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Thursday, July 15, 1999 Published at 21:02 GMT 22:02 UK


A touch of class

Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott: "Pretty middle class"

Forget "tomaytoes" and "tomartoes". It's "classs" and "clarse" that's making all the running.

Retired railwayman Bert Prescott, 89, of Chester, is in no doubt that it's classs. Working classs.

Professor David Rose says class means different things
His father was a miner. His son worked on the ships. That is, until he ended up as deputy prime minister, and started thinking of himself as "pretty middle class".

John "worked as a steward on ships serving drinks to well-to-do passengers", Bert Prescott told The Sun. "If that's not working class, I don't know what is."

The difference of opinion about class is one which has been repeated in family after family up and down the country, and is a telling insight into the way UK society has changed.

[ image: Mr Prescott, pictured while at Ruskin College, Oxford, having left the merchant navy]
Mr Prescott, pictured while at Ruskin College, Oxford, having left the merchant navy
With the decline in the country's manufacturing industry and the growth of office-based and service jobs, something of the popular image of the working class has died.

Not that it has gone away, though. A poll for BBC Radio 4's Today programme last year found that 55% of people in the UK thought of themselves as working class, with just 41% saying they were middle class. (1% said they were upper class.)

It was a figure which surprised many. But it illustrated that, nearly 10 years since John Major said he wanted to create a classless society, the UK is more diverse than people might imagine.

One thing which has changed since Mr Prescott senior started working, however, is social mobility - people's ability to move between classes.

[ image: Former Prime Minister John Major: Ten years since pledge for
Former Prime Minister John Major: Ten years since pledge for "classless society"
David Rose, Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, said this had been a characteristic of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. But he said things are changing.

If anything, he said, it was getting more difficult for working class people to move to managerial and professional positions. After the war, there was an expanion of managerial jobs in the public and private sectors, which were filled by the working classes.

[ image:  ]
"But nowadays people from management and professional backgrounds are able to ensure that their own children particularly follow them into those positions. And in that sense it makes it more difficult for people from working class backgrounds," he said.

In John Prescott's case, he said, it was not clear-cut. In occupation, he said Mr Prescott was right to say he was middle class. But there is also class in a cultural sense, which depends on background.

"I'm sure that John Prescott perceives the world, as a Labour minister, in a way that is not untypical for people from working class backgrounds.

"He happens to have made good in the system. So there's a sense in which he's right to say he's middle class, and that his father's right to say he's working class because that's the family he came from."

Things had changed a great deal over the years, he said. In particular, the "old male, manual, muscular working class" had virtually disappeared.

[ image: Nurses are in class 2, doctors in class 1a]
Nurses are in class 2, doctors in class 1a
The working class, he said, was mainly female now rather than male. Two thirds of cleaners, the biggest single occupation in class seven (see fact box), were women.

"But we certainly don't live in a meritocracy, we don't have a society where everybody has an equal chance to get to top positions."

Mr Rose was behind the devising of new social classifications to be used for government statistics within the next two years. The new formulations take things a step further on than classifying simply by which job is done. Instead they look at how you are treated in the job, including job security and career prospects.

[ image: Two-thirds of cleaners are women]
Two-thirds of cleaners are women
Class has had its fair share as a political issue over the years, of course. But its sensitivity seems to have declined somewhat - even to the point where Prime Minister Tony Blair could say, earlier this year, that his government's programme would lead to "an expanded middle class".

In a line which curiously echoes the position of his deputy, he said it would be "a middle class that will include millions of people who traditionally see themselves as working class, but whose ambitions are far broader than those of their parents and grandparents".

While the Daily Mail headline was "Blair vows to build new Middle Britain", Roy Hattersley wrote in the New Statesman: "New Labour is recklessly willing to sacrifice all claim to intellectual consistency in the pursuit of power."

Some things don't change.

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