The Duchess and the Dustman meet the Elite and the Precariat

Jenny Diski

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 The old three-class structure is irrelevant and outdated, the survey found.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, 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.


  • 4 April 2013 at 3:30pm
    streetsj says:
    ..and did you play the maid?

    • 4 April 2013 at 4:08pm
      Jenny Diski says: @ streetsj
      No, I withdrew my application and failed to become the great older actress I would have been.

  • 4 April 2013 at 3:32pm
    gerschenkron says:
    I think you're being a little unfair on the "Manchester sociologists" who researched this as they weren't responsible for the "crude" BBC test (which has generated much interest). Their research is discussed in their article here:

    • 4 April 2013 at 4:10pm
      Jenny Diski says: @ gerschenkron
      Yes, I think you are right. I should have split the research from the BBC's interpretation of it. Thanks.

  • 5 April 2013 at 12:58am
    bilejones says:
    This "test" is drivel.

    I score as an "elite". I'm the son of a Liverpool docker,. I have in my youth sometimes slept on park benches for lack of an alternative.

    That I later discovered a mathematical talent that the good folks on Wall St were willing to pay for doesn't alter that.

    • 5 April 2013 at 10:02am
      Harry Stopes says: @ bilejones
      I take your point, but surely there must be some mechanism(s) for moving between classes. If one is simply the same class as one's father then your dad's working class, you're working class, and your own kids would therefore be working class - despite having a father who is, you imply, a wall street millionaire.

  • 5 April 2013 at 8:03am
    philip proust says:
    Jenny Diski doesn't seem sure whether to take the new classification seriously or laugh it off, reflecting perhaps the intelligentsia's ambivalence about class in the UK.
    The suggested revised classification comes at a time when inequalities have reached toxic levels, and where the predicament of the 'precariat' is intensifying. The new 'bottom' stratum and its dimensions, 15%, makes it very hard I would have thought for the Tories to ignore class as a serious issue.
    The comment 'We’re all middle class now, except for 3/20ths of us,' does not seem to follow from what has come before; the term 'middle-class' is attached to only two of the strata; there is an emphatic insistence - against the absurd trend in the USA to call all but the homeless the middle class - that the working class exists and takes up a lot of room in the system.
    Also interesting is that though it is alluded to indirectly in the blog, the actual existence and power of snobbery is not mentioned: is this rather gigantic factoid of British life too embarrassing to confront except in joking terms?

  • 5 April 2013 at 8:48am
    Lesedi says:
    I think you have only listed 6 of the classes: "the elite, the established middle class, the technical middle class, new affluent workers, the traditional working class and the precariat." I belie the one you left out was emergent service workers or something like that.

  • 5 April 2013 at 2:31pm
    krummholz says:
    Richard Thompson, in "Crawl Back (Under My Stone)" from "Mock Tudor," on the linguistic stigmata of class: "You had me in a second/You had it all reckoned, you did/You guessed my game and/My name rank and number, you did/Somehow--gave myself away/Some code,some word I didn't say/I missed one line in the play/And the trap shut tight/And you did me all right."

  • 6 April 2013 at 12:12am
    Gardiner Linda says:
    Some decades ago I went from Scotland to university in the south of England and immediately became classless, or class-mysterious, or class-neutral. The minutely calibrated accent recognition system of the Southern English had no place for those of us from The North. A fellow-student thought I was American; another Scot was asked by his landlady if he was Greek, on account of he had a foreign accent. A student with a cut-with-a-knife Leeds accent was asked if he was from Scotland. (How we laughed.) As a jumped-up working-class kid with the benefit of an excellent (completely free to me) education, I "passed" as middle-class, upper-class, anything I felt like, thanks to the utter ignorance of the Southrons. Upward mobility through immigration, a grand tradition, and long may it last. So (I confess)I took the BBC test, and it tells me I'm one of the Elite. The salient items seem to be the possession of a flat worth more than twice what I paid for it, through no fault of my own, and thirty-odd years of paying into a pension fund. What was that line about not wanting to join any club that would have me as a member?

  • 7 April 2013 at 4:24am
    Neil Levy says:
    "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.".

    In fairness to sociologists, the best account of how this kind of subtle and implicit understanding of the markers of social class works is sociological: especially the work of Pierre Bourdieu.

  • 8 April 2013 at 7:02am
    alex says:
    Bourdieu's work has these nuances on account of an ethnological training. (His first work is called 'Sociologie' on account of the conception of Algeria as an integral part of France, but it was based on fieldwork techniques.)
    Generally I would not agree with gerschenkron's point, accepted by Diski, that this is a case of 'fair science' distorted by 'the media'. There is nothing obliging UK sociologists to reinforce rather than question the reality of such class categories. (Except there is - evidence of 'impact' for research is now rewarded academically, irrespective of whether the research is sound.)

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