University is a melting pot of people, and a credit to the claim that “variety is the spice of life”. Where else can you engage in discussions with such a breadth of people, with an equally impressive range of nationalities, in a quintessentially British environment like the pub? We like to comfort ourselves that the diversity that makes University so special means that we, as University students, are inherently tolerant. We kid ourselves that we don’t subscribe to ignorant notions of stereotypes and tribal mindsets of exclusivity. However, we do; and seldom more so than in the arena of class.
Class, admittedly, is something that defines us as Brits. Whether you’re so far left that you can no longer see the centre line, or such a right-wing back bencher that you’ve actually fallen off the bench (due credit to The Thick of It), the fact stands that class is still alive and kicking in society. We may have come leaps and bounds in improving racial and sexual equality on campuses – though there is certainly a lot more to be done – but class has fallen out of focus. Perhaps it is because class is contentious in definition? One person that may consider themselves middle class, might be perceived as working class by another? Who is the authority in such a question of identification? I won’t pretend to be, but I think I can at least provide some insight.
We can agree class has some financial basis. Those who are traditionally upper class have more money, the traditional working class have less money, and the middle class have emerged somewhere in the middle. But class is much more than money and has many cultural stereotypes as well. Stereotypically, pastimes of shooting and hunting are considered typical of the upper and middle classes, and those of watching the football and socialising in the boozer to the working class. Thirdly, there is another stereotype which is perhaps the most unfounded: Northerners are nearly always working class, and Southerners generally wealthy middle to upper class. This stereotype is the most damaging when trying to solve issues of inequality.
It is true that the South of England certainly fared much better because of Thatcherite economics, whilst the typically industrial North was left hurt by huge rollbacks in government. This is not a partisan opinion but generally factual. However, with any generality, there is always a quite considerable exception to the rule.
Many areas in the South did not experience this prosperity, and still suffer as a result. London, Portsmouth, Southampton and Plymouth to name a few, saw their traditional bases of employment vastly reduced and experienced a loss of culture, similar to Northern mining and industrial areas. In my hometown of Portsmouth, my traditionally dockyard working family saw their livelihood and roles as now irrelevant in the grand scheme of Thatcher’s new vision, and had the proverbial rug pulled from underneath them. The effects of such actions mean that incidences such as high child poverty still plague many parts of the South, and this toll can be felt by generations after.
Now, this is certainly no attempt to rebut the North’s claim to working class heritage, and the North was certainly left much worse off as a result of the 1980s, but it must be accepted that many Southerners are working class and share problems that their counterparts in the North also deal with. Though I may speak with an accent that sets me way apart from that of a stereotypical well to do Southerner (somewhere between Cockney and West Country – it baffles the best of people), many do not speak with an accent that particularly sets them apart from other Southerners. Consequentially, many Southerners are assumed to be wealthy.
What I therefore urge us to do is to place emphasis on understanding class and tackling class related issues in the same way that we do with race etc. We will most likely find that the economic issues facing both ethnic minorities and the working classes are extremely similar, and we can thus solve shared problems together. Furthermore, we must stop putting people into boxes regarding class, and this is probably a lesson more generally. It shouldn’t matter that two working class people from London and Lincoln are from different ends of the country, but more that they share common experiences, and can thus find solace in each other’s pursuit for equality.
Yes, this issue has been a source of anxiety for myself and would consider the title of this piece accurate to my situation, but I hope I speak to anyone who seeks better for all. Togetherness is an amazing concept, and unity brings about better results for all of us, but as long one person’s struggle is dismissed because of their origins, we have failed everyone.
By Lawrence Pople