By now, if you’re British, you’ve probably taken the test based on a new study of social class for the BBC by Manchester University. If you’re not British, you won’t know what I’m talking about – just move along. The old three-class structure is irrelevant and outdated, the survey found. It’s too simplistic and no longer ‘nuanced’ enough. The new nuanced British class structure looks like this, with seven classes: the elite, the established middle class, the technical middle class, new affluent workers, emergent service workers, the traditional working class and the precariat or precarious proletariat, which comprises 15 per cent of the population. We’re all middle class now, except for 3/20ths of us, and they, it seems from their name, don’t know whether they’re coming or going.
Nuanced? More complex? There were never just three classes in Britain, not if you grew up here. There were at least upper, upper middle, middle, lower middle, upper working, middle working, lower working and the lumpenproletariat (as defined by Marx: ‘Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux, brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars — in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème’). At least as many divisions, yet it was so simple, and there was no need to take a test. You looked, you listened, you sniffed the air. And there it was, at 60 paces. Along, of course, with the telltale signs of arrivisme or decline, everyone with an exquisitely precise social degree of their own as obvious as the nose on their face, the first syllable uttered, the cut of their jacket.
It was as easy to know as it was intricate, the British class system. Provided you were born to it. But those of us who didn’t exactly fit because our parents or grandparents still spoke with foreign accents learned pretty quickly how to spot the finest distinctions. Even an Australian classmate knew, at my boarding school, when I tried to join the drama club, that with the wrong accent, I ‘would only be any good at playing maids’.
Sociologists love to have categories they can explain, but much more interesting is what is known by one person of another with the most minute of clues, the tiniest slip of a vowel, or just the wrong shade of blue. The way people knew was so much more interesting (and deadly) than the crude social, cultural and financial markers that the Manchester sociologists used.
I turned out to be of the technical middle class when I took the test. When I took it again, keeping everything the same except for putting my income down while leaving my ‘savings’ and property-value up, I became one of the elite. So it made no difference who I socialised with, or how I spent my time, to shift my class. Also, if you hit all the bottom financial figures and leave the rest of the questionnaire blank, you are traditional working class. If you hit all the top financial figures and leave the rest blank, you are elite. Not so very nuanced, after all. And a gift to Tories who want to claim that there is no such thing as class any more in this country. A number of citizens have taken it on themselves to make the test more nuanced. The Poke has collated some of the results. After a little Photoshopping, you can be part of society as a much more comprehensible Total Fucking Scumbag, Drug Dealer or Insect Overlord.