True class is the privilege to be able to do good, and then to do it

James Marriott has an interesting piece on Status and Class in the Times today. Class is largely inherited, which does not of course mean that there is no movement at all. But such movement is generally driven by wealth, or lack of it, than anything else. Those at the top of the pile or close to it may inherit wealth as well as social position, they usually do, and this then facilitates the protection of privilege for themselves and their children.

For most of us the journey we take is determined by our own efforts, and luck ! If we are smart and work hard the greasy pole becomes less slippery, but it’s still there. The pursuit of wealth is mostly to acquire possessions and activities that are the symbols of status – the house, the car, the luxury holidays. But also to do our duty, as we see it, to our offspring. Notably education where the richer you are the better independent (or indeed State) school you can buy.

Location is important to status. I grew up near a small suburban town where to live one side of the railway line was much higher status than the other.My education at a Public School conferred status on my parents who were “upwardly mobile” – mainly through their own efforts though my Dad did have quite well-off parents which helped.

Popular culture reinforces class and status stereotypes. Decades ago “Upstairs Downstairs” , “The Good Life” and “Til Death Do Us Part’ characterised “Upper, Middle and Lower” for us. It was accurate and it hasn’t gone away. Today employment is one of the ultimate determinant of Class. Jobs in the professions have a special status that sets a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher somewhat apart.

You hear the term “Nouveau Riche” less often these days but it was common when I was young. The presumption was that “Old money” was more prestigious than “New money”. It was characterised hilariously by Alan Clark’s snobbish remark about Michael Heseltine that he was “…the sort of man who bought his own furniture”!

The lives of the Upper Classes are remote and incomprehensible to most of us. At a reception once I was talking to a mesmerisingly beautiful and “classy” young woman. An elderly man approached and she said to me “Do you know my grandfather?”. I shook his hand. It was the Duke of Kent.

The Duke is at the top of the pile of course and seemed nice. Come down a rung and you meet the Etonians some of whom are charming – then there’s Johnson and Rees-Mogg. Privilege doesn’t always confer true class which surely has noblesse oblige somewhere in it.

True class is the privilege to be able to do good, and then to do it. My grandparents’ generation’s lives were forever touched by the Great War. In the trenches the likes of Old Etonian Harold Macmillan were transformed by their exposure to ordinary soldiers who in peacetime they would not normally have met. The problem with David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg is that they were never in the trenches, or anything like them. Privilege has carried them comfortably through a life narrowed by its lack of social variety.

2 thoughts on “True class is the privilege to be able to do good, and then to do it

  1. I once wrote a dissertation on class at Uni. I did a BSc in social studies. It’s a long time ago now but I remember the reading and the subject matter quite well.
    The truth is in Britain or in particular England the class system is so heavily ingrained in the psyche of society it would be difficult if not impossible to change it.
    I grew up in a middle-class family, attended a private school, and had all the advantages other kids didn’t. At Uni I rejected the background I had grown up in and embraced Marxism as a political mantra. My tutor at the time was an American Marxist who was dismissed from UC Berkeley for his political activities which took some doing. UC Berkeley was well known for its liberal tolerance. It was the sixties and opposition to the Vietnam war dominated everything. It changed my life in many ways.
    The class system in society seemed to me then as the root cause of all the ills. I still believe that. The unfairness and prejudice the class system creates denies people of ability and talent the opportunities others take for granted. To overcome it kids from poorer backgrounds have to work twice or three times harder to achieve their goals in life.
    I live in Spain where generally speaking the class system does not operate. The country is a real meritocracy like many other EU nations. Doing ‘good’ come naturally to the Spanish people. The way immigrants are treated in this country is the polar opposite to Britain.
    The tragedy for Britain is under the current government the class system is now being reinforced. The clock turned back by old Etonian believers in their divine right of rule. The real irony is they gained power by pandering to the racial prejudices of Red Wall voters. Prejudices the upper and middle classes of England have always had. The very people that a class system keeps firmly in their place.

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