On becoming Prime Minister in 1990, John Major announced: 'We will ... make the whole of the country a genuinely classless society.' In fact he failed, for the gap between rich and poor grew during his seven years' premiership, but his statement was a clear admission that class is still a real feature in English society, though less so in the Celtic countries. The English are self-conscious about class. Many think it is a thing of the past, because it does not unduly impinge on their daily lives. But it is there, even if it is very different from what it was 50 years ago.
Market researchers in the 1950s applied six classes to Britain, and they have tended to be used ever since. The following figures are for 1992.
Social classes in Britain
A Upper middle class – 3 % (senior civil servants, professional, senior management and finance)
E Residual– 13%(dependent on state benefit, unemployed, occasional part-time)
(Source: National Readership Survey, NRS, 1992/93)
The terms still apply today. The kind of work done not only indicates education and how much is earned, but also the kind of social contact that is usual. Most people generally mix socially with the same kind of people as their work colleagues, and usually live in streets or neighbourhoods which reflect that social grouping. Manual workers tend to mix with each other, as do professionals (doctors, lawyers and senior civil servants) and managers.
This suggests a static situation, but there is major movement between classes. Many people move from one category to another during their working lives. The working class is rapidly declining. In 1911 three out of every four employed or self-employed people were manual workers. By 1950 that proportion had fallen to two out of three, but since then has fallen to 40 per cent or so. Since the 1950s there has been a massive growth of the middle class. But there has also been the emergence of a sizeable 'underclass', as Category E is commonly known.
Class has both crude and subtle components. A combination of wealth and education form the crude indicators. Yet the sense of social class or group is affected by social circle as well as education and wealth. A relatively poor but highly educated family may find itself associating with wealthier but similarly highly educated friends. A traditional landowning but less highly educated 'gentry' family will probably associate with other landowners of similar educational level. There are one or two expensive private schools (part of the 'public school' system) which cater for the less intelligent children of the upper elite of the country. But there are also children of those who belong to the upper middle class who go to an ordinary local state-funded school rather than a fee-paying school. The former is likely to remain part of the elite. The latter may function comfortably in a wider range of social classes. There can also be a major class difference between grown-up children and their parents. Marriage outside one's class is much more common than it used to be. Consequently, the 'extended' family, including cousins, will probably include people who in their social life belong to quite different social classes.
The middle class, in particular, has great fluidity and mobility. During the 20 years 1971-91, approximately two million jobs were created in the professional and managerial fields alone, and the whole middle class is constantly expanding. Over half of today's middle class started life in the working class. Their children may well aspire to the upper middle class.
Despite this fluidity, the elite of society, itself a segment of the professional class, takes great care to protect itself. This includes the 'gentry' class made up mainly of landowners, and others who move in the most exclusive English social circles. It sends its children to be educated privately at a public school, where its children obtain a better academic education than normally possible in state-funded schools. More importantly they obtain a sense of social superiority through the public schools' elitist culture. A recent Provost (or president) of Eton College told assembled pupils that they were being educated so as 'to exercise authority'. A boy at John Major's old (state) school had this to say: 'If John Major wants a classless society, then he'll have to abolish the public school sector. We can't have equal opportunities with two different sectors.' Another commented, 'You feel different from them. It's not equal. They start on a different level.'
It is also true that the 'top' 1 per cent has enormous influence and control. A handful of outsiders obtain access to this elite. It is sometimes known as 'The Establishment' and sometimes as 'The Great and the Good'. They move easily in the most influential political, cultural or social circles. Anthony Sampson, a leading authority on how Britain is really governed, says: 'The rulers are not at all close-knit or united ... (They are) a cluster of interlocking circles, each one largely preoccupied with its own.' The top 1 per cent of wealth holders probably own about one-quarter of the nation's wealth, a large drop from the two-thirds they controlled in 1914 but a larger proportion than one might expect in a modern democracy. The reason that the top 1 per cent has remained so wealthy is inheritance, which is spread around the family to minimise the effects of taxation. The sons all go to public schools, usually the more famous ones. As one sociologist has noted, 'The ruling minority has survived all the transformations from medieval to modern society by a long series of concessions and accommodations in return for retention of privileges and property.'
Traditionally, the young men of this elite wentintothe professions: the Civil Service, the law, medicine, the armed forces or the Church. That was partly the result of the original public school ethic of 'service'. During the Thatcher years this characteristic changed. Increasingly this elite, but also many members of the upper middle class as a whole, has moved from public service into the private sector: merchant banks, accountancy, management and financial consultancy. The reason is quite simple. Until the late 1970s salaries in the private sector were reasonably comparable to those in public life. But from 1979 private sector salaries soared in the new free market ethos. Today, if you wish to be seriously wealthy there is no point in seeking a career in public service.
There is another factor in the growing importance of wealth within the class system. Generally speaking, people seek marriage partners within their own social group. With more women taking up careers, particularly in the private sector, the wealth differential between a professional-class couple earning £80,000 each and a working-class couple earning £20,000 each is far greater than the differential when it was only the men who were earning. Thus, today, some people describe the new upper middle class as 'the super class'.
Those who think that Britain has a class-ridden society usually think of the contrast between the old moneyed 'upper class', maintained by its great wealth, property and privileged education, together with the growing economic super class on the one hand, and the underclass of dependent, unemployed or homeless people on the other. But these two extremes are where there is the least social mobility. In between there ishuge social mobility.
Nevertheless, the perception of class conflict remains. Since 1964 opinion polls have asked a random sample of people, 'There used to be a lot of talk in politics about the 'class struggle'. Do you think there is a class struggle in this country?' In 1964 48 per cent thought so, a figure which had risen to a remarkable 81 per cent in 1995, reflecting the increasing disparity between rich and poor in Britain.
Many women would argue that there is a different half of the nation which gets less than its fair share of power, freedom and wealth: the female sex. In spite of the considerable change in social attitudes since 1945, and particularly since the feminist revolution which began in the 1960s, parity has yet to be achieved. Women have entered employment in increasing numbers. In 1971 52 per cent of women between the ages of 25 and 44 were economically active, a figure that by 1995 had risen to approximately 75 per cent. Nevertheless, their position relative to men in employment improves only slowly. In part it is a generational matter. The average pay difference among 35-55 year-olds in 1996 was 22 per cent, among 25-34 year-olds 6 per cent, while there was parity under the age of 25.
Yet the reasons are also more complex, largely to do with the fact that men continue to control the positions of power and of wealth and either consciously or subconsciously usually replace themselves with other men. In spite of having a female monarch and having had a female Prime Minister for over a decade, the difficulties begin at the top. Margaret Thatcher only ever had one other female Cabinet minister, who lasted for less than a year.
In 1989 the Labour Party decided to adopt a system of positive action in favour of women, whereby MPs voting on the composition of the Shadow Cabinet would be compelled to vote for at least three women (out of 18 nominees to Cabinet posts). It also encouraged the selection of women parliamentary candidates. Only 19 women MPs had been elected in the 1979 election, a figure that improved to 41 in 1987 and to63 in 1992, of whom 39 were Labour. The real breakthrough came in 1997, when 120 women were elected, of whom 101 represented Labour seats. Yet that still left a ratio of five men to every woman in the Commons, a better representation than in southern Europe, but significantly poorer than the Scandinavian countries. There is therefore still plenty of work for the Commons 300 Group, an all-party organisation working towards a minimum of 300 women MPs on election. Tony Blair appointed five women to his 22-member Cabinet, an indication of the substantial change not only in representation but also in attitudes. If one looks at the positions of power in the country, few are held by women, who by 1997 represented over 46 per cent of the workforce. In 1997 only 6 per cent of High Court and Circuit judges were women. In the Civil Service there was no female Permanent Secretary, the senior rank, although there were an increasing number at senior, but lower, levels. In fact, out of 304 Permanent Secretaries between 1900 and 1990, only two have been women. In the words of one high-flier, who ran the Prime Minister's Efficiency Unit until 1996, the top of the Civil Service is still dominated by a very traditional male elite which prefers to promote people they feel comfortable with – and that means men with similar backgrounds.' Thus the proportion of women in the top three grades of the Civil Service rose from 5 per cent in 1984 to 11 per cent in comment not only on their professional ability but also on their private lives. Men do not receive similar treatment. Marks and Spencer appointed its first female executive board member in 1996. The same year the conglomerate, Pearson appointed its first female chief executive, the first female chief executive for the top 100 publicly quoted (FT-SE 100) companies. Only 3 per cent of company directors are women. Only 11 per cent of all managers are women. Women in career structures often sense that a 'glass ceiling' exists which prevents them reaching the top. Possibly as a consequence, 800,000 women run their own businesses.
Women are also paid less than men. On average, out of the whole labour force, women earn 31 per cent less than men. The average hourly wage for full-time women workers is 17, only 80 per cent of what men earn.
Married women rather than their husbands suffer the career penalties of producing and raising children. A small but growing number of employers ensure that mothers can resume their careers without any damage to their career prospects after having a baby. Few provide crèches for young children in order to encourage women to work for them. The state provides day care for fewer than 1 per cent of under-three-year-olds, thus discouraging women from working. Apart from Ireland, this is the lowest level of provision in the European Community.
For those women who do work, there is an added penalty. Although on average they work shorter hours than men (in 1996, 40 compared with 47), there has been no substantial adjustment of the domestic burden. Women still do about 8 hours more domestic work weekly than men.
A reversal of previous inequality, however, is taking place among younger people. It starts at school, where girls are now out-performing boys. Fifty per cent of girls now achieve the top three grades of the secondary education examination (Grades A-C at GCSE), compared with only 40 per cent of boys. Girls not only work harder at school, but also prepare themselves more carefully at all stages for obtaining employment. They are also increasingly thought to have better skills at teamwork, and the achievement of objectives by consensus.
This is'not solely to do with the fact that boys mature later. Many boys have watched their fathers become unemployed and idle at home. It is a dispiriting role model. Manual work, in which physical prowess was important, notably mining, steel production, heavy engineering, has radically declined. Since 1980 over two million male jobs have been lost. Boys, too, are far more frequently targeted by drug pushers and are twice as likely to be the victims of crime or violence than women. In a society in which an increasing proportion of women have children outside marriage, unmarried fathers have no rights over the children. Such factors add up to a widespread loss of self-esteem and the loss of an identifiable male role for many boys. A growing number of young women feel they can do without men. Thus, alongside growing gender equality lies the danger of a large number of young men with little purpose in their lives, something which itself may generate major social problems.
All young people tend to worry about employment, to the extent that they are far less rebellious than young people in the 1960s and 1970s. They also have fewer interests outside those spheres relevant to obtaining a job. Accordingto asurvey carried out in 1997 by the Industrial Society, only 40 per cent have any interest whatsoever in politics. Most find it irrelevant. But they are more disciplined than they used to be. No fewer than 78 per cent think that discipline both at school and at home is too lax. Sixty-three per cent of them feel school let them down. The Industrial Society drew a picture of an optimistic, 'can-do' generation who want to better themselves through education, while learning practical skills. They aspire to traditional values, for example preferring the idea of marriage and family stability to partnerships, possibly because many know the trauma of parents divorcing. But they are also more isolated than their parents' generation. Only one in five feel they are part of a community, a sad reflection on the atomisation of modern British society.
The ethnic minority communities in Britain comprise 5.7 per cent of the total population but are likely to rise to about 7 per cent in the early years of the twenty-first century, on account of their higher birth rate. In 1950 there were only about 40,000 non-white Britons, mainly in ports like Liverpool, Bristol and Cardiff. People from the West Indies began immigrating to Britain in substantial numbers at that time, in responsetolabour shortages. During the 1960s and 1970s a large number of people also came from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
These immigrants soon discovered that they were the target of discrimination in class and status. People of Afro-Caribbean and Asian origin have generally had the worst-paid jobs, lived in the worst housing and encountered hostility from white neighbours. The initial view that non-white immigrants would assimilate into the host community was quickly proved wrong. Since the mid-1960s the government has introduced three race relations acts in order to eliminate racial discrimination. But laws were also introducedtorestrict immigration, which seemed particularly aimed at thwarting non-white immigrants.
The following table gives the sizes of the main ethnic minority communities in Britain by areaoforigin, based on the 1991 official population census.
These communities have areas of high concentration. London has the largest concentration of ethnic minority members, particularly Afro-Caribbeans, 60 per cent of whom are Londoners. But people of Indian origin are also highly concentrated in Leicester, those of Pakistani origin have high concentrations in the West Midlands and also in West Yorkshire, while those of Bangladeshi origin are concentrated in east London. In 1997 20 per cent of Londoners belonged to an ethnic minority group, a proportion which will rise to 28 per cent by 2011.
Many British people believe they inhabit an already overcrowded island. Governments have seldom told the electorate that immigrant labour has filled essential areas the British workforce was reluctant -to fill. Instead, they have tended to bow to uninformed popular prejudice, that immigration is a problem rather than an assert. Margaret Tatcher , for example, promised that a conservative government would 'finally see an end to immigration', and spoke of the fears of white Britons that they might be 'swamped by people with a different culture'. Although she failed, her government increased the restrictions on immigration and ended the automatic right of anyone born in Britain to British citizenship. Her remarks reflected widespread but ill-informed prejudice. In fact, immigration has been dropping steadily since its peak year in 1967 and, although this is not widely known, in the 30 years up to 1982 750,000 more people left Britain permanently than entered to settle. Since then immigrants have slightly outnumbered emigrants, by about 70,000 each year. In the early 1990s the government made it much harder for political asylum seekers to find refuge in Britain. For both immigrants and asylum seekers, their applications can take years to be processed because of bureaucratic inefficiency.
Another complaint frequently levelled against ethnic minority communities is their 'failure to integrate'. At first it was government policy to try to spread immigrants evenly. It did not work for two basic reasons. Most immigrants ended up in the poorest areas, and also they understandably wished to be close to other members of their community. In addition, white families often moved away from areas of high ethnic-minority concentration. The result has been a continuing process of ethnic separation.
Afro-Caribbeans and Asians experience many kinds of disadvantage. They find greater difficulty getting a job. Studies show that a white person is 10 times more likely to obtain a job than a black competitor for it.' In 1995 the unemployment rate among black Afro-Caribbeans and Bangladeshis was 24 and 27 per cent respectively. The rate among those of Indian origin was 12 per cent while among whites it was only 8 per cent. A black person is likely to find it harder to obtain credit from a bank or a loan to purchase a house.
Immigrants also tend to receive the worst housing. Thirty-eight per cent of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis report lacking one or more basic housing amenities compared with 11 per cent of whites. It is no surprise therefore that Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are 50 per cent more likely to suffer ill health than whites. Thus, in employment, promotion prospects, housing, health and education, many immigrant communities find themselves significantly disadvantaged.
Difficulties for children from ethnic minorities begin when they go to school. Many members of the ethnic minorities live in deprived inner-city areas where the quality of the schools is worse than elsewhere. Low expectations from their teachers and a sense of alienation from the majority white community are serious disadvantages. Afro-Caribbeans are expected to remain at the bottom of the educational and economic scale. Asians generally do better in formal education than Afro-Caribbeans and many white children. Some parents of Indian origin make major sacrifices for their children to be educated privately. For example, easily the most frequent name on the register of Dulwich College, south-east London's most prestigious private school, is an Indian one, Patel. British Asians of Indian origin are likely to rise to leading positions in the British economy.
The ethnic minority communities feel that they also face hostility from the authorities. In some areas a young black man is 10 times more likely to be stopped in the street by police than the average white citizen. Black people feel harassed by such treatment, particularly since a growing number of black youths, the main target of the police, were born in Britain. There is also clear evidence that the police more readily arrest blacks than whites. A study in 1989 showed that although only 6 per cent of the population,blacksmade up 20 per cent of those held in custody in England and Wales, and 38 per cent of those held in custody in London, even though ethnic minorities represent only 20 per cent of London's population. Blacks are both twice as likely to be held in custody before trial and twice as likely to be acquitted once their case is heard by a magistrate. Afro-Caribbeans and Asians are frequent targets for verbal abuse, harassmentoreven attack. In 1996 about 12,000 racially motivated incidents were reported.
Discrimination, or at least a failure to involve the ethnic minority groups adequately, is apparent in many institutions. Only 1 per cent of the army, the police and fire brigade are from ethnic minorities. In all three organisations stories of racial abuse and harassment deter blacks from enrolling. The idea of a black officer commanding a regiment or a police station, let alone becoming a general or chief constable remains difficult to imagine. Discrimination is not confined to such 'macho' organisations. There used to be many black nurses working in hospitals. By 1995 while blacks comprised over 8 per cent of nurses over the age of 55, they were less than 1 per cent of those under the age of 25. Younger black women know that they are unlikely to get promotion, and are looking elsewhere for a career. Yet acceptance and equal treatment are now urgent since the ethnic minorities are expected to double by 2025, when they will constitute 20 per cent of the workforce.
In some places the barriers have begun to be broken down, but it has required determination. Black people have excelled in sport and show business, but these two areas do not confer real power or social authority on them. The idea of blacks in managerial positions over whites is still not widely acceptable. Successive governments have introduced legislation that promises absolute equality for non-white British citizens. But the promise has remained unfulfilled. Government has not done enough to implement functional equality in the areas over which it has direct control, and white Britons have not yet accepted Afro-Caribbeans and Asians who are born and grow up here (now more than 40 per cent of their communities) as being as British as themselves.
Yet, in spite of this bleak picture, the outlook seems positive. A survey in 1997 found that 60 per cent of black respondents felt that racism had lessened during the previous five years. Furthermore, multiracial partnerships are more frequent in Britain than elsewhere, and this is creating a new multiracial identity. By 1991 almost 40 per cent of young black men were married to or living with a white partner, and so were over 20 per cent of young black women. Almost half Afro-Caribbean children come from multiracial homes. Such children tend to embrace a black identity because of the discrimination around them. However, they are thoroughly British. As Trevor Phillips, one of Britain's leading black journalists writes:
It is the young, multiracial crowd who have flexibility and adaptability that the twenty-fit century will demand. For them moving between cultures and using several languages is a life that they have imbibed with their mother milk. Instead of teaching children that the blacker they are, the better, the real ... advantage may be in being able to count the number of different roots your parents have bequeathed you.