Wednesday, November 17, 2004
The poor are always with us
It's become a commonplace for politicians and commentators to claim that Britain's class war is over. Social class has become less a determinant of how one votes. A myriad of advertising-driven stereotypes (yuppies, dinkies, etc.) has replaced the simple class-based categories we once used.
But the reason the class war ended is not because the working class disappeared. It's because they lost. Half the working class became middle class, while the remainder were stripped of what little political power they had and became an underclass.
Despite Britain's state of denial, social class remains the greatest determinant of educational success, health and longevity.
Ruth Lister's article in today's Guardian reminds us that poverty is not just about economics but also about human dignity. It's a question not only of a lack of money but also a lack of respect. And Britain's poor have just been deprived of even more respect.
A significant change in British attitudes to poor people was marked recently by the entry into the cultural mainstream of the 'chav' phenomenon. Americans have been able to poke fun at their poor white people thanks to the 'trailer trash' label. The British used to baulk at such humour. Now that we have a derogatory term of our own, we are free to mock poor people on the superficial grounds of their dubious taste in leisure wear.
Far from there being an end to a class-ridden society, this upsurge in popular contempt suggests the opposite. Britain's class divisions have become wider. Despite (or perhaps because of) more than seven years of 'New Labour' government, disparities in wealth have continued to increase. Income inequality in Britain is still higher than at any time in the previous 18 years of Conservative rule - and probably for at least 20 years before.
One can argue about the causes and solutions. Whatever one's view, in a relatively prosperous society, widescale poverty is an indictment of the political and economic system.
But to tackle a problem, one must first acknowledge its existence. Pretending that class divisions don't exist prevents us getting even to first base. Using pejorative terms actually makes the situation worse.