Today the research company BritainThinks published the results of a study of the working class. It’s the follow-up to another piece of research they did, revealing that nearly three quarters of us now see ourselves as middle class (lower middle, middle or upper middle), and arguing that this self-definition has become as important as the attributes and symbols that we would traditionally think of as defining different classes.
I find it strange that nearly three quarters of us can be part of what we call the ‘middle’ class, with almost nobody falling into the only category above: upper class. I also find it odd that working is neither necessary nor sufficient to make you a member of the working class.
In fact, the terms working class and middle class are barely fit for purpose – and yet we all know what they mean and manage to use them with very little difficulty. The same is true of left wing and right wing. When we hear these terms in conversation there’s rarely much confusion about what is meant, even though politics today looks rather different to how it did when they were coined during the French Revolution.
Many of the regimes that we think of as ‘extreme right-wing’, for example, actually take a lot from the left. ‘Far-right’ and ‘neo-Nazi’ are almost synonyms, and yet the word Nazi comes from National Socialist. It was a perversion of socialism, yes, but it was courting pretty much the same audience.
There are much more useful models of political viewpoints out there than the crude left-right scale, but none have permeated our language in the way that left and right wing have.
BritainThinks’ examination of class labels made me wonder what other common terms would benefit from being turned upside down and shaken a bit. The first that comes to mind is ‘community’ – a word that came up a few times in today’s discussion of the working class.
Politicians love talking about communities – especially ‘hard-working communities’. They like to give the impression that Britain is made up of people who say hello to each other in the corner shop and let each other know when they’ve left their car lights on and know their local police constable by name and so forth. If the media report a crime, they’ll almost always talk about its effect on the local ‘community’.
But what does it mean? Very often, community is nothing more than a cosy-sounding euphemism for a place. It would be more precise to say ‘council ward’ or ‘school catchment area’ or ‘town’. Sometimes it just means ‘people’.
What is community for people in Britain these days? Does it even exist in the way we like to think it does? How does it vary from person to person and place to place? What makes us feel we belong?
These are important questions – and the overuse of the term by politicians and journalists when it’s not warranted doesn’t help answer them.