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How class distinctions have become blurred

13 June 2014 by David Fleming

Head and shoulders shot of David Fleming in suit and tie

This is the third of a five part series looking at museums and democracy, this time considering changes in the perception and identity of the working classes over the last 200 years. The series is from the text of a lecture I gave in May 2014 at Liverpool’s Institute of Cultural Capital research symposium entitled ‘The Arts, Them and Us: creating a more equitable system for subsidised culture’.

Part 3

Many decades were to pass before a combination of developments opened the way for museums to come to resemble democratic institutions. I will come to that shortly, but first let’s look at the c-word – “class”, a term with which we really are never comfortable in museums or, indeed, in the cultural sector as a whole.

There are those who believe we are now a classless society, though only people who know nothing of council estate life in Liverpool or Manchester, Leeds or Newcastle, or London, could subscribe confidently to this view.

What is true is that since the 1960s class distinctions have blurred, and traditional social class bonds have weakened. This process of democratic transformation has occurred during the lifetime of all the people in this room – which might explain why talk of class differences may sound to some no more relevant, or inconvenient, than the Spanish Armada.

It would be anachronistic to describe the “lower orders” prior to 1800 as “working class”, but from the 1820s this term came into popular use, as the new manufacturing society grew. From the 1850s the typical Briton was an industrial worker, and the first working class MPs, both miners, were elected in 1874. By 1900 the working classes had become a respectable sector of political society.

The working classes were diverse in nature, with skilled workers at one end of the spectrum, and people living in abject poverty at the other. In 1918 they were mostly manual workers employed in manufacturing. Working conditions were harsh and long, housing was poor, there was really no state system of secondary education for other than a small minority; welfare services were limited.

Over the next five decades or so there was a steady improvement in the material condition of the working classes, with a growing standard of living, improving housing, better health, more education and the coming of the welfare state.

Security of employment grew too, though real poverty and social distress were, of course, never banished. Politically the working classes saw further change, with six governments formed by the Labour Party between 1918 and 1974, and the growth of the influence of the trade union movement.

These developments led to what some have described as a decline of the working classes, or, put another way, the loss of a distinctive working class identity. As incomes have moved towards equalisation, and as the numbers working in manual roles have declined, we have seen a homogenisation of living standards, perhaps even an embourgeoisement of the working classes.

The mass unemployment which returned after the mid-‘70s, added to the growth in the numbers of married women going out to work, led to a deepening fissure between those who were still earning and other groups – unemployed people, old people, single parent families, unemployed ethnic minorities.

This social polarisation created what some commentators have referred to as a new social underclass. The enterprise culture of Thatcherism deepened this social fissure even further, and the notion of the solidarity of the working classes evaporated.

The loss of authority of the trade union movement (and to this day fierce critics of the Thatcher regime can be found commending the destruction of trade union power during the ’80s) and the sheer unelectability of the Labour Party both shifted the perceptions of the working classes, and led directly to the evolution of New Labour – a political party which consciously stopped promoting itself as the party of the working classes.

As unemployment reduced again in the ‘90s and in the early years of the 21st century, we found ourselves in an evolving social and political landscape, one where, despite the survival of working class sentiment, it became ever more difficult to speak of the working classes and their cultures and preoccupations, though we are happy to use the term ‘popular culture’, which to all intents and purposes has supplanted the term working class culture, while meaning much the same thing.

Part four of this series of blog posts looking at democracy and museums will appear next week.

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