Britain is not a classless society

In October the Cambridge Union invited the Socialist Party to take part in a debate on the question “This House Believes Britain is a Classless Society”. Our speaker was Pieter Lawrence who made the following contribution.

It is often claimed that there are many ways of looking at the question of social class, but socialists argue that we should use a method that tells us most about the world we live in. To begin with, it should be agreed that statistics on the ownership of property are a important guide. These confirm what we see around us. We would have to spend our lives wearing blindfolds not to notice that British society is scarred by great differences in property ownership and in our use and enjoyment of the good things of life.

But we should not see class solely through the distribution of property. Class is a social relationship that invades all our lives. Class has changed and developed throughout history, it is not a static thing. This indicates the possibility of not just changing it but of abolishing it altogether so that we can all enjoy what would be the benefits of a classless society.

The statistics are many but just a few will tell us a great deal. If we look up the web site on “Who Owns Britain” we find that in England and Wales almost 26 million acres of land is owned by just over 150,000 families or individuals. This is 0.28 percent (about a quarter of one per cent) of the population who own 64 percent of the land. If we take land owned by the Dukes of Buccleuch, Westminster and Northumberland we have just three individuals who jointly own 531,500 acres valued at just over £14.5 billion. Three persons would be lost in our meeting tonight but in fact this trio owns a very big chunk of the country.

At the other end of the scale, according to the Economist for (23 February this year), for the years 1999/2000, the number of children living in poverty in this country was 4.1 million. (Poverty being defined as children living in families receiving less than 60 percent of the average wage). What this means is sub-standard housing, poor conditions of life, poor diets and cultural deprivation. A study published by the Rowntree Foundation has said that 8.3 million of our population live in these circumstances and this is not improving with time. This 8.3 million living in poverty was 100,000 more than in 1996/97. How then, can we sensibly dispute that what these figures mean is that we continue to live in a deeply divided class society?

But we may agree on one thing. I trust that we would all at least prefer Britain to be a classless society. To be a class-ridden society is to create conflict and great problems. It is morally and materially indefensible. I assume that what we would prefer is that all people should be able to live their lives, free from the disadvantages of underprivilege and class injustice. To live in a classless society would be in all our interests. The freedom for every person to develop his or her skills and talents on equal terms could benefit everyone. This would enrich all our lives. So surely we agree that a classless society would be a basis for a true community of shared interests.

Now, if this is the case, as I’m sure it is, it places a great importance on the need to get our answer to the question of the debate right. If through complacency, or what we imagine might be self-interest, we choose to pretend that we now live in classless society when in fact we do not, then quite obviously we are in no position to think sensibly about how to achieve the truly classless society that would benefit us all. So, I want to argue how we can think and act constructively so we can escape class divisions. As we know, classification is one of the important means through which we understand the world and this is no less true for social class. Our understanding of class can help us to take charge of our destiny and enable us to create a better world.

This should be easily within our reach. Who will doubt that we are people with great talents? In science, technology, in art, design, and in our trades, skills and many other fields, we can look back on great achievements. So given our great talents why is our society in such a mess? Why do we live in a world of great problems which appear to be beyond our control? Why is our politics cursed with persistent failure and disillusion? Why does social class linger on and on when it is part of an outdated system? To find the answers to these questions we need to know how society works. Above all we must not allow any privileged interest or power group to prejudice or corrupt the serious work of our enquiry.

What is true is that an economic definition of class is manifest in the entire way we are organised as a society. It is fundamental to our explanation of how we produce and distribute wealth and the commercial motives that are involved. It helps tell us how the operation of the market puts profit before needs and places constraints on all our activities. Our lives and the quality of our society depends upon on production and on the services we can provide. An analysis based on economic class tells us who gets what from the pool of wealth that is available. It explains how a privileged class has accumulated great wealth and property and therefore explains the great social differences that we see about us.

I am not concerned here with what I regard as the trivia of the debate. I fully accept that not so long ago “toffs” were people who played golf and went on motoring holidays, touring the Continent. Nowadays, millions of us from all walks of life do these things. That tells us that working people are now able to enjoy a share of the extra wealth that they alone have created through the greater efficiency of their labour. But this in no way alters the economic, class relationship between capital and labour which dominates the way we live. At the point of production, the workers and capitalists who may be sharing a golf course in their leisure time remain in a relationship of conflicting economic interests which must always, whilst it continues, condemn our society to the class divisions of strife and to the many ugly comparisons that we see of poverty amidst luxury.

It is not just society in Britain that is class-ridden. Regardless of the various political forms they may take, whether they be based on private ownership, or the state capitalist regimes that recently reigned in Russia and Eastern Europe, or the state systems of China and places like Cuba, the class system is a world system and it is in deep trouble with many threats to life.

Every country operates a market system that puts profits before need. And as a result, all over the world the great skills and talents that define our genius are constrained by the tawdry limitations of market capacity or what can be sold. The point is surely to release these great talents for the benefit of all people. That should be the main object of our society–so how do we get there?

It is right to feel outrage at the great class divisions that exist but socialists do not come to this debate in a negative spirit of class hostility. Our aim is to end it. Class conflict has gone on for too long, there has been too much strife and we have to heal the wounds of history.

The way to end our class society and to reconcile our interests is through common ownership.

By this we mean that all people should stand in equal relationship with each other about the means of producing wealth, about natural resources and our entire world. On this classless basis, without the market system, in all the important activities of life, citizens of a genuine community of interests will be able to co-operate to serve the needs of all people. We are not speaking here only of our material interests. We have an urgent need to dignify our community relationships with social equality so as to enhance the quality of every part of life. As I have emphasised, a classless society based on common ownership is the only way to win freedom for the whole of mankind.

The motion “This House believes Britain is a classless society” was lost by 31 votes in favour to 284 against.

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