John Prescott and the Problem of Social Class

The BBC recently ran a program entitled ‘Prescott: The Class System and Me’ about how […]

DPotter / 10.28.08

The BBC recently ran a program entitled ‘Prescott: The Class System and Me’ about how John Prescott (perhaps you’ve seen him?) still struggles with his working class background despite the fact that he rose to the position of Deputy Prime Minister of the UK under Tony Blair (basically like the VP of the US, but he does not ‘take over’ if the PM is absent, ill or…well, dead.

The show featured Prescott and his wife, both of whom grew up in very blue collar neighborhoods, as two Yankees in King Arthur’s Court. The Prescotts are on a journey to understand social class, something which John has attempted to abolish while a member of Parliament. They appeared to be hopelessly self-conscious and defensive when invited to lunch at the estate of the fox-hunting, Eton educated Earl of Onslow. (Prescott has neither peerage nor academic credentials, and his wife, lovely as she is, wears as much mascara as the late Tammy Faye.) Needless to say, the other aristocratic guests at the luncheon remained silent much of the time, chewing their food politely and rarely making eye contact. The Earl tried to convince John that his rise to power was a natural consequence of a middle class which had been growing at an unprecedented rate (the Earl used an example of how his personal gamekeeper -seriously- had recently traveled to South Africa on vacation, something unthinkable for previous generations of private gamekeepers, I suppose). Despite the Earl’s attempts to encourage Prescott, it was a painful example of just how crippling and alienating the idea of class can be, because no matter how well-meaning the lunch, everyone was painfully aware that the Earl, Lord Onslow, was still an Earl.

Yet, because of his political status, John Prescott’s next meeting showed that he was also a bit too posh to rub elbows with three ‘Chav’ girls (a derogatory term for teens with a penchant for fake Burberry clothing, 2 liter bottles of hard cider and techno music…apparently the nickname, which stands for Council Housing And Violence, stuck after it became associated with a particular type of person appearing on police arrest reports). Prescott showed up for this little meeting in a tailored suit while the girls wore sweat pants and hair scrunchies. At one point they said to him, ‘You seem quite posh’, but his attempts to explain that he’d come from a working class background still betrayed his current appearance. (A controversial video here in the UK makes the point about class tension between chavs and chav-nots [couldn’t resist]).

In his next get together, Prescott attempted to mingle with literary types, the sort of smart-alec, know-it-alls who had always made him look stupid in the press because he tends to mangle the Queen’s english. The meeting, as you might suspect, was a total disaster.

Here’s the point: every attempt to strive for a ‘classless system’ has proven futile. Prescott’s war against the aristocrats is partially misguided, in my opinion, because think much of the blame for classism needs to be laid at the feet of the incessantly ambitious middle class: (if I just get my kids involved in karate, violin, and send them off to private schools, they’ll succeed!)…actually, not necessarily, because most people at their school or dojo still know where they come from. In fact, they probably grew up in similar families, which is why they are taking karate instead of playing polo.

The child will eventually try to reinvent themselves in their 20’s-30’s: putting on airs, buying a BMW, maxing out the credit cards, and generally striving to stay abreast of the people whose favor they are courting. This is no less meaningless than having private gamekeepers, perhaps even worse. I remember reading years ago a quote from an aristocrat who said something like ‘The worst class is the middle class, the rich and the poor know who they are, but the middle class is trying to fool everyone else into thinking that they are something which they are not.”

I have a hunch that this drive to impress and influence others with our backgrounds is a major battle for many of us, and we are right to remind ourselves that ‘Christ is the answer’ and that ‘the cross obliterates all claims to self-identity’, but what struck me about the program was the fact that there are few, if any, missionaries to the aristocrats. We are quite good at sending money and Bibles to the great unwashed of whatever land, but the Gospel, which sneers at all competing social constructs like class, must still speak a word of grace to every tier of society in order to remind them that ‘man does not consist in the things which he possesses (or lacks!).’