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Last Updated: Friday, 14 March 2008, 11:20 GMT
Who are the white working class?
By Dan Bell
BBC News

Barking residents
Working-class identity has changed
A week of BBC programmes has tried to give a voice to the white working class. So in post-industrial Britain, who are they?

There was a time when you knew your place and stuck to it. You could tell someone's class from 500 paces. Now things are more complicated.

Everyone wears jeans and trainers, barrow boys have made millions in the Square Mile, and "mockney" has become the lingua franca for middle-class stars from Jamie Oliver to Lily Allen.

Yet despite all this, class still has a powerful hold on us.

The BBC's White season that ends on Friday has explored one side of the divide, but are we any closer to understanding white working-class identity in modern Britain?

If you've ever had a roof fixed, you will know the white working-class are still out there and it's distinctive
Writer Tim Lott
If you were to accept the media shorthand, "white working class" could just about be summed up by football, hoodies, tabloid newspapers and Vicky Pollard.

The white season revealed something much more complex: a culture that is conflicted, vibrant, maligned, ignored and a shadow of its former self.

The sad reality of the latter is summed up in the first five minutes of Last Orders, a film about a struggling working men's club in Bradford that looks set to close after more than 100 years.

Graham Anderson, who is desperately trying to keep the doors of Wibsey Working Men's Club open, sits and stares at the passing traffic on the grey street outside.

He murmurs to himself: "Watching the world go by and thinking, why don't you all come in here? Why do they just drive past? Well, they probably don't even know us, they don't even know we exist."

Factories gone

So where have the white working class gone?

For writer Tim Lott, a greengrocer's son who made it to university via grammar school, the old expressions of working-class identity like Wisbey Working Men's Club lost their meaning with the death of the industries they were built on.

EastEnders
An accurate representation?
"The great centres around which they organized themselves, which were industry and factories and apprenticeships, all disappeared in the 1980s," he says.

Mr Lott says the white working class have been left holding the tatters of an identity: beer and bingo. But that sense of what they are is not meaningless.

"If you've ever had a roof fixed, you will know the white working class are still out there and it's distinctive. It's as distinctive as Muslim culture."

Swearing

Lott rattles off a ticker tape of character traits - secular, highly individualistic, witty, cynical and smart.

He adds: "The working class are very honest, they just say what they think. The middle class don't do that." But there is also bitterness and a deep distrust of education and culture.

"In becoming a member of the middle classes you are going to give up something very central to who you are; I have felt that."

He pauses for a moment then adds: "Oh yeah, the working class swear a lot more than middle class."

It is incredibly difficult to put your finger on exactly what it is that defines 'white working class' because a lot of them are shared by the middle class, such as football
Denys Blakeway
Rivers of Blood
But there is another view of this group, that they have merged with the class above.

"The white working class have prospered hugely since the war," says Denys Blakeway, the writer and narrator of Rivers of Blood, another film in the series.

"They have experienced unparalleled growth in disposable income and today they are now richer than their parents and grandparents could ever have imagined.

"There are shared values in white working-class culture but I think it is incredibly difficult to put your finger on exactly what it is that defines 'white working class' because a lot of them are shared by the middle class, such as football and the pub."

The marketing industry has a simple definition. If you are working class, you are a C2 - you live in a household where the primary earner is a "skilled manual worker".

Lager drinkers

C2s are exactly in the middle. At the top are ABs, professionals and managers, at the bottom are the Es - people entirely dependent on benefits.

So what can the millions spent on market research tell us about "C2s"? Well, that they make up 21% of the population and they are in fact very average.

According to market research supplier Mintel, 15% of C2s shop at Morrisons, as opposed to a national average of 12%.

Peter Kay
Peter Kay's stand-up: the new working men's club
Mintel does not have figures on which newspapers they read, but says 33% read Sunday national papers as opposed to the national average of 37%.

And 41% have had a holiday abroad in the past 12 months, as opposed to 45% nationally.

Where C2s do stand out is in alcohol consumption. They are the most likely to say they drink lager regularly and they are the least likely to drink beer that is low in alcohol.

Julian Baggini's book Welcome to Everytown is about the six months he spent in the place that most closely reflects the nation in its wealth and demographics - postcode S66 just outside Rotherham.

Silenced

Baggini says this most "average" of towns was economically middle-class but culturally white and working-class. In Everytown class is a state of mind.

HAVE YOUR SAY
No social identities are permanent, and the working class is no exception
Julian Baggini

"The real shifts tend to be that people can afford to have better versions of what they used to have," he says.

"So instead of going down the working men's club, they can afford to pay to go to Peter Kay, but Peter Kay is very old-fashioned humour in lots of ways.

"Just because someone has the trappings of the middle classes doesn't mean they adopt middle-class culture."

A tendency to consider the extreme to be the norm, he says, means people searching for working-class life mistakenly go to benefit claimants on a sink estate.

So, have the white working class merged with the middle class or have they been brushed aside and silenced?

Both are true. The C2s have never been closer to the ABs, but those who missed the middle-class boat have found themselves lost and with a class map that's obsolete.


Below is a selection of your comments.

I don't know really understand the definition of white working class, I thought it meant white people who work "normal" kinda jobs, I also believe black working class people are black people who work "normal" kinda jobs, why things have to get more complicated is beyond me, I think apart from actually skin colour all the working classes are the same.
Melody, Croydon

The Conservative party really demolished the industrial working class identity in the 80s. From that some have ended up on benefits in appalling poverty and many others have done well. Those that have done well are well represented in the media - There is plenty of football on television Diet shows, Reality shows, DIY and so on.
Martin Sarosi, Newcastle

Class lines have blurred to the point where they are meaningless. I work in an office and wear a collar and tie does that make me middle class? A friend is a plumber he wears overall and earns more than three times my salary, stereotype says he is working class. Too often when people talk about working class today what they really mean is dole-scrounging chavs. These are not working class. Work to them is an anathema and to associate them with the working classes whether they are fruit pickers, plumbers, IT technicians or stockbrokers is to insult ALL people who work for a living regardless of status or income.
Michael, Lincoln

Its a great shame that proper apprenticeships have ceased to exist that gives our kids of today an anchor in life on which to build.
Paul Groves, Leicester

An interesting assessment of an issue that famously is ignored as non-applicable. I have never been qualified, never been to university, have a child, in a stable relationship and would never have obtained any of these benefits without marrying a person who was competent enough to achieve this. Now I don't fit in with the norm and do not feel any politician represents the identity that I formed when growing up.
Mrs H. Simpson, Raynes Park



SEE ALSO
Q&A: White working class in Britain
14 Mar 08 |  Have Your Say

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