Class war, the painful taboo at the heart of Brexit?

, by Madelaine Pitt

Class war, the painful taboo at the heart of Brexit?

No one was surprised. As the winner of the Conservative leadership race took to the stage to bumble out a speech as ill-suited to the occasion as he is to his new position, his party stared back at him with a suppressed smattering of horrified apprehension that was far outpaced by their glee.

They were perched precariously at the tippity-top of the rollercoaster after months of dodgems and teacups. Finally, they were ready for the white-knuckle ride.

#DemocracyInAction

I don’t think I need to iterate that I would not have voted for Boris Johnson. Many people wouldn’t, but 66% of Conservative Party members, a total of 92,137 people, representing a token 0.1% of the population, was sufficient to get him there. How dare they deny the people a say in choosing their leader? …was a question angrily posed by Boris Johnson in 2007 when Gordon Brown slunk his way into Number 10 in exactly the same circumstances following the resignation of Tony Blair. Strangely, Johnson seems to object less to the process nowadays.

Johnson is a compulsive liar to whom truth and accuracy are as important as a crowbar to a saint. He is a lazy bluff-your-way-through-it talker for whom using factual evidence to form a well-founded argument is as natural as putting concrete in a lasagne. He is as hypocritical as the boss of Ryanair at a consumer protection convention. He is an opportunistic charlatan with fewer genuine political convictions than your average cappuccino.

But he is chronically over-privileged, and in Britain, that checks a lot of boxes.

The national sport

In Britain, we are obsessed with social class. Social class provides a filter by which to judge everyone we meet. We are constantly and unconsciously on the look-out for new information which may help us classify someone into one class or another, be it what their car cost, what accent they have, what hobbies they have, their names, or which stores they shop at.

I remember my cousin desperately hoping not to see anyone she knew during a visit to a notoriously low-quality clothing chain. In contrast, there is a Facebook page called “Overheard in Waitrose” where people share quotes they have heard in Britain’s most upmarket supermarket. “Shall we get organic parmesan for both houses, darling?” was quite possibly my favourite.

Although there is significant overlap, our notions of class are not the same as money. In Britain, unlike in the US, you can be middle-class but poor, or a working-class millionaire. Social class runs much deeper than socioeconomic status into deep and tenacious cultural roots which include social codes, leisure activities, opportunities and expectations. Class shapes our personal relationships and, inevitably, our career paths.

Signs of our frenetic obsession with social class can be found in extensive and pejorative vocabulary on the subject. Someone we consider to be of a lower class might be a “chav”, “pikey”, “pauper”, “riff-raff” or “the dregs”. For someone who we might perceive as belonging to a higher social class, we might utter a scathing “so middle class”, or describe them as “posh”, a “toff” or a “snob”. This language allows us to express and, I suspect, reinforce our own deep and permanent insecurity about our position on the social ladder.

Widespread poverty, low social mobility

Our preoccupation with class cannot be entirely unrelated to our delightful combination of low social mobility and high inequality. A recent UN report condemned the scale and depth of poverty in Britain (14 million in poverty, with 1.5 million experiencing destitution), while a recent OECD study found a child from a poor family in Britain would need five generations to reach the average national salary.

This helps expectations of poverty, elitism or anything in between to trail through generations as predictably as genetics. These expectations are glued together with social codes perceived to be part and parcel of your class bracket, and are a fertile breeding ground for dangerously divisive notions of class identity – all legitimised by our national obsession.

What is striking and worrying in equal measures in Britain is that these expectations breathe dominantly down the necks of the media and the legal and political skeletons of the country.

Private school pupils (7% of the population) go on to make up more than half of leading print journalists and almost three quarters of top judges. As for politics, 64% of Boris Johnson’s new cabinet was privately educated.

Is this 7% minority really that much more hard-working and competent on average than the remaining 93%? Or does the social-expectations-entrenched gulf between the elite and non-elite classes give them a head start, and, dare I suggest, feeling of superiority?

The life of Boris

Little else can explain the success of Boris Johnson, who by all objective measures is simply a terrible politician. His legacy as foreign secretary was a series of racist slurs and gaffes, while that of his two mandates as Mayor of London was an extortionately expensive plan for a bridge which never got built.

Educated at Eton, a highly exclusive school currently charging £42,501 a year (more than 1.5 times the average salary in Britain), his entire career has consisted of causing damage to others while remaining entirely protected from it himself. A hurtle towards no deal is a boost for his bravado without any comprehension, or desire to comprehend, what it might mean for ordinary or already struggling people.

This wilful ignorance that life in Britain extends beyond the elite bubble can also be seen in “moderate” politicians. Philip Hammond, who until recently held the British purse strings, recently rubbished the evidence from the aforementioned UN report by saying, “I reject the idea that there are vast numbers of people facing dire poverty in this country. I think that’s a nonsense. Look around you, that’s not what we see in this country.”

Although I am sure private schools produce many sensitive and competent people, this rather short-sighted statement shows getting to the top in British politics as a working class citizen must be something akin to a Muggle applying for a job at the Ministry of Magic.

Brexit: an anti-globalisation backlash?

Hold the bus (no, not that one; just a metaphorical bus) – our obsession with class can explain some of the misplaced trust in our terrible leadership, but what has this got to do with Brexit?

On an anecdotal level, I have found the divide between “winners” and “losers” of globalisation depressingly pertinent. The more middle-class side of my family whom life has treated pretty well are more Remain-leaning. The working-class side of my family whose communities were hit badly when their local manufacturing moved abroad are more likely to be Leavers.

And who can blame them? Since June 2016, I have become very painfully aware that it’s easy for people like me – lucky enough to study at university and travel abroad, reaping huge personal benefits from the EU in ways that are simply not available to less fortunate people – to be Remainers. Why should it be the case for those for whom the advantages of EU membership are limited to unevenly distributed, ill-publicised structural funds and near-invisible benefits of free trade agreements?

It’s not quite so simple

Of course, the overall picture is more complex. Setting aside for the moment the fact that class is, as I’ve tried to show, a social phenomenon hard to capture in data, the “losers of globalisation” argument attracts mixed and ultimately unconvincing levels of support in the literature.

Additionally, the Conservative Party, the epitome of the British middle classes and up, the party whose MPs and members have profited from globalisation more than anyone, has become captain of the Vote Leave ship. Furthermore, the (already limited) correlation between higher incomes and Remain seems to disappear north of the English border, with the Scots opting for Remain almost without regard to their socioeconomic status. Clearly, other forces, especially notions of national identity, are at play.

A painful class conflict is neither an irrelevant, nor a one-size-fits-all explanation of the current unfolding bedlam in Britain. However, our national obsession is indeed at the heart of the debate. This obsession has helped fuel the elitism which has aided the masterminds of Brexit, cocooned in their own extreme privilege, to hoodwink vulnerable and less vulnerable segments of the electorate into joining their populist parade. This same elitism propels bad leaders, wrapped up in misplaced self-importance, into Number 10, free to protect their own kind and leave the man-in-the-street unrepresented.

And yet be honest, Brits: how many of you would recoil in internal horror at the thought of having a prime minister with a strong Liverpudlian accent, who shops at Tesco and watches Eastenders? Surely, darling, that would be quite poor taste. Usher in the elites. And let the rollercoaster fly.

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