When Antony Calvert, Conservative Party candidate for Wakefield, tweeted about a man confronting him in the street, he made the wry observation that the man described himself as "working class" as he was walking into a Costa Coffee. Clearly, the man could not be working class if he splurged on lattes and cappuccinos like some metropolitan elite.
In 2016 I was prompted to put together Know Your Place, a collection of essays about the working class written by the working class, specifically for this reason. It was barely a month after the EU referendum and, despite being a dismayed liberal elite, I was also a working-class lad in the working-class heartland of Liverpool.
Liverpool voted to remain, despite being working class. I voted to remain, despite being working class, despite occasionally feeling guilty after buying a Costa coffee I can’t afford. The contradictions stacked up and, while the working class were demonised and scapegoated as the uneducated masses that brought us to this catastrophic point [of Brexit], I heard remarkably little from the working class themselves.
More than 30% of parliamentary candidates are privately educated; 71% of senior judges are. In the media, where I’m sure everyone gets a Costa on their way to work, that figure is 44%. Among newspaper columnists, 43% were privately educated.
These figures aren’t worrying if you believe that a working-class youth who educates themself and goes to university and gets a job in the media, or is elected to parliament, automatically stops being working class and becomes middle class. Because that view ties into a vision of the UK that we would all like to believe. It is an upwardly mobile country where the only thing holding you back from success is your own ability.
That vision of this nation ignores a lot of things, but perhaps most importantly, it ignores the experience of what being working class actually is. It ignores the experience of walking into a room and knowing that you don’t belong in that room. It ignores, like many things, how often the working class are ignored. It ignores all the people who drag themselves from their bed to try to make their life better and try, try, try to make their children’s lives better. It ignores their frustration, their exhaustion and it ignores their requests for help. It tells them to just try harder...
I tried to work in publishing for a long time, but I was told I needed to move to London and take an unpaid internship. I couldn’t do that. I always wondered if perhaps I just wasn’t trying hard enough. In the end, I set up my own publishing house. Does that make me middle class now? If it does, then it ignores all of the social, cultural and economic limitations that initially held me back. Does that all vanish now?
When this article is published, will I be accused of being middle class? You could find a reason, I’m sure. I did go to university. There is a vision of the working class that we cling to: a romanticised idea that is still rooted around the publication of The Road to Wigan Pier in 1937, an account of working-class life written by George Orwell, an Eton-educated man.
Delegitimising the working class is a step towards removing working-class voices. If we want working-class writers, actors, politicians and judges—and if we want those institutions to understand working-class life—then we need to expect the working class to be educated and intelligent, perhaps even cultured, or partial to a high-street coffee-chain latte.
Otherwise, we’re just telling them to know their place.
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