What the concept of Social Class and the British System of Plebiscitary Democracy have to do with the present Covid-19 Crisis in the UK.
By Wolfgang Geissler
You may be forgiven to wonder whether it is the similar hairstyle that is the reason for the catastrophic handling of the Covid-19 crisis on either sides of the Atlantic. Donald Trump’s deliberately slightly greyed out coiffed hair, to make him look more statesmanlike and the untidy uncombed but still blonde mop on top of Boris Johnson’s head, recently shortened to make him also look more statesmanlike. But you already know it’s what in the head that counts, not what’s on top of it.
The American leader engagingly refuses to be held responsible for anything and muses loud in front of TV cameras about injecting or ingesting disinfectant to combat the virus whilst his British counterpart ignores his own rules of social distancing, gets himself and half his cabinet infected with the corona virus, spends some time in Intensive Care, while in the country the tearful population are deep in prayer for his speedy recovery, and now enjoys fatherhood for the sixth time, as far as he can remember, from about as many women, as far as he knows while the death toll in the country has risen to over 28,000 and is still rising. Both men have mismanaged badly the crisis right from the start. President Trump initially even denied that there was a problem and Prime Minister Johnson, taken in by the survival of the fittest ideology of “herd immunity”, also known as Social Darwinism, decided to go down that path thereby hoping to be able to hang out the sign for all to read “Britain still open for Business”. We know it did not go well at all.
It’s safe to say that Britain has been made docile. If someone were to walk into Number 10 tomorrow, bring in segregation policies, remove LGBT rights, establish women as property and criminalise protests, all they’d have to say to the papers is “it’s always been like this” and the country would just go along with it. But why is this so? How come that so many will defend Boris with just an apologetical Gallic shrug, grinning “boys will be boys”, (and - wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more!) envy him for his many sexual successes and laugh loudly about his puerile bumbling and smirks. Subconsciously the British still tug the proverbial forelock, doff the cap because he is upper class and an Eton boy educated to rule over them. There are far too many who, despite first impressions, are naturally inclined never to question their “betters”.
Class division and subservience, even if given grudgingly, are still omnipresent. The star struck, frivolous Britain of the 21st century loves its celebrities, the pop stars with their sleazy, sex crazed, drug fuelled lifestyle and reality TV. If that weren’t the case they would not have fallen for a “superlative exhibitionist”, as Max Hastings[i], former editor of the “Daily Telegraph” and Boris Johnson’s employer for several years writes and carries on describing him as “being bereft of judgment, loyalty and discretion, ruthless and nastier than the public appreciates”.
Will Hutton[ii]in his book “The State We’re In” published in 1995 describes a scenario we recognise immediately. Just replace Mrs Thatcher with Mr Johnson: “Mrs Thatcher shamelessly exploited the extraordinary powers that Britain’s unwritten constitution gives the majority party in the House of Commons … using the traditional legitimacy offered by ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ (the doctrine that the power of Parliament - or rather the ‘Crown – in - Parliament’- to make laws cannot be qualified by any other power) … That the British system is a kind of plebiscitary democracy conferring near absolute power upon the office holder neither troubled her conscience nor impeded her actions. She relied on another strength-the weakness of her parliamentary opposition…”[iii] “Plebiscitary democracy is regarded as a form of governing which assure the sovereign of a direct role in the process by which political decisions are being made. In this form, a political leader draws an ability to act from an appeal to the nation and the direct approval from the latter … At the same time, however, the previously mentioned will of the nation plays a role only as far as it affirms the will of the leader with this indeed being the characteristic trait of this form of government.”[iv]
Nothing ever described the concept of social class better then the famous “Class Sketch” first broadcast on 7 April 1966![v]
In it John Cleese, tall and patrician in appearance and demeanour, represents the upper class, Ronnie Barker, of average height, the middle class and Ronnie Corbett, short in stature, the working class.
(In bowler hat, black jacket and pinstriped trousers)I look down on him (Indicates Barker) because I am upper-class.
(Pork-pie hat and raincoat)I look up to him (Cleese) because he is upper-class; but I look down on him (Corbett) because he is lower-class. I am middle-class
(Cloth cap and muffler)I know my place. I look up to them both. But I don't look up to him (Barker) as much as I look up to him (Cleese), because he has got innate breeding.
I have got innate breeding, but I have not got any money. So sometimes I look up (bends knees, does so) to him (Barker).
I still look up to him (Cleese) because although I have money, I am vulgar. But I am not as vulgar as him (Corbett) so I still look down on him (Corbett).
I know my place. I look up to them both; but while I am poor, I am honest, industrious and trustworthy. Had I the inclination, I could look down on them. But I don't.
We all know our place, but what do we get out of it?
I get a feeling of superiority over them.
I get a feeling of inferiority from him, (Cleese), but a feeling of superiority over him (Corbett).
I get a pain in the back of my neck.
The social structure of the United Kingdom has historically been highly influenced by the concept of social class, which continues to affect British society today. Members of the elite class are the top six percent of the British Society with very high economic capital, high social capital, and very high highbrow cultural capital. Occupations such as chief executive officers, IT and telecommunications directors, marketing and sales directors, functional managers and directors, judges, lawyers, accountants, financial managers, doctors, dentists, professors and advertising and public relations directors are strongly represented. Graduates of elite universities are over-represented.
To the unstudied foreigner most Britons sound alike. But to the British ear, a few sentences from a countryman provide a wealth of information about region and social level and sometimes even about education and occupation.
“It’s the most visible aspect of the class system,” said Earl Hopper, a professor of sociology at the London School of Economics. “I see no sign that it is breaking down.”
The class aspects of British speech depend both on the accents and on the choice of words. If you are upper class, you say “lavatory” or perhaps “loo”- a more middle class word- but never “toilet.” That is what the working class uses. “When people talk about class barriers, they often mean sound barriers,” wrote Jilly Cooper[vi] in her book “Class.” “Your pronunciation and the words you use are so important for determining your class,” she said. There is the belief that the reverence for upper class accents are on the rise again. One thing that perpetuates it is the Life-Peerage bestowed on apparently worthy individuals that can get you into the House of Lords. Not a few Labour politicians who have suddenly been ennobled to “Lord” changed their former working class accent to the more refined aristocratic speech that befits their new raised status and the seat on the burgundy coloured benches in the House of Lords, of whom cynics say it is proof that there is Life after Death.
Wolfgang Geissleris a Board Member of the Austro-British Society and a Committee Member of the United Kingdom Citizens in Europe.
The opinions expressed in this article are entirely his and reflect in no way the opinions of the ABS or the UKCA.
He has lived and worked for 40 years in the United Kingdom.
[i]Sir Max Hugh Macdonald Hastings FRSL FRHistS born 28 December 1945) is a British journalist, who has worked as a foreign correspondent for the BBC, editor-in-chief of The Daily Telegraph, and editor of the Evening Standard. He is also the author of numerous books, chiefly on defence matters, which have won several major awards.
[ii]William Nicolas "Will" Hutton(born 21 May 1950) is a British academic and journalist. He is currently Principal of Hertford College, University of Oxford, and Chair of the Big Innovation Centre, an initiative from the Work Foundation (formerly the Industrial Society), having been chief executive of the Work Foundation from 2000 to 2008. He was formerly editor-in-chief for The Observer. He is widely known for his advocacy of centre-left policies, criticisms of the neoliberal economic consensus, and his long association with key members and policies of the Labour Party. Former economics editor of the “Guardian”. Member of the governing council of the Policy Studies Institute, the Institute for Political Economy and Charter 88. Was on the editorial board of the “New Economy”, governor of the London School of Economics.
[iii]Pages 29, 30.
[iv]The Idea of Plebiscitary Democracyand Its Accommodation in the Countries of Post-Soviet Central Asia by Jacek Zalesny, The Warsaw University. Research Article: 2018 Vol: 21 Issue: 3. abacademics.org/articles/ the-idea-of-plebiscitary-democracy-and-its-accommodation-in-the-countries-of-post-soviet-central-asia
[v]The Class sketchis a comedy sketch first broadcast in an episode of David Frost's satirical comedy programme The Frost Report on 7 April 1966. It has been described as a "genuinely timeless sketch, ingeniously satirising the British class system" and in 2005 was voted number 40 in Channel Four's "Britain's 50 Greatest Comedy Sketches". It was written by Marty Feldman and John Law, and features John Cleese, Ronnie Barker, and Ronnie Corbett.