The Road to Brighton Pier: Class, Caste, and the British Left

Samuel McIlhagga


I’m four or five years old. My grandmother flicks my knee. “Pudding, not dessert.” 
“And remember it’s a napkin.” 
“Now come and sit on the sofa.”

This is how it all starts. The insidious subtle distinctions, the vanity of small differences—a seed of false consciousness. From a very early age, I knew that a banker who said “serviette” was not one of us, while a carpenter who was casually going to use the “loo” could safely be included as someone you could be at home with. My well-meaning, liberal-left, semi-bohemian family, sitting somewhere at the bottom end of the upper-middle class, would have been horrified that I harbored any of these distinctions. But then, so did they. 

This is how it works in Britain. The upper-middle classes will buy deliberately clapped-out Volvos, busted Land Rovers, and trendy electric cars and fill them with dog hair while mocking the vulgarity of expensive sports car-driving businessmen; they will consciously use “simplistic’” English words like “napkin” over pretentious Frenchified diction like “serviette” and “settee;” they publicly shrink from ambition, power, and money while quietly continuing to condition their children to control governments, banks, and cultural institutions.

Where once instruction in class signaling would have been explicit, by the 1990s, liberal families like mine had buried class instruction in an unconscious layer of irony. I was never told why we said “sofa,” only that we did. For those who benefited from the end of austerity in the 1990s, everyone was now the same. The bad old days had ended with Margaret Thatcher; Blairism would ensure everyone could fulfill their potential. However, the old linguistic relics remained in the cupboard. They sit there as reminders of the real structures of ancient power still present in the U.K. My family, as anglicized Scots sitting anxiously at the bottom of this elite caste, were perhaps more aware of these small differences. Meanwhile, the upper elite, ensconced in castellated institutions, blissfully sail through British society assuming everyone is just like them. 

This is because the English, and to an extent British (the Scottish, Welsh, and Irish elite are often extremely Anglicized) upper-middle class operates a damaging, and very silly, binary code of speech. These rules were formalized by British linguist Alan S.C. Ross as U and non-U (upper class and non-upper, i.e., middle, class), and popularized by the socialite Nancy Mitford in the 1950s. Mitford used them to mock the perceived non-U bourgeoisie prissiness of words like “settee,” “serviette,” and “pardon.” As with all honest illustrations of cultural class differences, there was anxiety around even raising the issue. Indeed, the author Evelyn Waugh responded to Mitford stating: “There are subjects too intimate for print. Surely class is one?” The taboos around the discussion of class serve to stifle class consciousness, silence critics, and create the conditions for politicians like John Prescott, Labour deputy prime minister under Blair, to argue that, “We’re all middle class now.” 

I don’t know how these rules ended up in my family—whether they were knowingly adopted by some status-conscious ancestor or came about through wider communal enforcement. However, the squeamishness has always been present. These rules are not a catechism or even didactically imparted; instead, they are gained through behavioral osmosis. That way, they can always be denied. They also create a pervasive sense of cultural caste, whereby economic class can be telegraphed by ossified and difficult-to-learn rules of language that mark you, mostly, for life. They smooth the tracks that allow cultural elites to identify one another. When an impoverished school teacher or civil servant, from a traditionally well-off background, feels quietly superior to a capitalist tech billionaire because she uses the U “sitting room” rather than the non-U “lounge,” you begin to understand how these linguistic obfuscations have helped stifle British class consciousness.

The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once wrote: “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” Wyndham Lewis, the futurist painter (and fascist) said that: “The English working classes are branded on the tongue.” To this, George Orwell responded, “None should be branded on the tongue, it should be impossible to determine anyone’s status from his accent.”

The fact that neither of them seemed to make anything of the fact that an Old Rugbeian and Old Etonian were having a debate about the working class, over and above the heads of their imagined anthropological subjects, speaks to a problem within the British elite on both the left and right (a dynamic I am equally trapped within). They are drawn from a tiny clique of social, educational, and cultural circles—narrower even than the elite bastions of the Ivy League and Grand Écoles in America and France, respectively. Mike Davis, the American leftist writer and activist, summed up the claustrophobia of British intellectual and elite circles excellently when he said of the Etonian-dominated New Left Review in the 1980s that, “Ultimately, you couldn’t really understand these guys unless you’d taken showers with them when you were ten.”

Take, for example, the Conservative leadership election of 2019. There was much consternation in the British press that there might be a run-off between Boris Johnson and Rory Stewart, one of his centrist challengers. For many, the problem was that a Johnson-Stewart face-off would raise the uncomfortable fact that both men had attended the elite high school Eton, the same university, Oxford, and the same college of about 400 people, Balliol. Meanwhile, the man leading the official strategic election response for the left-wing Corbyn leadership was Seumas Milne (Winchester, Oxford, Balliol). Milne’s counterpart, the Brexiteer Dominic Cummings (branded a “Maoist right-winger” by more liberal Tories, he does genuinely seem to hate the coziness of the British system), barely breaks the mold—he was educated across the street from Johnson, Stewart, and Milne at Exeter College. 

These incredibly close connections allow for vain observations of small differences that sometimes leak out into the public. An illuminating example is when the laughably reactionary Jacob Rees-Mogg mocked Nick Bowles, a fellow conservative and Europhile MP, for attending Winchester, rather than Eton. He also chided another Europhile politician, Oliver Letwin, for not being “truly an Etonian” because he’d agreed with Bowles. The journalist reporting on this for the traditionally left-wing Independent, Hugo Gye, also attended Eton. (Gye deemed the exchange “#savage.”) In a beautifully condensed moment, the whole geopolitical and historical importance of Brexit was reduced to a puerile competition between snickering schoolboys.  

The linkages between power, politics, education, culture, and institutions on both the left and right become more intimate the longer you look. Boris Johnson’s brother, a former government minister, is married to a crusading liberal investigative journalist at The Guardian, who exposed the Theresa May government’s racist Windrush scandal; her brother-in-law was foreign secretary. The political editor of The Spectator (where Boris Johnson was editor-in-chief between 1999 and 2005), James Forsyth, is married to Allegra Stratton, who was Downing Street Press Secretary until she was ousted after “Partygate;” Stratton, in turn, was part of an internal coup supposedly led by Johnson’s then-girlfriend Carrie Symonds that replaced the working-class and Dominic Cummings-appointed Director of Communications Lee Cain who had been branded an “oik” by Downing Street staff; Cummings and Cain’s team reportedly referred to Symonds in turn as “Princess Nut Nuts.” Cummings’s wife Mary Wakefield, the daughter of a radically conservative baronet, works at The Spectator with James Forsyth, who dislikes Cummings. (Wakefield started working at The Spectator under the editorship of Johnson.) Forsyth is an ideological ally of the pro-austerity Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, as well as being an old school friend and his best man—they attended the same institution as Seamus Milne; furthermore, both Johnson’s sister and brother have written for The Spectator, with his sister Rachel embarrassingly recounting flirtations between Boris and the accused sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell at the Balliol College bar; Joseph Johnson quit the Conservative front bench over Brexit before being made a peer of the realm by the Prime Minister (his brother); Rachel Johnson also contemplated running against the Conservatives as a Liberal Democrat candidate for London Mayor, a position previously held by the Prime Minister, who was, again, her brother Boris.    

Think this is confusing? (Here’s a flow chart.) The British ruling class has always been a tangled and toxic web of family dynasties and alliances. Their squabbles and infighting affect the lives of millions of ordinary people. The affairs of state in the U.K. are all too often also the affairs of families. When Orwell, in The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, said that: “England is not the jeweled isle of Shakespeare’s much-quoted passage… it resembles a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family… A family with the wrong members in control,” I doubt he meant a literal, rather than metaphorical, “family.” Indeed, the literal royal dynasties of the 16th and 17th centuries have long since passed into history. Power moved from the court under absolute monarchy to an aristocratic parliament in the 17th century. The 19th century saw the establishment of nominally democratic and meritocratic public institutions, which were quick to fall into the hands of professional elites who facilitated a joint aristocratic-oligarchic rule with Parliament. The governance of the country is imagined to be a public mission—but power circulates upwards and inwards, insulating itself within interpersonal dynamics.  

The British left is not much better. Labour politicians used to identify as trade unionist autodidacts, proud products of miners’ institute libraries, working man’s associations, and adult education initiatives. They portrayed themselves as working-class meritocrats who had traversed the grammar school system and universities, or otherwise as benevolent patricians embracing the common good. The Labour Prime Ministers James Callaghan, Harold Wilson, and Clement Attlee fit these stereotypes. However, upper-middle-class professional managerialism, increasing nepotism, and a cultural focus on a select few urban centers and university towns have skewed the British left towards a narrow, unpopular, and counterproductive form of liberalism resembling that of the American Democrats.

The Labour Party has produced many of the same cozy dynamics: with two brothers, Ed and David Milliband, and the husband-and-wife duo Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper occupying major positions simultaneously. Is it any wonder that an increasingly Americanized Clintonian liberalism has seeped into an ostensibly left party when Harvard, MIT, and Kennedy Scholarships have become more common than adult learning courses on the Labour Front benches? Indeed, the Sutton Trust reported in 2010 that only 14% of Labour Party MPs did not attend university, while 55% attended elite research universities. These dynamics were extrapolated during the 2022 U.K. local elections, in which Labour surged with the professional class, winning wealthy educated council areas in London like Wandsworth and Westminster that had been previously held by the Conservatives. The average 21st-century Labour voter now looks like the average 21st-century Labour MP.    

During the 20th century, the Conservative Party was the domain of the aristocracy, gentry, haute bourgeoisie, and elements of the artisanal trading class, while the Labour Party represented the mass of the working class and radical intellectuals. The increasingly squeezed Liberal party catered to the interests of merchants, professionals, and non-conformist Protestants. Today, all three parties’ upper echelons have been captured by a professionalized, and increasingly narrow, upper-middle-class managerial elite—leaving the rest of the population for dust.

The political apparatus of the British state has effectively been taken over by my social milieu—what Orwell jokingly referred to as “lower-upper-middle-class” in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). In 21st-century discourse, they have been referred to as “Brahmins” by the economist Thomas Piketty and as the “professional-managerial class” (PMC) by academics John and Barbara Ehrenreich. This is a group of people who have little allegiance to custom or place, as a consequence of moving around for generations to pursue prestigious professions. They rarely control the means of production or own any land, but they exercise an iron grip on institutions like the Anglican and other Protestant churches, publishing, academia, journalism, charities, think tanks, education, music and the arts, and the law, along with their overrepresentation in political parties. In the 19th century, they were deeply involved in the empire and colonialism.

As Orwell argues in The Road to Wigan Pier: “It was this that explained the attraction of India (more recently Kenya, Nigeria, etc.) for the lower-upper-middle class. The people who went there as soldiers and officials did not go there to make money… they went there because in India, with cheap horses, free shooting, and hordes of black servants, it was so easy to play at being a gentleman.” Many of the oldest among this group was born in India and Africa—and the accouterments of empire, like Afghan rugs, kilims, Chinese tea chests, and blue and white porcelain plates—still haunt their houses. 

This class is acutely aware that educational status and credentials are the only things separating them from the proletarian mass of the British population, who have been forced into increasingly casualized labor by the relentless march of finance and technological innovation. The majority of media discourse around “millennials,” “boomers” and “cost of living” feeds off the generational fears and resentments harbored by this group. They have a reflexive social liberalism, but belong to both left and the right, in both radical and moderate political groupings.

Their fear of being proletarianized leads them down disparate paths: either attaining class consciousness in the Marxist sense or staving off a decline in living standards by selling their knowledge and credentials to capital as consultants and professionals. Some combine both into the type of nervous and ineffectual liberalism that stalks HR departments and corporate boardrooms—committing to a redistribution of cultural power while never threatening material interests. Despite their control of institutions, and large reserves of cultural capital, they are increasingly struggling to maintain their economic status. Younger members, who often work as casualized lecturers, freelance journalists, and teachers in underfunded schools, have been a driving force behind the Corbynite project.  

They tend to live in London, Manchester, Oxford, Cambridge, Brighton, and Bristol—or uneasily reside in Edinburgh and Glasgow, where alternative nationalist elites hold power. If they don’t live in these cities, then they live in the countryside surrounding them. Unlike their Biden-supporting American counterparts, they do not live in suburbs. Like their American counterparts, they are predominantly white, or often from South Asian upper-caste backgrounds. In the mid-sized Brexit-supporting towns like Wigan that dot the Midlands and North, they have all but disappeared. Keir Starmer, Jeremy Corbyn, Tony Blair, Theresa May, Rishi Sunak, and Boris Johnson (although he’d be loath to admit it) all belong to this category. David Cameron and Margaret Thatcher do not. 

The populist right in the U.K. accuses this class of being covert Gramscians, apparatchiks of “the blob”  pursuing a “long march through the institutions”  to achieve a “woke” cultural hegemony in defiance of a reformist Johnson government. In turn, the populist left organizes against a professionalized Blairite rump that is still present throughout the parliamentary Labour Party, as well as institutions like The Guardian, The New Statesman, the BBC, think tanks, and universities, which block it from ever taking power. Centrist commentators, for their part, bemoan the fact that governing elites have lost their common sense and adopted fringe ideas for electoral gain, while hypocritically attacking their enemies as “elites.”

Indeed, many centrists, have created a patronizing narrative that places the blame, not on the dominance of a stagnating elite cultural group and neoliberalism, but on a nefarious coalition between cynical politicians, Russian agents, and easily duped and undereducated electorates. Outside England, nationalist parties argue that centralized power is the fault of an English “Westminister Elite.” The success of the SNP in 2015 and Sinn Féin in 2022 proves that this critique has power. These interpretations of the malaise infesting British political life cannot all be right. Yet they reflect, in different ways, increasing concern about the severe concentration of power in the U.K. 

Symbolically, these interpretations also share an understanding that the reality described in Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier—an account of the interwar poverty that plagued the north—has been demolished and replaced with a high-speed rail link to Brighton: a mecca of the bohemian bourgeoisie and my hometown. The old and often powerful institutions of industrial mass democracy have died a hard death. Orwell saw the future of English socialism and democracy in Northern towns like Wigan; these were exotic places for a writer brought up in the leafy suburbs of Oxfordshire. Orwell describes them as locations marked by both poverty and cruelty, but also democratic institution-building and mutual aid.

However, the U.K’s political future now seems to reside in other ubiquitous spaces of modernity—delivery rider routes, ghost kitchens, Amazon warehouses, fulfillment centers, and large call centers. Indeed, once you realize that Wigan is landlocked and that its pier never existed, moving past nostalgia for the dynamics of 20th-century politics becomes easier. Just as Wigan’s pier is spectral, so are the old socialist strategies of industrial organizing. Radical politics needs to find people where they find themselves. Mass politics needs to organize in an atomized age: an uphill battle, considering the entropy collective institutions have suffered.

  

The old class structures I have outlined are still ubiquitous, seemingly ineradicable. Yet at the same time, they are entering a state of decay as forms of late capitalist atomization take hold across the country. The pace of change, driven by global capital, in places like London and Manchester is awe-inspiring: skyscrapers and sleek technology shoot up from the ground, and languages from across the world can be heard on any street corner. Yet at the same time, as studies have shown, a few dozen surnames still dominate England’s social and educational elite, as they have since A.D. 1170; social mobility has always been tightly constricted, both before and after the dawn of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution.

Throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries, the U.K. managed to preserve vestiges of its feudal structures while ruthlessly pursuing capitalist modernity across a technologically advanced world empire. Our Parliament building is an excellent example of this. Rebuilt between 1840-1876 by Augustus Pugin, the Palace of Westminster’s elaborate gothic cornices and folksy vernacular mock-medieval arches rose up along the Thames, while across the river the smoldering smokestacks of industrial capital digested resources and commodities from across the world.

What I am describing is a hyper-modern political economy straight-jacketed by a decrepit early modern state, little changed since the late 17th century—a dynamic the historian Perry Anderson has termed “Ukania Perpetua.” This British state has, according to Anderson (and Tom Nairn), consistently blockaded national (English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish) forms of modern bourgeoisie and proletarian democracy from developing. Instead, we are stuck with a non-national (British) Brahmin ruling class, linguistically and economically detached from the rest of the population.             

While the state stagnates, British class society continues its churn. The much-narrativized old (and usually white) working class still exists. But now, it often contains home and small-business owners, and its traditional ties to trade unions are fading fast. While the working class has managed to secure some economic capital over the last couple of decades, its means of gaining cultural capital have been decimated. The decline of working-class cohesion is reflected in the nationwide closures of community centers, youth clubs, bus routes, theaters, gig venues, and working associations. When you ask, you find there is a constant expression of cultural malaise and an exclamation that things are only getting worse.

Students at elite universities, a fetishized vehicle of geographical and social mobility, are still drawn from a tiny pool of ancient boarding schools that once had established relationships with select colleges. These institutions cannot be a mechanism for liberating whole populations from austerity and deindustrialization, no matter how many individual lives they change. We need avenues towards accessing dignified work and participation in public life that do not run through universities.

Paradoxically, at the same time, a broad swath of young people, women, and minority ethnic populations, who are often university-educated, face a diminishing quality of life, exploitative rent-seeking, and casualized labor conditions in a gig economy driven by tech and finance. These two groups, the old and new working classes, have been played off against each other by the Johnson government; they form the core constituencies of a facile “culture war,” its battle lines partly transposed from America. 

Keir Starmer, the new Labour leader, has fallen into Johnson’s trap, accepting the false binary the latter has drawn between these two constituencies. As a consequence, he is in danger of alienating everyone. Starmer has increasingly moved to abandon the broadly popular economic radicalism of the Corbyn project, while also attempting to ditch certain foreign policy attitudes on the IRA, NATO, the military, and Russia that were near-universally unpopular. He prevaricates on cultural issues, throwing bones to progressives and social conservatives, confusing both. By triangulating in response to Johnson—a cynical man of the upper-middle-class, who believes in nothing—Starmer risks mimicking him, reiterating this false dichotomy. 

(UPDATE: As of this publication, Monday the 6th of June, Boris Johnson faces a vote of no confidence from Conservative Party MPs, brought on, partly, by his supervision of late-night parties in Number 10 Downing Street during the height of the collective COVID lockdown. There is now a strong possibility that Johnson’s premiership might be toppled by his own cultural disconnection from British public life.)

The Labour Party has a chance to become a truly populist and left-wing project. It could serve the interests of exploited laborers in traditionally working-class professions, gig workers in cities, older, more prosperous working-class communities that have lost their sense of cultural pride, and young urban professionals from across the social spectrum—some of whom might happen to say “sofa” instead of “settee.” It must also rethink the British state, institute some form of federalism, and construct democratic institutions and politics closer to regional and national identities outside the Brahmin bubble.

All of these constituencies are contending with the edicts of a globalizing neoliberalism that has decimated living standards. The cultural capital carried within certain linguistic expressions should not be dismissed—but it must be recognized as an ornamental relic. Our linguistic peculiarities are an empty signifier, tied to a provincialized British elite that huddles at the margins of the American empire. Increasingly, this elite’s sole function is to service the money of far wealthier individuals from the global 1%. To bring together a multi-generation, multi-class, and multi-ethnic populist coalition, we will have to sacrifice the false consciousnesses we have inherited and foolishly clung to since the Middle Ages. As Orwell, paraphrasing Marx, argued in The Road to Wigan Pier: “For, after all, we have nothing to lose but our aitches.” ♦

 


Samuel McIlhagga is a freelance journalist, book reviewer, and writer based in the U.K. 

 

Cover image: J.M.W. Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 1834

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