Toryism and the Classless Society
By Gwydion M. Williams
When John Major talked about building a ‘classless society’, it got rather more attention than when Mrs Thatcher had earlier said exactly the same thing. Even so, it seems a rather odd thing for Tory leaders to be talking about. Just what ideas lie behind the phrase?
Part of the trouble lies with Marx using the same phrase to stand for a very different thing. From a Marxist view, a classless society is one in which the working class has absorbed the other classes. This leads to a society in which everyone is equal, and wealth is distributed on the basis of need.
Obviously, this is not what the Tories are after. On the other hand, what we have now is to some degree a society in which wealth is based on work. Marx saw such a society as a step towards a society of full equality. Some of the New Right see such a society as an ideal end-point – wealth going to those who were talented and worked hard, rather than being hogged by an hereditary upper class.
Classes differ from castes, in as much as you don’t have to be born into them, and can potentially fall out of the higher ones. Birth is a major factor is determining people’s class position, but not the only one. In any functioning class society, people will be moving up or down all the time. Castes are only a matter of birth. They cannot be changed, even though individual castes may either gain or lose prestige over a long period of time. Between these two extremes were various intermediary forms, ranks or estates, more rigid than classes but not as absolute as castes.
Classes are based on a whole pattern of social behaviour. The ruling class would have power, wealth, a distinctive accents and set of social habits. Individuals could lose power and wealth and yet still be considered part of the ruling class. Equally, those who acquired power and wealth would not be fully accepted, because they had the wrong accents and social habits. In Britain, public schools were the great mechanism for normalising wealth and power with accent and social habits, so that the ruling class remained coherent Poorer members of the ruling class
would be unable to pay the school fees to give their children the correct social training, and their position would decline. The newly rich, on the other hand, could and would give their children this training, so that they would be standardised to the ruling class norm. ‘Class’ retains the secondary meaning of desirable social qualities, or any desirable qualities at all. Even racehorses can have class, and not necessarily because of their breeding.
English society has actually always been fairly mobile, in comparison to most other societies in other parts of the planet. The whole original Norman aristocracy were a bunch of freebooters, who were lucky enough to be part of William of Normandy’s seizure of the Kingdom of England. Most of that aristocracy killed each other off in the Wars of the Roses, and were succeeded by relatives with a much less aristocratic attitude. This attitude continued with the Tudor kings – a dynasty with only a very tenuous link back to the previous rulers, who came to power mainly because Royalty too had mostly been wiped out in the Wars of the Roses. Things never really did settle down, and monarchs freely created new aristocrats from their most successful servants.
It should be understood that the whole business of titles was actually a means of social mobility, within a basically unequal society. Anybody might be moved up the social scale, by being made a Lord or Earl or Duke. Lloyd George was only systematising and vulgarising existing practice, when he made titles generally available in return for fixed amounts of money contributed to Liberal Party funds. And by thoroughly devaluing such things, he advanced the democratic ideal of a society without a serious aristocracy.
America is quite close to being a classless society, in as much as difference between people are based mainly on wealth and power, with accent and social habits playing very little role. Only in America could the question ‘what are you worth’ mean ‘how much money do you have’? Only in America could people seriously consider that human worth or lack of worth could be properly measured in terms of dollars. Britain has not gone so far, but it is much more American that it was twenty or even ten years ago.
The objection to this sort of ‘classlessness’ is that it devalues all human relationships, reduces everything to money and power. An unequal class-based society does not stigmatise poverty, nor does it treat poverty and failure as being identical. It recognises that you can be poor and yet very successful in human terms, or else rich and a human disaster.
It is also the case that ‘classlessness’ on the American model is not true to its nominal ideal of rewarding hard work and talent. Inherited wealth and social position still count for a very great deal. And even if they did not, ‘success’ in such a society often involves encouraging the very worst aspects of the person who wants to ‘get on’.
Social mobility is of very direct benefit to the ‘upwardly mobile’ – those who have wealth or talents that get an immediate reward within the society in which they operate. It is a more dubious for those left behind – those with no special talents, or those whose talents do not bring any immediate wealth, power or social prestige.
A ruling class cannot long survive if it does not have habits of social responsibility. Because its position is arbitrary, it must be justified in terms of service to the rest of the society. The ‘upwardly mobile’ often take a much more cold blooded and contemptuous attitude to those they’ve left behind.
At present, the Tories are run by a mix of the ‘upwardly mobile’ and the old ruling class, with the ‘upwardly mobile’ very much predominant. The aristocracy are mostly very much reduced. The important ones are important because they have money, with titles and so-called ‘old blood’ counting for little.
Labour under Kinnock has also become a party for the ‘upwardly mobile’, with the old connections to the working class very much played down. The logic of Kinnockism is for Labour to cut its working class links completely – to be a party for people who may have come from the working class, but who have very definitely left it 1nere has always been something of this in Labour, but under Kinnock it has got worse. Nor is the Labour Left innocent A lot of Labour councils have put most of their efforts into creating large numbers of well-paid jobs for themselves and their friends, a means of upward mobility, while doing little to look after the working class.
Previous Labour councils visibly built up municipal social structures for the benefit of the working class. This lot have created large numbers of very pleasant jobs for people like themselves – often for each other, indeed, with councillors in one borough being council employees in another. This would be acceptable, if they had also looked after the people they were supposed to be serving. But in many Labour boroughs, maintaining credibility with the activists has come well ahead of actually doing a good job.
If the main difference between Labour and Tory becomes that one is run by people who are upwardly mobile in the private sector, and the other is run by people who are upwardly mobile in the public sector, then the future for Labour will be bleak indeed. This has not yet happened. But events since the 1950s have taken us a long way along that road. Labour needs to reverse a great deal of what it has done over that period.
Workers’ control is the key issue. It would mean giving power to the working class as such, rather than to state bodies that claim to be acting in the working class interest. When it still looked possible that ‘actually existing socialism’ would succeed in Russia and Eastern Europe, or even China or Cuba or wherever, there was some excuse for not wanting to ‘prop up capitalism’ by giving ordinary people a share of power and decision-making. But that possibility no longer exists. The only sensible reason anyone could have for resisting workers control would be that they had no wish to see workers as such exercising power.
A party for the ‘upwardly mobile’ in the public sector, or a party for all workers and seeking fair shares of power and wealth for all – that is the question.
This article appeared in January 1991, in Issue 21 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.