22 JULY 1995, Page 26


Whitehall has finally succeeded in destroying the measure of the English class system


other rope tethering Britain to its past has frayed and snapped. According to the Office of Population Censuses and Sur- veys, the 'social classes' into which every politician, rharketing director and saloon bar Coriolanus has divided Britons for decades are out of date and must be itanged. They no longer reflect reality.

I always found a genteel security in any system that puts the poorly paid clergyman and don in class one, while a top chef is firm- ly in class three (the old classes A and Cl). Chemists were in class one, while I shared class two with publicans, film producers and nursing supervisors. Graphic designers made it to class two, but fashion photographers were condemned to the 'skilled, non-manual' class three. This harmless game was not with- out its humour. The statisticians shamelessly put themselves alongside judges and barris- ters in class one, for no other. reason, it seems,. than that they drew up the list.

Over the years Whitehall struggled to rid the lists of the connotation of 'class' and con- centrated on occupation. This made matters worse. Most of the occupants of that gilded tower, class one, earned less than classes two or three, so the distinction was largely one of education and social status. Bluntly, people in dais one had a good education and talked posh, but they no longer spent big, or differ- ently from other classes. Lady Thatcher was right to go for the C2s (now class three 'man- ual'). They were the ones with their fingers on the nation's economic pulse, if not in its till. As for the 40 per cent of the population with 'no occupation', 'this so-called under- class, or sttident class or housewife class, lit- erally did not count.

This classification was first drawn up in 1921. Research for the OPCS suggests that today the 'official classification merely declares the public stereotype of different jobs — thus professionals are classier than managers and managers classier than the . Self-employed. It no longer reflects income patterns hand is heavy with social bias. Time ivas when an ear for a vowel and an eye for tweed could tell the public-school 'profes- sional' from the grammar-school' 'execu- tive'. A shopkeeper worth his salt could sep- arate the creditworthy white collars of. Cl from the more dodgy C2s. A good foreman could tell a 'skilled manual' of D from the navvies of E. The rich man was in his castle and the poor man at his gate. These are the distinctions of Hovis Britain, of sepia prints Ind settled government. I suppose they have to go, but I shudder at what may come instead. Class distinction has fallen victim to that sceptre of the Major era, the league table. 'God hath numbered thy kingdom and finished it,' says the Good Book. In future, the OPCS is seeking categories that more accurately reflect the real world, in other words put the nation's workforce in more orderly ranking. But once unlock the existing code of 800 'occupations' and 18 'classes' into which British workers have long been divid- ed and there can be only one outcome: ranking by income. That is the one occupa- tional league table that can make sense.

Foul- years ago the Government initiated the league table craze by ranking schools by examination results. These were attacked as unfair. They rewarded attainment rather than effort, telling the world which schools were 'good' by one national standard, not which were likely to do best by a particular child. The statisticians pressed on. They drew up league tables for police forces, for hospital mortality rates, for university degrees, for courts and for local authorities.

Some of these were crass. The police tables measured police car 'speed of response' and sent accident rates soaring. In school tables a minor variance in GCSE results could send a school a hundred places up or down. An instant casualty, I wrote at the time, would be school sport, since the then education secretary, John Patten, had

Recent photograph of Boris Yeltsin

not thought to measure it. Nor had he mea- sured any other extracurricular activity, such as music or community service. It is small wonder that all have been butchered. In the past decade some 5,000 playing fields have been sold by schools concentrating on activities that show up in league tables.

In a spectacular U-turn, John Major last week told the schools to buy the playing fields back again. He has decided, like Mao in his final days, that all children 'need sport'. Sports results are to be published and tabulated. The athletocracy is reborn and fused into the national system for edu- cation classification.

No longer is British public administration based on `whate'er is best administer'd is best'. It is rooted in whatever is most easily quantifiable. Since exam and sports results are quantifiable, they matter. The same goes for hospital waiting times, police car speeds and degree classes. Similarly the new OPCS classification will have to rely on income, because income is measurable. 'Class' thus becomes a function of money. The South London cocaine boss in gold jewellery and BMW soars to the top of the league, passing the chemistry professor (and the statistician) on the way down. The humble clergyman will share class five with couriers, goods porters and 'all other labourers'.

League tables must be the crudest mecha- nism of social control. Like those other sta- tistical lies, retail prices and unemployment figures, they can be orchestrated by minis- ters at will. They can dance to a pre-pro- grammed tune and portray society as gov- ernment wishes it to be portrayed. The Sunday Times has already pioneered the list culture by publishing the names, neatly ordered, of what it claims are the hundred richest persons in the land. Given the co- operation of the Inland Revenue, there is no reason why the OPCS should not follow. Our occupational ranking could be coded onto the proposed new identity cards and our spot on the great league table of 50 mil- lion Britons could be ordained (and leaked to credit agencies and insurance salesmen).

Mr Major's reputation as train-spotter to the nation will be assured. This will be the statistician's answer to the human genome project. The Lord has not just numbered the kingdom, he has weighed its citizens in the balances — and doubtless found many wanting. All this while Orwell slept.

Simon Jenkins writes for the Times.