1990s >> 1999 >> no-1141-september-1999

Greasy Pole: Prescott on class

Nicholas Soames is a Tory MP—the sort who is instantly at home in the club-like atmosphere of the House of Commons with its adolescent misbehaviour, its false camaraderie and its ravenous appetite for rumour. Soames is rich, privileged, secure. He speaks in a booming voice and is insultingly deferential or disparaging towards women. Claire Short, for example, is a natural victim for him. He likes to indulge all his appetites; the equally obnoxious MP Alan Clark tells of him taking up a lot of time during Agriculture Questions recommending “. . . an incredibly powerful new aphrodisiac he had discovered” (is this why people are elected to the Mother of Parliaments?) and on another occasion even the famously immoderate Clark was uncomfortable at the thought of how much he and Soames could spend on one meal in an exclusive restaurant.

To put it another way, Soames is an overweight, arrogant buffoon who, had he not been born into a very rich family, would have had difficulty in persuading an employer to give him a job stacking shelves in a supermarket. If he had got the job the other shelf-fillers would not have appreciated his “jokes”, which are manufactured and trumpeted out for the benefit of Soames rather than his defenceless listeners. For example, if Soames is in the House when John Prescott gets onto his feet he usually greets him with the cry: “Two gin and tonics please, Giuseppe.” This is supposed to be funny because it refers to the fact that in his early days, before he climbed the ladder of trade union officialdom, university student, MP and minister, Prescott was a waiter on an ocean-going liner. It is not amusing, especially for those who have heard it for the fortieth time. But perhaps it rattles Prescott, who recently got some unwelcome publicity about the fact that he no longer admits to being a member of the working class and instead lays claim to membership of that vague, indefinable, mysterious social strata called the middle class.

The story was ecstatically embraced by the media. After all Prescott has a reputation of being the only representative of Old Labour in the Cabinet—the only link with the days when the governments of Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan were following roughly the same policies as Blair but not so blatantly. As might have been expected the Sun led the pack with an interview with Prescott’s 89-year-old father in his wheelchair. Prescott senior is angry with his famous son for many reasons: “spiteful” was how he described him in a typical Sun headline. The father began his working life as a railway porter and ended it as controller of Liverpool Lime Street station. At some stage he fell out with his son who, he says, has not spoken to him civilly for three years. For 50 years he has been a “traditional” Labour Party member, from which we can infer that he does not approve of John Prescott’s apparent shame at his roots.

There is rather more to it than that—as there is to the whole business of which class John Prescott belongs to and why and what he feels about it. A former Labour Party leader in Hull—which has John Prescott as its MP—says that he “. . . bent over backwards to show he is middle class”. Bending over backwards seems to entail living in one of the biggest houses in the city, with turrets and decorated chimney pots, having two Jaguar cars and other trappings. All of this sits uneasily with Prescott’s pose as a rough, tough son of the proletariat. It makes him seem to want to forget his time as a waiter (except that Soames won’t let him) and to be ashamed of his class origins (which Soames will never be).

The inference of this is that shame—and therefore pride—should come into the issue of class. It is usual to hear Labour politicians who declare themselves to be working class stoutly asserting that they are proud of it. On the other hand Prescott, according to the Sunday Times of 18 July, is proud of being in another class—of “. . . having hauled himself up” from the proletariat depths. It is a mystery, why anyone should feel pride in being born into one class or another, which is something quite out of their control and not something they have achieved. That is why millions of people who may be proud of being workers try so persistently to remove themselves from the source of their pride by winning the lottery. The same goes for members of the ruling class; it is no achievement of theirs to be born of parents like Nicholas Soames or Rupert Murdoch or Jonathan Aitken.

This is typical of the confusion in which the matter of social class is embedded. Living in a larger house and running a couple of cars does not in itself raise someone into another class. Neither does earning a bigger wage. The roller-coaster of capitalism’s economy has recently brought thousands of people in this country sharply up against the fact that there is more to it than that. Thousands who thought that taking out a mortgage on a house made them middle class were deprived of that delusion by the reality of re-possession. Thousands who assumed they were middle class because they sat in a manager’s chair and drove a company car were forced to re-arrange their concepts about society when they got their redundancy notice.

A great deal of anguish might have been saved for these people through a proper understanding of capitalism’s class structure—what it is, how it operates and what it does to us. Simply—class is determined by a person’s economic standing and interests. Those who have to be employed—at whatever job—for a living are members of the working class. Their interests are the same as those of all other members of that class and opposed to those of the one other class, who as a class employ and exploit them. In this process capitalism’s class structure is protected and perpetuated.

Whether John Prescott understands this or not is another matter (although as he still describes himself as a socialist he ought to have at least an inkling of it—or did he not pay attention during his time at Ruskin)? He has made it almost to the top in government—hauled himself up so that he has a big say in organising the exploitation of workers like his dad to the enrichment and comfort of parasites like Nicholas Soames. Now that is something to be ashamed of.


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