In the 60s, every self-respecting working-class lad who was
fortunate enough to have a hit record or two, did what his proud
mother expected: he acquired a large country manor, an aristocratic
girlfriend and attempted to join the toffs.
The working class was still something you most definitely wanted to
leave behind, “bettering” yourself by moving from “Us” to “Them”.
Now, according to a startling Mori study published last week, that
traffic is in reverse. Apparently, even the middle classes want to
identify with “feelings of working-class solidarity”. In addition,
more people feel “working class and proud of it” today (68 per
cent) than did so in 1997 (58 per cent). Five years ago, of course,
we were on the tail end of Thatcherite propaganda, in which the
working class had for almost two decades been identified as the
source of scroungers, layabouts and juvenile delinquents.
Now it is the middle-class image that is being walloped.
Uncertainty in employment, the pensions fiasco and the volatility
of the stock market have further devalued the middle-class habit of
prudence to ensure security for the family’s future. Risk has
always been a motif in working-class life; now it has infiltrated
upwards, too. It’s no wonder the new middle classes – many,
perhaps, only a generation away from their original working-class
roots, are apparently re-evaluating.
The importance of collective action, inter-dependence and mutuality
– I’ll help you now because tomorrow I may need help – is, of
course, the foundation stone of the welfare state, as well as a
strong working-class trait, honed by the fight for survival. It
would be good if the 21st century renaissance of working-class
values endorsed this more strongly in social policy, not least in
improving benefits for the working poor – the new serfs in the
service sector – and those who are without employment.
The cynic, however, might question whether the Mori study instead
reveals just how pernicious the spread of the market place has
become. Has the rise of the Jack-the-lad celebrity – Jamie Oliver
et al – and the domination of the soaps simply led to the
commodification of the working class? Has life downstairs, as
opposed to upstairs, become just another temporary “experience”
bought by those who, at heart, hold fast to the individualism which
means, in a consumer world, they can spend what they like – and
stuff those who have none?