class system

   Social class has been seen as the main divide in British politics. The characteristics which determine class include occupation, income, material possessions, family position, breeding, accent, education, appearance, lifestyle and power. Traditionally the British population has been separated into social classes which were assumed to have a common identity, and class consciousness and solidarity. Stratification in the capitalist system implies a hierarchical distribution of classes in ranked order. The Registrar General divides Britain into six classes on the basis of occupation: A, the established elite; B, the professions and lower management; C1, the skilled non-manual class; C2, the skilled manual class; D, semiskilled manual workers and E, unskilled. However, many sociologists consider this to be a rather dated approach.
   Marxists believe there are two basic classes; the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, whose numbers increase with the development of industry but who can only bring about equality through revolution. Conservatives do not deny the existence of class divisions, but argue that this is inevitable and there is considerable mobility between classes which provides an incentive for effort. Socialists argue that social stratification is divisive and acts as a barrier to the motivation and recruitment of talent. They wish to reduce differences through direct taxation, welfare benefits, minimum wages and redistribution of wealth.
   Class divisions have typically centred around the boundary between non-manual and manual work, but such dividing lines have blurred as the C1 group is said to have become proletarianized as much non-manual work is low paid, humdrum and repetitive compared to skilled manual work. Ivor Crewe entertains the idea of a divided working class: the traditional working class, whose numbers are shrinking, and a new working class who are more likely to live in the south, are homeowners, work in private industry and are less likely to vote for Labour on the basis of class. He believes there is a process of embourgeoisement, whereby manual workers are entering the middle classes and becoming less class-conscious and more individualistic. Others contend that there are no longer rigid class divisions, but that an underprivileged underclass exists comprising ethnic minorities, the unemployed, homeless and the mentally ill. This group lives beneath the poverty line and its numbers are growing with the welfare cuts of the 1980s and 1990s. The underclass may take a new form when the technology divide between haves and have-nots in British society grows greater.
   Further reading
    Crewe, I., Gosschalk, B. and Bartle, J. (eds) (1998) Political Communications: Why Labour Won the General Election of 1997, London: Frank Cass.
    Haralambos, M. and Holborn, M. (1990) Sociology: Themes and Perspectives, London: HarperCollins (provides a detailed, modern view of the subject).
   COLIN WILLIAMS

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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