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British Cultural Identities_2nd Edition

British Cultural Identities_2nd Edition

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10/09/2013

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Frank McDonough

C
h
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176

British Cultural Identities

Timeline

1911

House of Lords Reform Act

1924

First Labour Government

1940

Churchill PM

1945

General Election: Labour elected

1948

National Health Service

1951

General Election: Conservatives elected

1955

General Election: Eden PM

1956

Suez Crisis

1959

Gaitskell failed reform Clause Four
General Election: Macmillan PM
Third consecutive Tory victory

1964

Labour victory

1967

Devaluation of the pound

1973

Britain joined EEC

1979

Winter of Discontent
General Election: Thatcher PM

1981

Urban riots

1982

Falklands War

1990

Poll Tax riots
Thatcher ousted from office

1992

Fourth consecutive Tory victory

1994

Police Act

1995

Leader Tony Blair elected PM

2001

Second consecutive Labour victory

IT WAS ONCE COMMONPLACEto portray Britain as a class-ridden

society. Class was a staple part of the British way of life. Each class had
unique characteristics. The upper class had stately homes, aristocratic back-
grounds, and posh accents; the middle class, semi-detached houses, suits,
and bowler hats; the working class, common accents, fish and chips, and
council flats. This produced a society divided between ‘Us’ (the workers)
and ‘Them’ (the rich and the bosses). Pubs always had a ‘public bar’
and a ‘lounge’. Even railway carriages were divided into First, Second, and
Third class compartments.
In recent years, many writers have begun to speak of the ‘decline of
class’ in British society. The term ‘classless society’ has become common-
place. The rise of Margaret Thatcher, the daughter of a Grantham shop-
keeper, and John Major, the son of a garden-gnome salesman, to the post
of Prime Minister has been seen as evidence that anyone can rise to the
top in British society, whatever their social origins.
The credit for this transformation is mostly given to Margaret
Thatcher, Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990. Accordingly, many political
commentators have suggested that the ‘Thatcher Revolution’ removed class
from the political landscape, by shifting power through government
reforms away from the Establishment, the bureaucrats and the trade unions
to individual consumers and the free market. Many of Margaret Thatcher’s
reforms were delivered in the rhetoric of ‘empowerment of the people’.
Parents were encouraged to become school governors and take control of
their schools as teachers faced the imposition of a National Curriculum to
ensure that children in both state and private schools received a core course
of study. The Community Charge (Poll Tax) was designed to recoup money
for local amenities more evenly across the total adult population. It
was also promoted to make local authorities more accountable to local
people, but revenue-raising limits were effectively imposed by the Treasury.
Privatisation ended up turning public utilities such as gas, electricity, tele-
phone, and water into private monopolies. Nevertheless a large number of
commentators have argued that the Establishment (monarchy, Church of
England, Oxbridge and the BBC) no longer exists. The middle-class bureau-
crat is made to work much harder, often implementing reforms which are

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Class and politics 177

designed to ‘get government off the backs of the people’. The working class
has retreated from collective action towards domestic pleasures. The only
source of collective working-class unity today is the purchase of a weekly
National Lottery ticket. Even the railways now have only two classes: first
and standard.

‘Hurricane’ Thatcher seemingly blew class off the face of British
society. Many writers now view Britain as a socially fragmented society,
with life revolving around the individual, his or her family, and the idea of
a better life through home ownership and consumer goods. And under
Tony Blair, there has simply been more of the same. But pronouncing the
death of class is premature. A recent wide-ranging survey of public opinion
found 90 per cent of people still placing themselves in a particular class;
73 per cent agreed that class was still an integral part of British society;
and 52 per cent thought there were still sharp class divisions. Thus, class
may have become culturally and politically invisible, yet it remains an inte-
gral part of British society.
One unchanging aspect of a British person’s class position is accent.
The words an individual speaks immediately reveal her or his class. A study
of British accents during the 1970s found that a posh voice sounding like
a BBC news reader, usually spoken by a person from the south-east
of England, was viewed as the most attractive voice. Most respondents
said this accent sounded ‘educated’, ‘soft’, and ‘mellifluous’. The accents
placed at the bottom in this survey, on the other hand, were regional city
accents: Liverpool (Scouse), Birmingham (Brummie) Newcastle (Geordie)
and London (Cockney). These accents were seen as ‘harsh’, ‘common’, and
‘ugly’. No great prejudice was expressed against well-spoken Scottish and
Irish accents. However, a similar survey of British accents in the USA turned

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178

British Cultural Identities

FIGURE 5.1

Labour Party poster, at 2001 General Election, depicting
Conservative party leader William Hague with Margaret Thatcher’s hair style
and ear-rings

these results upside down and placed Scouse and Cockney as the most
attractive and BBC English as the least. This suggests that British attitudes
towards accent are, to a large extent, based on ingrained class prejudice.
Can it be mere coincidence that British people (including working-class
people themselves) reserve their most negative comments for accents asso-
ciated with areas containing large groups of working-class people?
In recent years, however, young upper middle-class people in London
have begun to adopt fake Cockney accents (estuary English), in order to
disguise their class origins. This is another sign of class becoming invisible.
A good example of the desire to hide a privileged background is displayed
by Nigel Kennedy, the brilliant violinist. He adopts the accent of a ‘Cockney
lad’ even though a national newspaper reported that he was the product of
a very ‘posh’ middle-class family. However, the 1995 pop song ‘Common
People’ by Pulp puts forward the view that though a middle-class person
may ‘want to live such as common people’ and ‘sleep with common people’
they can never appreciate the reality of a working-class life.
In the power stakes, however, if you want to get ahead in Britain
then you would be well advised to lose a regional accent. A recent example
of the importance of accent to upward mobility is Mandi Norwood,
appointed editor of Cosmopolitanmagazine at the age of thirty-one. When
she began her career in journalism she had a Geordie accent. Her London
friends advised her to drop it, if she wanted to get on. In a couple of years
she admits to ‘speaking like Lady Di’. From that point on, her career went
swiftly upward. Even more significantly, a recent survey of recruitment
managers of major corporations found that, although the majority of them
knew it was wrong to discriminate against people because of a regional
accent, they did. Despite all the talk of a classless society, it is still possible
to divide British society into three broad classes – upper, middle, and
working – even though the nature and composition of each class have
undergone change.

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