The idea of class as an expression of wealth was always a misconception. Our modern obsession with its outward manifestations was entrenched at a time when wealth was at its most even level of distribution in Britain, in the immediate post-Second World War era. It was people's relative proximity in money terms that led them to find alternative ways of distinguishing themselves from their neighbours. Before the war, most people knew their place (and outside the political left, accepted it). But an acceleration of social mobility in the Forties and Fifties led to a boom in petty snobbery. It was the era of the 'u' and 'non-u' distinctions notoriously codified by Nancy Mitford. As the solidarity of the war years receded, but austerity kept people's incomes relatively homogenous, it became almost existentially important whether you said 'napkin' or 'serviette'; 'toilet' or 'loo'; 'how d'you do?' or 'pleased to meet you.'
Professor Dorling has a graph that shows what a purely wealth-based class structure looks like. There is a big chunk in the middle - 50 per cent of the population who qualify as 'normal'. Beneath them is a 15 per cent chunk of 'poor' people, and another 10 per cent who are 'very poor'. There is a sizeable chunk - 20 per cent - near the top who are rich. But the remaining five per cent are stratified into ever smaller distinctions of extreme wealth. These are people who, in Dorling's phrase, 'exclude themselves from the norms of society' - the footballers, pop stars, Russian oligarchs, oil sheikhs, hedge-fund managers. 'The top-level people all meet each other,' says Dorling, 'and the thing they have in common is money.'
But there is no agreement on where the boundaries of 'chavdom' begin and end. It is an extraordinarily polyvalent word, which can be used as a slur against the urban poor and the suburban rich. It is a weapon in a petty civil war waged almost entirely within the swollen ranks of the middle class, often between people of equivalent incomes, in houses of equal value.And The Times has a piece by (half-Asian, though very "middle-class") journalist India Knight, who writes from personal experience about the assumptions Britons have about race and class:
The class/race issue confuses many. I’ve had people pretend I was white since I was a child, despite the evidence of their own eyes. I am café au lait: this means I’ve been asked if I was Spanish, Italian, Greek, Turkish, South American. I don’t think anyone would have asked me if my family ran a corner shop and I had an Indian accent or wore a sari (although it’s always fun to stick one on: if people have only ever seen you in heels and dresses, you can see their bewilderment). I don’t think anyone genuinely wonders if I am Spanish; I think my middle-classness automatically “promotes” me to being manageably European, rather then problematically “foreign”.
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