On pasties, poshness and petrol: The new language of class in the UK

On both sides of the Atlantic we have become used to the deployment of proxies for class in political language, but in the UK just recently this has taken a new turn with the political scandal that is ‘Pastygate.’ Now this isn’t a scandal to rival the break-in at the Watergate building, nor is it one to bring down the UK government. Pastygate refers to decision taken by the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne to impose Value Added Tax (VAT) on Cornish Pasties when they are heated above ambient room temperature. I know what you are thinking: Sherry has uploaded the wrong blog this week.  But bear with me.

The uproar around Pastygate centred on the fact that this was widely seen as another attack on the working class, insofar as it is they who tend to buy the humble warmed pasty. With VAT running at 20% this was an inflation-busting rise on a working-class fast food staple.  Politicians of left and right have been falling over themselves to be seen eating pasties in the last month, or struggling to remember when they last consumed one, in order to demonstrate their common touch.

At the same time, the budget also saw a widely criticised cut in the top rate of income tax. The Treasury viewed this measure as simply tidying up tax anomalies, but many have read it as part of a bigger narrative of a government of the elite out of touch with ordinary people. Taken together the two tax moves have been woven in to an emerging story that has at its heart class, which we will pick up later.

But first, petrol! British petrol tanker truck drivers have balloted for industrial action over their conditions of service, health and safety fears, and concern over a race to the bottom in terms of wages.  The big oil companies have outsourced the delivery of fuel to gas stations, and the competitive market has seen a wide deterioration in working conditions. Government ministers, while condemning the looming strikes, urged motorists to fill up their tanks while they had the chance, and one even suggested filling up jerry cans to store in the garage.  Roundly condemned by the fire service and the media, the minister involved was portrayed as elitist and out of touch, in part because of the assumption that everyone in Britain would have a garage. The advice caused a fuel shortage as the pumps ran dry as well as a run on jerry cans.

The cumulative effect of these and other stories – apart from the humorous relief it has given to people struggling through a double dip recession and dire unemployment figures – has been a sense that this is a government run by an out of touch elite. Indeed, one of Prime Minister David Cameron’s own party rounded on him and the Chancellor just last week. Maverick Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) Nadine Dorries described both Cameron and Chancellor Osborne as “Two arrogant posh boys who don’t know the price of a pint of milk” with “no remorse, no contrition and no passion to want to understand the lives of others, and that is their real crime.”

George Gideon Oliver Osborne used to be just Gideon Oliver.  He describes his decision to change his name to George at age 13 as “his one act of rebellion.”  Osborne is the son of a baronet and Felicity Alexandra Loxton-Peacock. A multimillionaire, Osborne, like Cameron, enjoyed an elite education at private school followed by Oxford University, where both enrolled in the Bullingdon Club, an elite university dining club founded over 200 years ago. Membership elections are held twice a year. Successful new members are visited in their rooms and expected to consume the contents of an entire tin of Colman’s powdered English Mustard.  The rooms are then “trashed” as a symbol of their election. Club members dress in sky blue and ivory colored tailcoats, the whole ensemble costing in excess of $5700. A now infamous picture shows Cameron and other members of the club posing on the steps of a grand building at Oxford.  This image reemerges from time to time and has haunted “Dave” as an unwelcome reminder of his far from ordinary background.

At the beginning of his premiership, Cameron notably said that “we were all in this together,” referring to the collective struggle to endure the greatest peacetime recession in living memory. Deliberately invoking the spirit of the Blitz, he attempted to conjure up a society suffering in equal measure – one with a degree of classlessness. In contrast, the furor over pasties, petrol, and poshness has popularized an image of a group of wealthy elites waging a class war on those below them. The effect, I think, has been – like 1 percent versus the 99 percent slogan of the Occupy Movement in the U.S. — to separate off the elite from an admittedly very diverse mass  – the middle and working class and the unemployed who perhaps share little in common apart from not being part of this uber-elite. And despite Cameron’s effort to invoke classlessness, the language of class has re-emerged in popular discourse, whether it refers to the upper class or to the working and middle classes who perhaps see themselves as having more in common than has been assumed for decade or more.

This new class discourse is driven by the cumulative effect of cuts in government spending, which are causing a huge retrenchment in all kinds of state services provided by central and local government.  While the impact has already been profound, conservative estimates suggest that so far we have experienced just 10% of the full cuts, meaning many more jobs in the public sector as well as numerous services are still to be lost over the next few years. Crucially, this impact is being felt by working and middle class families – either directly in terms of  lost jobs or in the form of public services once assumed to be safe.

At the same time, because of the economic situation, being working class is no longer a pariah state. Equally important, serious questions are being raised about growing and profound income inequality in the UK. In the local elections held at the beginning of May the Conservatives did very badly and commentators in part explained this through the government being viewed as out of touch by the electorate. While pasties aren’t on the menu of the Bullingdon club it seems we are (almost) all pasty eaters now!

Tim Strangleman

Tim Strangleman is a Sociologist at the University of Kent and co-author of the  textbook, Work and Society: Sociological Approaches, Themes and Methods.

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2 responses to “On pasties, poshness and petrol: The new language of class in the UK

  1. Pingback: Working-Class Blues | Working-Class Perspectives

  2. Over a hundred years ago in the early days of Labour, Will Crooks MP said “Labour representation is quite a natural result of the failure of rich people legislating for the poor.” Things haven’t changed much. I read that here: http://www.jimsbooksite.com

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