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Page last updated at 11:32 GMT, Monday, 27 October 2008

Which class is John Prescott?

Signing copies of his autobiography at Asda in Hull

By Amanda Blue
Producer, Prescott: The Class System and Me

A working class lad made good. A driver of Jags who joined the political establishment. Accused by his father of abandoning his roots. But chippy around the middle and upper classes. Where does the former deputy prime minister fit in?

John Prescott has been obsessed with class his whole life. His meteoric rise from working class lad and 11-plus failure to deputy prime minister means his is an extraordinary journey through the British class system.

All I said was that John is working class. He is the grandson of a miner and the son of a railwayman. But he thinks he's middle class and took exception
John Prescott Snr, after his son said 'we're all middle class now' in 1997

Despite this, he still feels his humble background is seen as a handicap by others. But is class still relevant in the 21st Century?

It's quickly apparent that Mr Prescott's notion of class is quite old-fashioned with a clearly defined top, middle and bottom. And his attitude toward class is subjective, based on how he has been treated and how he has been made to feel inferior, either by the media or his political enemies.

So how does he fare in encounters with those who encapsulate his stereotypes of class?

Mr Prescott has spent his life avoiding, where possible, the upper classes. So an invitation to "luncheon" with Lord and Lady Onslow (the Seventh Earl of Onslow) could be fraught. Although from opposite sides of the fence, both couples hugely enjoy bantering about their respective positions.

John Prescott
Prescott: The Class System and Me is broadcast on BBC Two on 27 October at 2100 GMT
Or catch up with the BBC iPlayer

Lord Onslow quickly spots what Mr Prescott himself knows defines him - the huge chip on his shoulder. "Sometimes, dear boy, I think you've got the whole Alps on your shoulder.''

And he also points out that Mr Prescott lets class outweigh his achievements in scaling political heights. "After all there hasn't been an Onslow in the cabinet since 1870."

This is also the impression of journalist Simon Hoggart, part of the middle class media reviled by the deputy PM. "You never seemed comfortable in your own skin. If I'd achieved what you had, I'd think I was the bee's knees," says Hoggart.

Chav class

But one group Mr Prescott is totally non-judgemental about is those lower on the social pecking order.

Talking class with girls on an estate

He meets three South London girls. They are unemployed. They don't know who Gordon Brown is. And one has been kicked out of school for violence.

He finds them delightful, when many others would be hugely critical. He sees their potential; they think he's posh.

So where does Mr Prescott feel most at home? He says with his own kind, the working classes - although he has moved so far beyond them, this is not straightforward either. "Working class people go past my house and refer to it as Prescott's Castle because it's got turrets on it."

He likes it most in Hull, at home with Pauline and at his beloved Mr Chu's, his favourite Chinese restaurant.

"What's given me a great deal of strength, is when the press is banging me, is ordinary working people who say 'take no notice, John, you're doing all right'. They give you that succour, that comfort, that comes from solidarity - even though they know I'm in a different kind of world than they are," Mr Prescott says.

So is it possible to be working class and live a middle class lifestyle? Much to his surprise, he finds it is possible to move up in the world without deserting his roots.

Below is a selection of your comments.

John cannot be middle class, he has to be born into it. He may have acquired the trappings of the middle classes such as income and wealth and thought but he is not. He may think like the middle class on such issues as education, job status and presentation. This alone is not enough. It would probably take two generations of the family to reach middle class status.
Tony Schofield, Cambridge

It all depends on whether you believe your class is defined by what your parents did or by what you do. My parents came from mining stock, which places me firmly in the working class. But I went to university and got a degree, then worked in the media. That makes me middle class. Right now, I'm unemployed, which leaves me somewhere in the "underclass". Now, if I could only manage to marry a princess, I'd have travelled through all classes. There are great things about each class, its solidarity towards its own, especially the working class... equally, a lot of negative things could be seen too, especially about attitudes towards the "others". Some people move from one class to another with ease, others never manage it, regardless of lifestyle changes: aren't the Beckhams still seen as firmly working class, despite their vast wealth? It's strange how, despite class barriers being broken down, people still seem to want to stay within them.
Rob, London, UK

I think John is a paradox. Verbally an unreconstructed socialist, materially a bourgeoisie. He has however some admirable qualities. My favourite is his demonstration of the link between rights and responsibilities, clearly demonstrated by punching the egg thrower in the face. That was hilarious. And I think John, you were right and are alright.
Vanatu88, London

John Prescott is similar to many driven men in that no matter how much he achieves, he's not sure it is enough. Whilst it's unlikely I could ever agree with his politics, the lad did good and should be proud of himself.
Mike, Colchester

It troubles me that John Prescott is the most prominent representative of the working class, and a poster-boy for social mobility. Being of working class origin, I resent the tacit implication that those of us who enjoy success in life will be forever distinguished by that chip on the shoulder, and unable to integrate into other strata of society. Or to put it crudely: he makes us look like idiots.
Chris, Cambridge, UK

I was brought up for years thinking that I was middle class. Dad was privately educated, as was I and my grandad was an RAF AVM. Then I researched my family history and found out that my great grandfather and all his ancestors had been humble salmon fishermen - my fascination into this research was met with nonchalant bemusement from the rest of my family. We (the British) can still be so stuffy about this sort of thing.
Catherine Coulthard, West Midlands

There still is a strong concept of class in this country, defined by background, behaviour & attitude. I got quite a shock when I went to university, having come from a working class background, and first encountering the judgemental attitude of many middle class boys. I work as a consultant and you see the marked variations when working in different workplaces - the behaviour in an organisation is dominated by the backgrounds & income levels of people.
Keith, Aberdeen

This idea that class is no longer "relevant" is just handwringing liberal guilt. The liberal middle classes are uncomfortable with their growing advantages and attempt to minimise them as they get older by declaring class no longer relevant. True, it may no longer be about having dirt under your fingernails, wearing a tie or calling the midday meal "dinner", but class still permeates every aspect of British life. Do you visit Starbucks, buy organic vegetables, listen to Radio 4, go jogging, drink wine at dinner parties and aspire to send your kids to Oxbridge? Then you are probably middle class. Do you visit McDonalds, buy frozen ready meals, drink beer in a pub, watch Sky sports on a plasma TV, and aspire to own a 4x4? Then you are probably working class. A lot of people seem to think that because of wider higher education, home ownership and white collar jobs that the the middle class has expanded, when in fact the opposite has happened, it's become harder to join the genuine middle class - private/public school plus Russel group educated, plus professional qualifications, plus earning 60K plus - the changing face of the working class has convinced many who live modestly that they have "made it to the middle class" when they are just modern working class.
Matt Munro

I scored two out of six on both counts. I always thought I was middle class but Matt Munro's idea of the "genuine middle class" is way out of my league. But then, I don't live in London.
Yggdrasil, Bristol

Matt - I went to private school but still have breakfast, dinner and tea, so what does that make me? The problem as always is trying to put people in boxes based on certain characteristics. Class is a state of mind which depends on many things, whether you listen to Radio 4 or own a plasma TV does not put you in one box or the other.
Lindsay, Manchester

Matt, I aspire to all the targets and visit/do everything on both lists. Does this make me truly classless or merely or in need of better direction in life?
John, Henley in Arden

Matt Munro has hit the nail firmly on the head with that erudite summary. Salary/income is arguably the least accurate indicator of working/middle identity, followed by academic qualification and then profession. Behaviour and socio-habitation are the most recognisable class traits, that a nice speaking voice of course.
Richard Howell, Margate

So, Matt of the sweeping statements. What class am I if I visit Starbucks, buy local, non-organic vegetables, listen to Radio 2, drink wine at dinner parties, drink beer in a pub and aspire to own a 4x4? Upper working class? Lower middle class?
Sarah D, Didcot, England

I heard this on the radio a couple of years ago and It's stuck in my mind: If you have to get up in the morning and go to work to pay your bills, then you're working class. All the rest is just window dressing.
Dan Williamson, Bristol

I resent the term "working class" because it is no longer relevant. There once was a huge class of people working very long hours for very little pay in terrible conditions - but now apparently you only need to have been to state school to qualify. I think the cheapens the memory of people who once did actually have it tough. Use lower class if you want, but don't try and make yourself sound heroic by sticking "working" in front of it. Best of all, stop going on about class.
Ian, London

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