Belfast Telegraph

UK still riven by class... but now we sneer instead of laugh

By Terence Blacker

There will, presumably, be a White Van Man documentary series. Although it will be warts and all, it will not be the slightest bit judgmental. It will give the White Van community a voice.

Why not? One of the few certainties in modern British history is that a story about class will be given a good outing. Snobbery is in the national bloodstream and, as the events surrounding last week's by-election have confirmed, it colours the way we see events and issues profoundly.

There is, admittedly, a difference between modern class-consciousness and that of the past: today, we prefer not to admit to it, and the media plays along with the illusion. Some might argue, for example, that Posh People: Inside Tatler, the BBC documentary that started last night, is about the workings of a style magazine in 2014, just as the makers of Benefits Street suggested their series was essentially about poverty and dependency, but we know the truth. The clue is in the title. It will be another opportunity, hard on the heels of Made in Chelsea, to gawp at braying Sloanes at work and play. It is yet another documentary about class.

Three or four decades ago, television was more open about social difference, and encouraged viewers to laugh at it. The class joke, as much as the race and sex joke, lay behind many of the best, and even more of the worst, situation comedies.

There was Basil Fawlty oiling up to a fake lord and Peter Bowles (risibly nouveau riche) sparring with Penelope Keith (acceptably posh). In retrospect, there was something quite honest about laughing at the subtle gradations of the class system, most memorably captured in the relationship between Arthur Lowe and John Le Mesurier in Dad's Army. In its way, it was quite subversive. If we feel superior to that kind of comedy today, it is hardly a surprise.

Every generation likes to think that it has outgrown the social prejudices of the past, and it never has. In 1959, after Harold Macmillan announced that "this election has shown that the class war is obsolete" - then formed a Cabinet containing several peers. Margaret Thatcher made a similar pronouncement.

There was Major's "classless society", John Prescott and "we are all middle class now". Even Cameron, amazingly, has boasted of building a society "where it's not who you know or where you're from but who you are and where you're determined to go".

The idea that we're becoming less class-conscious is, as Emily Thornberry proved with her disastrous tweet, utterly self-deluded. Her picture of a white van outside a terraced house bedecked with St George flags provided the media with a double-hit of snobbery.

The first target was the boorish, right-wing working-class stereotype. Then attention turned to a new social type, Islington woman - leftish, well-heeled, looking down on the rest of us from her expensive house. The more we cling to the myth of classlessness, the more fascinated we are by documentaries about Tatler or people on benefits. All this has played into the hands of Ukip. No one has quite managed to pin a class image on Farage's party. Does it consist of saloon-bar right-wingers like its leader, or is it a home for eccentric mavericks with unpleasant views? Where does White Van Man fit in?

No one quite seems to know, and as a result Ukip has been allowed to present itself as a new force in politics. When Farage announces that his party represents an end to class prejudice, we shall know that he and his chums have finally become part of the Establishment.

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