A friend one related that when in London, England sometime in the 1970s, he and his wife boarded one of the double-decker Roadmaster buses. For some reason his wife thought the conductor who took their fare behaved rudely toward them. No shrinking violet, she upbraided the conductor by telling him “you’re no gentleman” to which he replied, “I never said I was.”
Unlike the current euphemistic speech habits in this country, where “gentleman” once denominated a courteous, well-mannered man, but nowadays tends to be applied to all males including members of Congress and tattooed criminals of suspect hygiene, in England it signifies a social rank that is based upon birth, not behavior.
This story epitomizes the class consciousness that once permeated British society, and, indeed, most of the world. Unfortunately, outside of the United States, and perhaps Canada and a few, much smaller, nations, it still does. Thanks to Margaret Thatcher, social class means a lot less in the United Kingdom than it once did. It has pretty much went the way of the Roadmaster. The London buses in use today, still double-decker, only have a driver; no conductor.
The Great Chain of Being I described in an earlier post (see this link) described a mindset that every thing and person has an immutable place in a universal hierarchy dictated by creation or birth. This in one form or another has been the human conception of the universe for a long time. It was systematically described by Aristotle in the Fourth Century B.C., and refined by philosophers in Medieval Europe. It has existed, to some degree, in every civilization.
Recall, I wrote class consciousness, not class itself. We are kidding ourselves if we believe social class does not exist. Here in the in the U.S., we just do not pay attention, and there is no legal sanction for it.
Notwithstanding, sociologists do pay some attention to social class. They have generally denominated it by wealth and occupation. Frequently we read of the upper class, middle class, and lower class, and occasionally some sub-classifications. To wit:
Upper Class = generally, anyone with an immediate family net worth of $25,000,000 or more though celebrity entertainers and athletes tend to be excluded.
Upper Middle Class = those with incomes of over $100,000 who have a professional, executive, or managerial occupation; generally college educated.
Middle Middle Class = Self employed merchants and skilled tradesmen. Middle management and clerical workers.
Lower Middle Class = Journeymen trades and minor clerical workers. Semiskilled laborers.
Lower Class = Unskilled laborers and chronically unemployed without a skill.
(One may quibble with these descriptions, particularly at the margins, but they seem to be generally accepted. Charles Murray in his recent book Coming Apart argues that two classes, based on occupation, cultural preferences, and relative wealth have emerged in America. In the United States, class has somewhat been a function of ethnicity, at least for a generation or two post immigration. Prior to the civil rights revolution in the mid-to-late Twentieth Century, race definitely denominated social class. All of this is very interesting, but I do not intend to discuss it further at this time.)
While there may be class in America, outside of the black-white racial divide (and that has been diminishing for the past forty years), there has not been much class consciousness. When asked what they are, most Americans, even those who are clearly upper or lower, would say they are “middle class.” It has been an aspiration of those at the lower end of the economic spectrum to join the middle class, and to consider themselves there even if objectively they haven’t quite made it yet. One of the most frequent appeals politicians now make is concern for the interests of the middle class. The villains in these appeals are “the rich,” whose definition changes depending on its usefulness. If, however, nearly everyone believes they are middle class, then we have a classless society.
Great Britain has been different. The Great Chain of Being, originally applied to an agrarian society, adapted to the industrial era in the Nineteenth Century. The social classes as they became defined, were the aristocracy or titled nobility, the gentry (“gentlemen”), the middle class, and working class. One is born into a class, and generally is made aware early in life which one she belong to. Social mobility is not expected, and is actually disfavored. If one aspires to better himself, it might be to join the gentry, which used to mean owning land, but certainly not the middle class. “Middle class” has been often a term of derision, even scorn, especially among the working class. The bogeyman for Karl Marx and his disciples was not the aristocracy so much as it was the bourgeoisie; that is, the merchants, the manufacturers, the professionals. Wanting to be in the middle class would make one a traitor to his class.
An important difference between the concept of social class in Great Britain and the United States is, in America, one’s occupation is largely determinative, while in Britain it is not. This accounts for mobility. One can change his occupation, but not her parents.
Under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, Britain made a quantum departure from its prior class consciousness. Thatcher, daughter of a greengrocer, educated as a chemist and a lawyer, was distinctly British middle class. She despised the whole concept of social class and made no bones about it. Her attitude was equally critical of the upper class “toffs” as she was of those who gloried in being working class. She was not so toward individuals – she revered upward mobility – but rather toward the idea of class, and class consciousness. Thatcher was one of the few politicians who was genuinely anti-collectivist.
Prior to Thatcher’s three terms years as Prime Minister, and since the end of World War II, Britain had become a socialist country. Nearly every major manufacturing, utility, and transport facility had been nationalized and was run by the government. Wealth redistribution through confiscatory taxation had driven creative entrepreneurs away. The “one for you nineteen for me” in the Beatles’s song “Taxman” was not hyperbole. When I was in graduate school in the early 1970s studying history, one professor, who inclined to the center-right, unusual in the professoriat, opined that socialism in Britain would not last because soon there would be no one left to loot, anticipating Thatcher’s that sooner or later the socialists run out of other people’s money. From early mid-sixties until Thatcher’s party’s triumph in 1979, the United Kingdom was a political and economic booby hatch; an insane asylum run by the inmates. It was living proof that Winston Churchill was correct that under socialism, everyone would be equally miserable. Then came the Iron Lady.
Thatcher’s privatization program divested the state of most of the nationalized industries. She broke the power of major unions, who were run more for the benefit of their leaders than that of their members. Thatcher also revived British pride by refusing to allow Argentina to succeed in its attempted conquest of the Falkland Islands, against the wishes of the overwhelming majority of those islanders. Most importantly, her invaluable contribution to the Cold War effort together with Ronald Reagan and John Paul II caused the collapse of Soviet Communism. At home, she inspired the revival of entrepreneurial spirit among all levels of Britons. Reg Smythe’s cartoon character Andy Capp no longer epitomized the British worker. While she came under severe criticism for opposing Britain joining the Euro zone, recent events bear out the wisdom of avoiding that common currency.
The unifying principle of Thatcher’s successful agenda was to eschew collectivism and promote individual initiative and self-reliance. If it was to succeed, the hidebound class consciousness had to go. Mind you, it still exists, but its remaining adherents, are reduced to those pitiful wastrels swilling booze in the street celebrating Thatcher’s passing, and an aging crone, once a fine actor, ranting in Parliament about her perceived misdeeds. Note that I use the word passing deliberately. Rather than die, she passed into immortality in the sense that she will be remembered a thousand years from now. No one will recall the current revelers.
A successive Labour government under Tony Blair, did nothing to reverse Thatcher’s reforms. In fact, it supported many of them and extended some. That in itself speaks loudly to their worth. Si monumentum eam requiris, circumspice. Margaret Thatcher needs no other.