Is England really the most class-ridden country under the sun?

“England is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly.”

 

These immortal words were uttered by George Orwell, author of the iconic novel “1984” and one of the most influential British writers of the 20th century, in 1941. And they have, it must be said, contributed to one of the most enduring stereotypes of English life. But just how true are they today?

 

Before we even start, “social class” is, it seems to me, a bit of a loaded term these days. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair tried hard to persuade us all during his tenure (1997-2007) that such a thing no longer existed in modern Britain, siding instead with the US preference for money being the key differentiator between social groupings rather than the more traditional blood and background.

 

Tony Blair
Tony Blair

While this stance was underpinned by New Labour’s aims in moving the Party to the centre ground of politics and keeping the hard left in its place by positioning old ideas of “class war” as irrelevant and old-fashioned, that didn’t mean to say the notion of class disappeared completely. Instead it just appeared to morph in line with other changes in society, not least the progressive de-industrialisation of the UK economy which made traditional delineations less relevant.

 

So in order to get a better handle on what was happening, the BBC commissioned a massive survey in January 2011 – one of the largest ever studies on class in the UK, in fact. Some 160,000 members of the broadcaster’s audience took part in the questionnaire, the results of which were analysed by sociologists Mike Savage from the London School of Economics and Fiona Devine from the University of Manchester.

 

And their findings, which were published in the journal Sociology a couple of years later, were interesting. Responses to questions based on ‘economic capital’ (income, the value of home and savings), ‘cultural capital’ (cultural interests and activities) and ‘social capital’ (the number and status of people they knew) revealed that the three traditional social classes in Britain – upper, middle and working – had actually expanded to seven.

 

Even though people still tended to think they belonged to a certain class on the basis of their job or income, only 39% of participants truly fitted into traditional middle or working class stereotypes if cultural and social capital were also taken into consideration, indicating that, in category terms at least, things are much more fluid than they once were.

 

On the other hand though, the evidence still suggests that privilege will out. According to a study undertaken by a couple of economists, Professor Gregory Clark and Dr Neil Cummins, at the start of 2015, attempts to improve social mobility in the UK over the last 150 years have failed miserably.

 

In their research, they tracked 634 rare surnames such as Pepys, Bigge and Nottidge, to understand how wealth had been passed down through the generations since 1850, dividing 18,869 people into three categories in the process – rich, prosperous and poor. They discovered that not only were the descendants of the wealthy in 1850 still rich today, but they continued to live longer than average, were more likely to attend Oxford or Cambridge, reside in expensive areas and join professions such as doctors or lawyers.

 

In spite of the introduction of wealth taxes in the early twentieth century, the advent of mass education and the opening up of universities and professions to those outside of the elite in a bid to even things up a bit, social mobility rates have changed not “one iota”, Clark and Cummins attest.

 

Inequality and static social mobility

 

“There is no more popular political programme than that which calls for enhanced social mobility,” they wrote. “Our data suggests there is also no programme more guaranteed to fail.”

 

As a result, in order to create a more equal society, the only answer was to “do it directly, by taxing the rich and subsidising the poor”, Clark says. There is no other remedy in his view.

 

Such findings would appear to be backed up by other studies too. Research by The Sutton Trust, a charity that supports projects providing educational opportunities to underprivileged children, revealed earlier this year that a privately educated elite continues to dominate the country’s professions. Whether we’re talking about law, politics, medicine or journalism, a public (confusingly for non-Brits, this is the term used elsewhere for private) school education undoubtedly makes you much more likely to reach the upper echelons of public life in Britain, it seems.

 

Eton College
Eton College

So although only 7% of the population attend fee-paying schools – compared with the 88% who go to comprehensives – just under three quarters of pre-eminent judges working in the high or appeal court today were privately educated. So were 71% of the top military brass, 61% of top doctors, 51% of leading print journalists and just under a third of politicians.

 

But as Sir Peter Lampl, chair of The Sutton Trust, aptly points out, sailing to the top is not just about having the money do so. “As well as academic achievement, an independent education tends to develop essential skills such as confidence, articulacy and teamwork, which are vital to career success,” he says.

 

As a result, Lampl recommends opening up private schools to all pupils based on merit rather than money as well as providing more support for very able pupils in state schools.

 

But sadly, it doesn’t seem as if the UK’s high levels of inequality are likely to change any time soon. In fact, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, for the first time in almost a decade, the situation is getting worse rather than better.

 

This scenario is, unfortunately, mainly due to rapidly increasing house prices, particularly in London and the South East, driven by the Bank of England’s attempts to prop up the British economy following the 2008 recession using policies such as low interest rates and quantitative easing.

 

In the years between July 2012 and June 2014 when the research was conducted, these policies led to the richest 20% of households having 117 times more assets than the poorest 20% compared with 97 times two years ago.

 

Moreover, it appears that wealth and income fault lines are increasingly running along generational lines. So while a quarter of people aged 55 to 64 live in households with more than £1 million worth of assets, the same is true of only 4% of 25 to 34 year olds – a fact that simply can’t bode well for the future, whichever way you look at it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Durham: An historical theme park in waiting?

Durham, the county in the North East of England where I grew up, is barely recognisable these days. Gone are the pits and the slag heaps and the steel works to be replaced with fecund sweeps of arable crops, fluffy, white sheep and trees – lots and lots of trees.

Durham Cathedral
Durham Cathedral

But even though most of the ugly scars that pitted the landscape are gone, that’s not to say the county has buried its industrial heritage in the same careful manner – in fact, it’s still very proud of it, and rightly so. Because without the coal riven from its mines by men who sweated, suffered and, in some instances, even died to produce it, the Industrial Revolution could never have taken place.

 

So, aptly, memories of the past are still held onto and treasured not only by individuals, but also by organisations such as Beamish. Beamish is an open air, working museum that provides fascinating insights into the daily life and employment of North Easteners during the early 1800s and 1900s, and one, it must be said, that gets bigger and better each year.

 

But a former pit village in East Durham called Horden is also doing its bit to honour its heritage. The Parish Council has just bought an iconic sculpture of a nine-foot tall miner for the princely sum of £19,000 in a bid to try and spark some interest in the place and promote regeneration – something that should also be helped by the tourism generated by Durham Heritage Coast Partnership’s attempts to conserve and enhance the nearby flora- and fauna-rich coastline.

 

Fittingly though the statue has been called “Marra”, an old pitmatic word for a good mate or member of a crew of miners who worked together and watched each other’s backs. Pitmatic, meanwhile, for those not in the know, is a local dialect that was used extensively in mining communities across Northumberland and Durham.

 

It’s based on the ancient, traditional language of the countryside, which the men were still using when they migrated to the pits to work in the 17th and 18th centuries, simply adapting it to their new requirements.

 

So this language of theirs was, and is, special in that it had retained lots of words from the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons and the Old Norse of the Vikings – Durham, belonging as it did to the ancient Kingdom of Northumbria, had been part of the Danelaw.

 

Although pitmatic was predominantly a male dialect, the language of a working pitman in fact, lots of the more general-purpose rather than work-specific words were also employed by the rest of the community, and were certainly still in common parlance when I was a kid – people were still eating their “bait” (packed lunch), for instance, poking “spelks” (splinters) out of their fingers with a needle, and walking through fields of “claggy auld clarts” (sticky old mud) after the rain.

 

Marras

 

As the old miners continue to die off though, pitmatic’s usage is now, sadly, almost as defunct as the pits that shaped it, and you hear its descriptive, onomatopoeic phrases employed less and less these days, particularly by the young ones.

Banner at Miner's Gala, Durham
Banner at Miner’s Gala, Durham

But anyway to get back to the point, the Marra in question is particularly emotive because he has his heart ripped out. A telling metaphor to illustrate what the demise of mining meant to the North East, it is particularly poignant in a place like Horden.

 

Horden Colliery was one of the biggest mines in the country, employing 4,000 men at its peak before being closed in 1987, two years after the miners’ strike.

 

The statue itself, meanwhile, which was unveiled in Horden Welfare Park on Saturday 21 November, was the brainchild of local artist, Ray Lonsdale.

 

The idea behind the piece was apparently a news story revealing that a statue of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose regime was responsible for wiping out the British coal industry without putting any plans in place to support the communities dependent on it, was to be erected in Westminster to celebrate the good she had done for the country. But as Lonsdale drily put it: “That’s not the way it’s seen up here.”

 

Thankfully though, after years of neglect from Westminster by parties of all political stripes, Durham now seems to have got itself a champion in the shape of Jonathan Garnier Ruffer. On paper Ruffer, a financier who speaks the Queen’s English and made his millions in London, may not be an obvious advocate. But he was actually born in the North East in a village near Middlesbrough on Teesside and so was aware of the issues.

 

A committed evangelical Christian and member of the Church of England, he credits English merchant and philanthropist William Rathbone VI as the inspiration for his good deeds. But of what do such good deeds consist?

 

They’re essentially about transforming Bishop Auckland, a pleasant, if somewhat deprived post-industrial market town 12 miles south west of Durham City, a Unesco World Heritage site, into a huge historical theme park to pull in tourists and help regenerate the area, not least by creating lots of jobs. And the latter is vital in a region where unemployment stubbornly remains the highest in the country at 8.1% compared to the UK national average of 5.6%.

 

Historical theme park

 

Although in 2012 Ruffer had never even visited Bishop Auckland before, he’d heard that the Church Commissioners, who manage the Anglican Church’s finances, were selling a dozen 17th century paintings by Spanish artist Francisco Zubaran. They hung in Auckland Castle, private home of successive Bishops of Durham for 900 years, who incidentally from 1071 until 1836 were unique in England for being Prince Bishops – and the county is still known as the “Land of the Prince Bishops” to this day.

Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland
Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland

Given the strategic position of the county, which acted as a buffer between England and its enemies in Scotland, the Prince Bishops were awarded secular powers that enabled them to raise their own armies, mint their own coins and levy their own taxes – as long as they stayed loyal to the king and diligently performed their role in protecting the country’s northern frontier, that is.

 

Anyway, Ruffer felt that the Zubaran paintings should stay in the region and so he bought them, and the castle they were hung in, for the tidy sum of £15 million. But he didn’t stop there.

 

He’s now not only restored the castle and opened it up to the public as a tourist attraction, but also purchased the site of the little-known but extremely important Roman fort of Vinovia or Binchester nearby, dubbed “The Pompeii of the North”. The aim is to make it into a major heritage destination too.

 

But Ruffer’s piece de resistance is his decision to set up a £100 million historical leisure park on a 115-acre site in the shadow of Auckland Castle. Also in the offing is a Night Show, inspired by the internationally renowned one at Puy du Fou in the Vendee region of the Loire in western France.

 

The open air light show, which will operate as a not-for-profit venture, will dramatise 2,000 years of North Eastern history and, with a cast of 600 volunteers, will apparently resemble the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony – except it’ll be about Viking invasions, Roman gladiators and the like.

 

As of spring 2016, the objective is to put on 30 Night Shows per year and to pull in 6,000 visitors with each one. While the complementary historical theme park itself won’t actually open until 2020, the Show is expected to create 10 full-time jobs initially, rising to 300 by 2024.

 

But plans also include the creation of an Eleven Arches Academy – Eleven Arches being the name of the former golf course, which is crossed by the Newton Cap railway viaduct complete with its eponymous number of archways – which will train 300 young volunteers annually between the ages of eight and 25 in the key skills required to put on the spectacular. These include sound, lighting, pyrotechnics and set construction.

 

So with all of this great work in mind, all I can say is that Ruffer seems to me to be a git canny gadge who’s done hees bit sel’ and hees new hyem proud. Champion.

 

 

 

 

 

British railways: The march of the machines

When I was a kid, I always loved a nice jaunt from my then home-town of Durham in the North East of England to nearby Newcastle-upon-Tyne by train.

Although only a short 20-minute journey away, it was one filled with anticipation and excitement as it always preceded an adventure of some kind in the big city. And no matter how many times I passed it, it always gave me a thrill to see the iconic Tyne Bridge, which was built by the same guys from Middlesbrough as the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia and to a very similar design – essentially that of Hell Gate Bridge in New York City on which they were both modelled.

 

Tyne Bridge
Tyne Bridge

After living in London and the South East and undertaking hellish commutes and other assorted nightmare trips for years though, I can quite honestly say that the novelty of train travel has quite worn off. But that doesn’t mean to say that I’m not interested in what happens to the railways, which, even in this age of the autocratic automobile, remain an important means of getting both people and goods around the country in a relatively environmentally-friendly way.

So it was with some curiosity that I learned from my dad, who knows about such things, of a huge change going on in how our railways are managed and run. In what is being billed as the biggest shift since steam trains were abolished in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Network Rail, the entity responsible for looking after the UK’s rail infrastructure, is going to centralise and automate the country’s signalling operations, axing thousands of jobs and saving millions of pounds in the process.

The move will result in more than 800 Victorian-era and still surprisingly mechanical, trackside signal boxes – 89 of which have listed status in England alone – being consolidated into 12 modern-day, high tech Rail Operating Centres (ROC) in places as far-flung as Cardiff, York, Edinburgh and Romford by 2029.

The move forms part of Network Rail’s so-called National Operating Strategy, which is intended to try and improve both the capacity and performance of our railways while at the same time cutting the costs of running them – by an estimated £1.6 billion, in fact, once the Strategy is fully implemented and which one can only vainly hope will be translated into cheaper ticket prices.

But according to Michael Rhodes, author of “Resignalling Britain”, a recent supplement from Mortons Media Group, which publishes the Railway Magazine, it is these very hopes of cost reduction that are actually top of the agenda rather than any real desire to enhance the passenger experience by making things run more smoothly.

And the easiest way to achieve such goals, of course, is for Network Rail to try and automate all of its many troubles away. Which in this instance means introducing a European Railway Traffic Management System based on two components.

Impact of automisation

The first is a European Train Control System (ETCS), which will enable each vehicle to know exactly where it is on the network and to send that data back to its local ROC on a continuous basis. The ETCS will also enable in-cab signalling – and it is this particular little innovation that will make trackside signal boxes surplus to requirements.

All of this information will then be fed into a new Traffic Management System, which will help operators both optimise network capacity and the movement of trains around that network, particularly if trouble strikes anywhere. The aim here is to minimise delays by an anticipated 20% and improve the accuracy of passenger information at the same time.

“It is this Traffic Management System that looks certain to bring the biggest savings,” Rhodes says. “As train operating companies levy heavy penalties for delays, Network Rail can potentially reduce these fines substantially using TMS.”

But as ever with these things, there will be human casualties as part of the shift too, with the number of signalmen employed across the UK likely to fall from 5,000 to 500 over the coming years.

As Rhodes points out, “the driving force behind the ROC strategy is, of course, the savings on salaries”, otherwise known as cutting operational expenditure. He estimates that if 4,500 jobs with an average salary of £30,000 a year are axed, it adds up to a substantial “potential saving of £135 million per annum”.

Other hefty savings will also emerge from no longer having to repair and renovate ageing signal boxes, which when taken together with staff wage bills had become an unwanted expense amounting to hundreds of millions of pounds each year.

Signal box
Signal box

But the move in more human terms will, sadly, lead to the disappearance of a way of life that goes back over 100 years along with its traditional paraphernalia of manual crossing gates, paraffin lamps in the signals and such like – a heritage that many who grew up loving the railways will feel an inevitable nostalgia for.

On the other hand, confirmed materialists may be wondering just what all of the fuss is about – why worry about a few thousand jobs going over the next few decades when one in six UK steel workers are losing their livelihoods now and the demise of the British steel industry is widely feared to be imminent?

The rise of AI

But the move is an interesting one, not least for what it points to in terms of future employment trends. According to a report by Oxford University and management consultancy Deloitte, a massive 35% of existing UK jobs will be wiped over the next two decades due to computerisation and the rise of artificial intelligence (AI)-based machines.

AI is a particularly clever kind of software, often referred to as a robot, that can learn what to do based on patterns found in data – in a similar way that a person might learn to play music by ear. So it can be trained to provide particular responses based on the information that it reads – for example, it could be programmed to monitor and deduce whether you are likely to have a heart attack by studying your vital signs over a given period of time.

This means that in some areas, AI-based systems are simply more effective and efficient – and cheaper, of course – at performing labour-intensive, mundane admin tasks than humans. Such activities might include sifting through CVs based on pre-defined parameters for recruitment purposes, or even answering call centre queries and advising remote workers in the field – as is the case with an avatar called Amelia who is currently being trialled at a handful of big corporations such as NTT Group, Shell Oil and Accenture.

 

Robot
Robot

But the implication of all this is that, in the same way that computer automation did for lots of blue-collar jobs in the past, so AI-based automation will hammer white-collar employment.

Some commentators have even claimed that the technology will spark off another Industrial Revolution, with all of the dislocation and social upheaval that this implies.

But others are more sanguine. They believe that AI systems will simply supplant particular roles and tasks that are widespread today, with low-skilled workers, as ever, bearing the brunt.

On the bright side though, other previously unthought-of, higher skilled jobs will inevitably emerge from the ashes to save at least some people’s day. Who would have thought such positions as digital marketer or data scientist would have existed only a few years ago, for example?

And so the march of progress continues, it seems. Which is fine – as long as we don’t end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater, of course.