Turning Britain into 'meritocracy'

What would Prime Minister Tony Blair's goal of a middle-class nationmean for class-conscious Britons?

Dave, a London taxi driver, is taking time off at Peter's, a snacking place for cabbies, in the city's Pimlico district. What does he think of Prime Minister Tony Blair's declared aim of making everyone in Britain middle class?

"Well, he won't get far with me," Dave replies as he shovels four teaspoons of sugar into a cup of treacle-colored tea. "I'm working class, and that's that."

But what if one of Dave's children became, say, a lawyer or an accountant? "Then obviously the kid would be middle class," comes the instant (and revealing) reply.

Across London in the plush Mayfair district, at the Richoux coffee house, a middle-aged lady in a fur hat is about to taste a steaming cup of caf au lait. How does she respond to Mr. Blair's plan to build a society based entirely on merit?

"It's all beside the point," she says, putting the cup down, one of her diamond rings rattling against the handle. "Classes don't matter in modern Britain."

So does that mean she would invite a bricklayer to her home for tea?

"Of course not," the lady snaps. "He wouldn't feel comfortable."

Echoes of Thatcher

Blair, who unveiled his plan for a bourgeois Britain last month, isn't the first occupant of the prime minister's 10 Downing Street residence to attack the perception that the British nation remains class-ridden.

John Major, his Conservative predecessor, came to power pledging to create "a classless society."

Before that Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher attacked the very idea of social distinctions. "Class is a communist concept," she said. "It groups people as bundles, and sets them against one another."

As commentators have noted, in one sense Blair's idea of everyone being middle class is nonsense, because if he achieved his goal there would be only one class, and nothing to compare it with.

For social historian David Cannadine, director of the Institute of Historical Research in London, however, there is relevance as well as political savvy in what Blair says he wants to do.

"Class in the traditional sense of there being lower, middle, and upper social categories may require redefinition," he says, "but classes certainly exist in Britain, and to be middle class certainly has meaning."

Blair came to power 21 months ago in a general-election landslide in which, according to research, 34 percent of middle-class voters deserted to Labour. In a lecture Jan. 14 to the Institute for Public Policy Research, a London-based think tank, he interpreted his May 1997 general-election victory as a sign that "the old Establishment" - meaning a Conservative-dominated political and social system - was being swept away by a new "meritocratic middle class."

This, he said, included "millions of people who traditionally see themselves as working class, but whose ambitions are far broader than those of their parents and grandparents."

In Professor Cannadine's opinion, Blair is pursuing "a culture of community and inclusivity" that leaves no room for "the outdated and outmoded notions of class identity, class interest, and class war."

At one end of the spectrum, he is against such things as a hereditary House of Lords (the upper house of Parliament) and, at the other, working-class citizens being condemned to wear cloth caps and accept low wages throughout their lives.

This approach yielded electoral victory to a Labour Party styling itself as "new" and openly bidding for the votes of lawyers, doctors, and other people perceived as middle class. Blair clearly hopes the same approach will produce another triumph at the next general election, due in 2002.

Middle-class aspirations?

Not everyone agrees, however, that voters who style themselves working class today aspire to be middle class.

In a Jan. 15 editorial the London Times commented: "Even in a benign bourgeois Britain a significant number of voters will still prefer sausage rolls to sun-dried tomatoes."

Like Dave, the London cabby, they will continue to see themselves as working class, even though they may have different hopes for their children.

To some extent statistics support Blair in his hopes. Bob Worcester, head of London's MORI market research group, says that in 1979 "only 35 percent of the population counted as middle class."

"Now it's 50 percent," says Mr. Worcester, "and that's the biggest shift in 1,000 years."

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott is a good example of what Blair is trying to achieve. A former ship's steward, Mr. Prescott says he "ceased to be working class when I got a nice car and my own home."

It isn't obvious, however, that Blair will be able to keep existing middle-class voters loyal to Labour and at the same time persuade members of the working class that they should aspire to a higher social status.

Political analyst Peter Riddell says a large but unquantifiable section of confirmed Labour Party supporters, as distinct from floating voters, still think in terms of helping the poor by "increased public spending and higher taxes for the middle classes."

This group includes trade unionists and many unemployed. Cannadine, the social historian, says it is too soon to know whether the constituency of "old" Labour will fade away, leaving Blair's "new" party firmly in the hands of people prepared to see themselves in middle-class terms.

In any case, Cannadine argues, the Labour prime minister has yet to ask the "right questions" about class. These are:

*What would a classless society look like?

*How do you get people to think in a classless way?

*Is it even realistic to think a classless society can be brought about?

Meanwhile, says Cannadine, a lot of Britons will go on defining themselves as either "them" or "us" for quite a while to come.

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