Words: Aleeza Siddiq (she/her)
Is there a legacy to class? Are we hiding behind our labouring ancestors to hide from the shame of privilege?
A few months ago, we all joined a symphony of scoffs and sneers at Victoria Beckham (ironically dubbed as posh spice) and her claim to having grown up ‘‘very, very working class’, despite being driven in a Rolls Royce to her school in Hertfordshire. This one instance, despite being a moment in reality TV, may reflect a wider phenomenon in British Culture. A phenomenon in identity politics which relates to the misrepresentation of one’s positions in the British class system. Can we Britons be trusted to correctly identify our socio-economic positions?
LSE sociology’s Sam Friedman conducted research into this phenomenon in which Middle-class workers self-identifying as ‘working-class. This British Social Attitudes Survey saw that 47% of Britons in positions of management and middle-class professions identified as working class. A quarter of these individuals interestingly also came from Middle-class backgrounds, relating to their parents’ professions. Interestingly, a large chunk of these middle-class individuals could correctly identify their ancestors as working-class, introducing what Friedman called the ‘grandparent effect’. He states that this ‘deflects attention away from the structural privileges’ through an inaccurate self-framing as working class because their familial background may be in working class professions or culture. Yes, a privately educated high paid individual’s Great-Great Grandparents may have been labourers, but does this mean they get to inherit that subjugation?
One reason for this phenomenon may be, that British class system has roots in nobility and monarchy. Just as one may inherit a crown or lordship it seems that one may also feel an urge to inherit the title ‘working class’. Anthropologist ‘Kate Fox stated in that ‘Class in England has nothing to do with money, and very little to do with occupation,’. Suggesting that, in Britain, class systems relate less to salary and more to cultural factors, such as accents, cultural practices and background.
This Multiplicity complicates the boundaries of class distinction, allowing for those belonging to well payed professions to paint themselves as victims of the class struggle in a strange act of glorification. We all know a private school student decked head-to toe in charity shop clothing, who uses MLE words like ‘peak’ and ‘blem’. Which may be innocent, but the issue lies when that de-gentrified demeaner is coupled with a refusal to acknowledge privilege.
Misrepresentation relating to poverty makes it increasingly difficult to dismantle systemic issues in education or health care where ‘real’ working-class people suffer. Solidarity lies in introspection. There must be acknowledgement of privilege despite the shame one may feel at being middle-class in the wake of social injustice or the cost-of-living crisis. No one wants to be associated with the shame of privilege, there’s a dirtiness and impurity in phraseology like ‘filthy rich’ but we must swallow our pride, look within ourselves and all our ugly entitlement. Only then can we move towards social reform of economic systemic inequalities.