A matter of ambition: re-visiting class in 21st century Britain

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A matter of ambition: re-visiting class in 21st Century Britain.

The rise of the BNP, the loss of the support of the traditional working class voter and an election in the offing. Suddenly, in the UK at least, class is back on the agenda. Eleven years into a Labour Government and it takes an independent "panel of experts" to inform us that social mobility is on the decline, the top professions are increasingly out of the reach of all but the most affluent and informal recruitment systems, such as internships and work placements, are becoming a back-door to top jobs for the well-off and better-connected. What the present working class needs, it seems, is a good old-fashioned dose of aspiration. After all, as Simon Carr wrote in the Independent last week: "The middle class has never been more open, more accessible, more permeable.........the only thing you have to do to become middle class is to do what the middle class does......The belief that education matters. The desire to know things. The desire to get on in life. The urge to have your children do better than you have done......."1 So straightforward: so uncomplicated. How could today's working class have failed to grasp such a basic tenet? Is it that they simply don't have the ambition, the determination or the drive of some of those 1950s counterparts? Or is it, as it has always been, more complex than that? In the search for some clues, I found myself re-examining my own childhood in post-war Britain. My grandparents, on both sides, were first or second generation immigrants. On one side from Ireland, on the other from the Russian, Lithuanian borders. My maternal grandfather worked in a wood yard in East Street, in Leeds. I don't know what he did there because I never met him. I do know he was gassed in the First World War, from which he never properly recovered, and that he had the most perfect white feet my mother had ever seen. He kept them like this by bathing them every night in a bowl of hot water and potassium permanganate.



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