The UK’s rampant class anxiety is enabling Tory leadership candidates who want to pretend we live in a meritocracy
One of the most bewildering things I’ve come across as an adult immigrant to the UK, after the price of train tickets and separate hot and cold water taps, is how people talk about class. British people from well-off backgrounds will drop, quite unprompted, into conversation that they went to private school but that it was a “cheap” one. Or that they went to a well-known private school but were not as wealthy as the other students, because their parents couldn’t afford skiing holidays. Or that they went to Oxbridge but did so from a comprehensive school and had parents with “normal” jobs. Once, someone gave me (unrequested) their class history, in which they described going from a charmed home life, to private school in London, to Oxbridge and then a job in the media, “but my parents gave me nothing”. I have frequently and desperately wanted to ask, “Why are you telling me this?”
It took me a while living in this country to figure out what was going on. It wasn’t class oversharing, but class discounting – a way for people to establish that their status, whatever it was, was earned and not bequeathed. Britain is a country of enormous wealth, much of it inherited. In fact, inherited family wealth is fast becoming, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the most important determinant of how well-off a person will be later in life. Britain is also a place where the alumni of a small number of expensive schools and exclusive universities hold a wildly disproportionate share of the nation’s power, wealth and top jobs.
The result is a privileged class anxiety. For the one in 10 UK adults born in the 1980s who will inherit from their parents more than half as much money as the average person earns in a lifetime, there is a constant need to pre-empt any impression that they are part of an entitled clique with the sort of money and connections that smooth their passage through life. Research conducted by the LSE last year looked into why almost half of people in middle-class professional jobs identified themselves as working class, even when a quarter of them had parents who had done similar jobs. The study identified a “grandparent effect”, by which people from privileged backgrounds over-emphasised the working-class credentials of extended family members, even though they have little impact on an individual’s life chances.
A particularly outrageous example of this is unfolding in the absurd class cosplay of Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. Sunak, in an enormous reach, has to hark all the way back to his immigrant grandmother to ground himself in a rags to riches story. He likens the pharmacy his mother owned to the greengrocer’s owned by Margaret Thatcher’s father (the difference between groceries and pharmaceuticals is material in terms of class, but he has to work with what he has). There was no way around his father’s comfortable living as a GP, or his own eye-wateringly expensive education (at Winchester College, currently £45,936 a year for boarders), so Sunak, unfettered by the stubbornness of facts, offers this explanation; sure, his education was expensive, but his parents had to work hard and save for it. Only someone of truly out-of-this-world wealth can think that the difference between saving £45,000 and having it lying around is enough to confer upon you some sort of underdog status.
Truss is at it as well. Alumni of her old school, which Truss has claimed “let children down” through low expectations, have criticised her for misrepresenting the quality of schooling they received, and for her false claims that she grew up in a “red wall” seat. Truss’s fibs create her own class mobility mythology – one in which she made it to Oxford and into jobs at Shell and Cable & Wireless despite her childhood. “I was educated at a comprehensive school in the city and went to primary school in Scotland” she boasted to the Telegraph: “I got where I am today through working hard and focusing on results.” Her journey was only possible, she claims, “through aspiration, ambition and enterprise”. Nothing to do with the fact that she grew up in an expensive suburb of Leeds, in a comfortable family, with a father who was a professor of mathematics, and attended a school that at its worst was labelled “satisfactory” by Ofsted.
It’s a bit unedifying poring over the details of people’s family backgrounds and financial arrangements, but the nerve of the prospective Tory leaders’ claims, clearly checkable and in the public domain, forces you to do so. But then again, these statements are merely the kind of liberties an entire British social class takes when it is quite normal to say “I have bought a flat”, instead of “my parents have bought me a flat” (and no, it still doesn’t count if you are paying the mortgage).
This normalised dishonesty about how much of your success is down to the stability, networks and affluence of your family is not a harmless national quirk. It is a class disavowal that props up the entire corrosive myth of meritocracy – the belief in which enables and absolves cruel governance and mean citizenry. On a political level, rightwingers fetishise hard work and careful saving to bolster their belief that the state should not support those who cannot work hard or save because, well, it’s their own fault. On a personal level, we are less inclined to vote for politicians who want to share resources more equitably if we convince ourselves that our wealth is a result of good graft rather than good fortune. Note how Britons celebrate lower-class backgrounds – real or imagined – in the most individualistic way. British folktales about class mobility – of the types Sunak and Truss are pedlling – become then not a call to marshal attention and capital towards mitigating the difficult conditions that made rising upwards such hard work for others, but a glorification of the individual who made it out, and then, a stick with which to beat those who didn’t.
The most delusional part of this performance is the idea that class says something so definitive about a person’s values or politics that it, alone, would make them suitable to lead. As the sociologist Stuart Hall wrote: “There’s no permanent, fixed class consciousness. You can’t work out immediately what people think and what politics they have simply by looking at their socio-economic position.” Whatever Sunak and Truss’s class, Sunak does not want to give immigrants the right to come to this country to have a shot at our great meritocracy, Truss believes that British workers are among the “worst idlers in the world”, and both enthusiastically supported a lying prime minister. That is all the personal history that counts.
Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist