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Last Updated: Friday, 26 January 2007, 16:40 GMT
The class divide that grips Britain
By Brian Walden

The well-spoken are condemned as "toffs"
The debate surrounding Big Brother focused on race, but it is class prejudice which has become the acceptable form of discrimination in modern Britain.

A couple of recent events of less than outstanding importance have nevertheless touched off a spate of comment about how the British behave and what it means to be British.

On the reality show Celebrity Big Brother, offensive remarks were made to an Indian contestant, which upset many viewers, with the row rumbling on for days.

And research presented to the Foreign Office by the Montesquieu University in Bordeaux showed that thousands of Britons are buying homes in France in order to enjoy old-fashioned British values, which it's claimed only exist in French villages.

All countries occasionally have a discussion about what they are and what they represent. The exception is the United States of America, which has a permanent on-going debate about what it means to be an American.

But even older countries like France aren't so secure, or complacent, that they don't need from time to time to brood about where they are as a society and how they got there.


Britain is coming to the end of the Blair era, because the prime minister will retire in the summer.

It's been an important period in British history, but it leaves many questions unanswered. Uncertainty is in the air and when it coincides with rapid change people clutch at any chance to talk about what worries them.

One of the things that worries them is so-called yob culture. This concern isn't brushed aside by the prime minister on the grounds that he's got bigger things to think about. On the contrary, Tony Blair says cracking down on intimidating and unpleasant behaviour is vitally important.

He has established 40 special "respect" areas in the country and appointed Louise Carey, whom the media have dubbed a "respect Tsar". I've rather lost track of how many of these Tsars are now operating in various fields, but the appointment of one is always a sign the issue is thought to be politically significant.

That unpleasant behaviour has become a social problem in Britain is confirmed by Montesquieu University, who cite it as one of the reasons why some of the urban British want to live in rural France.


But Celebrity Big Brother raises the question of whether being a yob isn't better than being a racist? I don't want to go into the details of what happened in the programme, but I do think some things of importance can be learned from this row.

Celebrity Big Brother is part of what's called reality television, which has become a modern passion. What the makers of the programme do is to select contestants from very different backgrounds and give them nothing to do all day but talk to each other.

Shilpa Shetty
Big Brother sparked a debate about Britain

Naturally quarrels are inevitable. This time it was because some of the English contestants - one in particular - made disparaging remarks about an Indian actress. The remarks were racist said some. No they weren't that bad said others, they were only what you'd expect from ladettes and yobs.

I hope if there is going to be a serious national discussion about how the British behave, we face the truth that racism isn't the only evil social prejudice.

A view seems to be taking root that though racism is unspeakably vile, it's understandable, perhaps even forgivable, that there should be quite a lot of class prejudice in Britain.

Regrettable of course, but in a way natural. For don't the so-called yobs detest the so-called nobs and regard them as stuck-up, idle and smarmy, just as they themselves are looked down on as illiterate chavs, who aren't even amusing, but simply dim, aggressive and piggish in their habits.

They perpetuate the vicious myth that someone with a plummy voice, who didn't in youth have a chip butty for tea, is a patronising snob

This ingrained class hatred has existed far longer in Britain than racial hatred and does at least as much harm. The extent to which it lurks in the subconscious of some Britons was revealed when David Cameron made a comment about youths in hoods.

He was aware of the problems some of them presented, but thought along with social discipline we might show them some love. This innocuous remark, that could well have been made from a hundred pulpits every Sunday, was greeted with much derision.

"Hug a hoodie" jeered the headlines. Cameron's statement was deemed to be ridiculously "soft" and very depressing for respectable opinion to hear. Nobody dared say, but quite a few implied, that instead of worrying about the lack of love and role models in the life of the hoodies, the Tory leader would be better employed in finding some legal way for the police to use their truncheons to sweep this scum off the streets.

The class hatred coming the other way is just as bigoted. Think of the intelligent, well-read men and women, who made their place in the world through scholarships and good teaching, but some of whom can't forgive anybody who was born into a privileged background.

They perpetuate the vicious myth that someone with a plummy voice, who didn't in youth have a chip butty for tea, is a patronising snob who despises most people he meets.

Plummy voice

I mention the plummy voice because accents are a British obsession. I know of nowhere in the world where so many people are annoyed by hearing another person pronounce or intone words differently from the way they do.

Bill Clinton can take his southern drawl all over the US without doing himself any damage, even though everybody can tell he's from one of the poorer parts of Dixie.

It's not like that in Britain. Yes, things are better than of old, but only the other day I heard a woman on television say she couldn't vote for somebody because he "spoke like a toff". And it wouldn't be difficult to find those who can't vote for anybody with a cockney accent.

Good Life
Class and accent are British obsessions

Why is class prejudice now judged in some circles to be less harmful than racial prejudice? Surely they both arise from the same mistake of judging only by appearances. Idi Amin was black, but so was Martin Luther King. Adolf Hitler was white, but so was Abraham Lincoln.

Perhaps we show increasing good sense about skin colour because the topic has received so much publicity. Without overdoing it, we ought to be alert to class prejudice. I spoke to someone recently who, though good at his job, could never please his boss, or get promotion.

One day he found out why. After a busy morning his boss slapped him on the back and said: "Well, I must break for lunch and you should go and have your dinner."

I believe British society should pay as much attention to class as to racial prejudice. But, of course, it shouldn't become fixated by any social prejudice.


I'm not a fan of dozens of new laws and directives on the subject. Tolerance develops best in a relaxed atmosphere. As the famous French foreign minister, Talleyrand, said when briefing his associates: "Above all, gentlemen, not the slightest zeal."

He recognised that feverish passion was counter-productive. You may say it's difficult to be deeply interested in something, yet not zealous. Indeed it is, but that's what we have statesmen for.

The rest of Britain has to vault the class barrier and reach out

Since British society has a "live and let live" attitude, there has to be a very good reason why it should do more to improve class-co-operation.

There is. The old working-class has sub-divided. Some of it is already middle-class in economic terms. If it receives the occasional social slight, I deplore the fact, but it won't produce a crisis. But part of the traditional working-class has slithered into becoming the underclass.

Its economic deprivation is probably less than that of a working-class family of yore, but every other standard that encourages improvement has withered.

Most of the underclass doesn't live in a friendly community where they feel safe. On many estates drug abuse and crime are part of everyday life. And nobody is able to leave for a French village.

I think it's now recognised across the entire political spectrum that the underclass has become a major social problem. It's gradually dropping out of national life.

You don't have to like its ways to see it needs help. The rest of Britain has to vault the class barrier and reach out - for pity's sake.

Recently saw a whole section of Chav joke greetings cards in W H Smith. I believe such jokes are very offensive and insulting. Similar cards about blacks or muslims, for example, would quite rightly cause a public outcry, and possibly be illegal.
Geoff, Cardiff

It's very easy to look at yob culture and place blame on others and tut disapprovingly, but until we accept our share of the blame, nothing will change. These 'chavs' feel neglected by a system created by 'posh' middle-class politicians who have no idea what their life is like - and they're right. We're abandoning this new underclass so we can focus on our own lives, but until we offer the help, funding and respect to every member of society equally, why should we expect respect from those felt neglected. We all need to make an effort to understand all points of view and why certain people feel neglected by the political system if we want a cohesive and more stable society.
Michael Hardy, Swindon, United Kingdom

Simple attributes of courtesy, manners, tolerance (in all its forms),respect for others (and their property) are basic things which bind a society together, irrespective of "class". If you can't or won't abide by these, you marginalise yourself from society and in turn, society from you. Nobs or yobs, British society - per se - is guilty as charged.
R Wilson, Kenilworth, England

I totally agree, but its the "underclass" that has the biggest problem with accents. I have a fairly standard Cambridgeshire accent, but when im out in town each day, these people seem to take great joy in calling me names like toff, rich t*** etc even though i dont come from a wealthy background, just happen to want to speak english correctly. I dont judge them by their accent or clothes, yet they do to me. The problem is huge and there are 3 or 4 generations of people that have that chip on thier shoulder. What is the solution !?
Dom, cambs

This is a very insightful and interesting article. I was outraged when Big Brother Execs did not make a decision to intervene in the house, citing that the problem was not race related but rather to do with class. When did it become OK to pick on someone because of their class? Its just as offensive and should not be tolerated.
Ambika Natarajan, Newcastle Upon Tyne

As always with Brian Walden, commonsense prevails. An excellent article. I consider that I had a working class upbringing, although many who know me would say I'm middle class. I'm proud of my working class background but don't feel constrained by it. When it comes to other people I'm more interested in what they're like as an individual rather than what 'group' they're from.
Andy, Darlington

... and you think there are no class distinctions in the US? Think again as this is a very class divided country and is not just the haves and have nots.
Chris (expat), Boston, USA

Every time there's a debate on 'Have Your say', people pop up with the nastiest, most disgusting jokes about chavs. If they made the same jokes about someone of colour, they'd be branded a racist, and rightly so, but because they're making a joke about the 'working class' (which is what chavs are) the jokes are not only seen as acceptable, but hysterically funny. It's a truely awful and divise prejudice, but no-one seems to see the harm, as it's based purely on social class.
MB, London

An interesting and thought-provoking piece. The comments on accents I find particularly interesting, given what I've found to be almost an obsession with labelling people based on where they're from, often based on (or supported by) their accent.
SW, Caerphilly, Wales

Brian Walden's article is one of the few intelligent things that I have read on this whole debate and he reflects my views entirely. Racial and class prejudices were certainly demonstrated in Big Brother and this is sad and unacceptable, however that is true for all forms of aggressive and bullying behaviour. When I read a comment such as Jade is a "stupid ignorant pig" I feel equally as disgusted as when I viewed Jade's own aggressive behaviour. These people who appear to be supporting Shilpa should take note of her dignified and understanding attitude. Those who are crucifying Jade are no better than she is as this is bullying and scapegoating on the biggest scale. More intelligent people such as Shilpa recognise that although they disagree with Jade's aggressive outbursts, they are probably the result of her childhood experiences, which sound to be fairly tough, it seems that these have almost inevitably led to some resentment for those who have enjoyed a better upbringing, education and opportunities than herself. None of us are immune from forming prejudices, the importance is that we are aware of them and try to approach all people with understanding. This is what we are asking Jade to do and yet most of the people criticising her for her prejudices seem unaware that they are hypocrites.
Anne Ryan, Marlow, Buckinghamshire

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