When Tony Blair became prime minister at the age of 44 in 1997, he promised to build a classless society, striking a soaring note that chimed in with the aspirations of Britain’s working class.
It didn’t happen of course — the Blairs bought many expensive houses and Britain remained one of the most unequal places in Europe. But there’s something new afoot.
More than 70% of Britons think they are middle class, according to new research.
The British upper class is instantly recognisable in urban India from the affectionate comic portrayals by the writer P.G. Wodehouse; the working class less so.
Both have their values and cultures — the posh tend to be slightly embarrassed about their wealth and the working class shows pride in its culture.
This existence of physical class boundaries, despite increasing flexibilities, is matched by an equally important class consciousness.
Traditionally, the middle class has been scorned by factory workers and patronized by the rich.
Here’s consciousness, roughly translated: if you drink tea and like it brewed from (Tata-owned) Tetley’s tea bags, you are working class. If you like Darjeeling leaf tea from Fortnum and Masons, you clearly are not. If you prefer coffee – real coffee – brewed in a cafetiere you are middle class.
The new poll by BritainThinks is interesting because the findings seem to relate to this perception of class rather than fact.
A very rough income indicator is that a Briton is middle class if the household income is around £45-50,000 a year. But a study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies in 2006 shows that fewer than 2.5% of households earned that figure.
One possible answer to this puzzle is that the revolution begun by Tory premier Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s to embed class mobility into her sweeping economic reforms was lent a psychological permanence when New Labour came in.
Blair’s appeal cut across classes, and the British working class realised that being middle class is not such a bad thing after all.
After all, when one-time working class hero, deputy prime minster John Prescott moved up the ladder, he took to driving around in (now Tata-owned) Jaguar cars.