefit the rich. If you’re a fat cat on a cushty £1 million salary, you’ll now be £55,220 better off. On £20k a year? Expect a staggering windfall of £157. Don’t spend it all at once.
The class system has always been a significant part of British culture, a hierarchical structure designed to define and divide the nation. But for such a supposedly important pillar of society, it’s become incredibly hard to determine who actually belongs in which class and why. A recent survey by The New Statesman, for instance, found that a quarter of people earning £100,000 or more and half of all homeowners consider themselves to be working class – perhaps this is the demographic the Tories have been so worried about when using the “white working class” as a political football. Meanwhile, research by the Centre for Labour and Social Studies found that many real working-class people reject the idea of class entirely.
Yet whether you’re a Waitrose regular who believes your working-class identity is inherited, or a low-earner refusing to be put into a box, the divide between the rich and poor in the UK has become blisteringly obvious. Far from the “we’re all in this together” rhetoric of lockdowns, we’re now entering a Hunger Games era of contemporary British history, as more than one million people are predicted to join the 14.5 million people already living in poverty in the UK by 2023. While this is happening, the government is occupying itself with issues that reveal where Tory loyalties truly lie. If you asked a normal person what urgently needs sorting out in the UK right now, scrapping a proposed ban on fur and foie gras imports, and helping hedge fund mates to make a killing from the tanking pound (ahem, allegedly) probably wouldn’t be top of the agenda.
It seems that with almost every political era comes a new declaration of the flattening of the British class system. “Class is a communist concept,” wrote Margaret Thatcher in 1992, an apparent dig at her successor John Major’s desire to build a “classless society”. New Labour came with the declaration that “we’re all middle class now” – a misquote, according to John Prescott, which nevertheless came to represent Blair’s politics of aspiration and meritocracy. Not too long ago, Boris Johnson promised to stamp out inequality by “levelling up”, pledging to improve lives in every part of the country by improving “access to good healthcare, a good education, skilled work, reliable transport.” His empty words: “We’re changing the rules of the game to put fairness back at the heart of the system and focusing on the priorities that really matter to people.”
Politically, it doesn’t really matter if the talk of these leaders isn’t necessarily reflected in their walk. Hints at class erosion attract a lot of voters – both the “working-class” Waitrose shoppers and the class-rejecting low earners. They appeal to instincts of both ambition and equality, a little voice that whispers, “why eat the rich when you could one day, maybe, possibly dine with them?”
But right now, we don’t have time to wait for our share of the foie gras. Google searches for “food banks near me” have increased by 250 per cent since 2020; libraries are planning to double up as “warm banks” this winter, providing heat and shelter to vulnerable people; children are pretending to eat or hiding during lunchtime at school because they can’t afford food. Over the years, distracting from class inequality by telling people that it doesn’t – or at least, soon won’t – exist has proven to be a pretty effective way to placate the nation and, ironically, keep us in our place. Currently, the reality is so bleak that this tactic may no longer work. The illusion that social hierarchy is a ladder anyone can climb is crumbling.
After years of being fooled into thinking people like Boris Johnson are just like us, the upper classes are no longer hiding in plain sight. They’re staring us dead in the eye, practically laughing as we’re told to eat mouldy food to save money while lining their own pockets through disaster capitalism. And with the cost of simply existing spiralling out of control from all directions, everyone but those at the very top of the class pyramid may soon find themselves tumbling further down the economic food chain. Recent debate around class has often focused on signifiers of status (eg. economic capital vs upbringing, bad vs good taste), but a degree from a top tier uni and an appetite for craft beer won’t save you from financial precarity.
It will be a wake-up call for some; an all too familiar degradation in living standards for many more. Either way, most people will be forced to become acutely aware of their place in the British class system and, crucially, how far away that is from those comfortably cushioned from the crisis. We’re already seeing the effects of this: over the past year, the portion of Brits who identify as middle class has dropped from 27 to 23 per cent, while the majority continue to think of themselves as working class. Meanwhile, upper class people in the public eye are increasingly criticised for being “out of touch” (rest in cancelled peace, Holly and Phil), and public dissent is brewing in the form of strike action and campaigns such as Enough is Enough and Don’t Pay UK.
Class war? As Lynch said, this is just the declaration, an explicit affirmation of social hierarchies that have always existed. The mask is off. This government doesn’t care about camouflaging inequality with hopeful statements about levelling up and classless societies. They can’t even be bothered to pretend anymore. Well, good. They’ve only made it easier for the public to make informed allegiances. The British class system is unlikely to ever fade. We may as well use it to find unity.