Class Dismissed

By David Flin

I went into a public ‘ouse to get a pint o’ beer The publican ‘e up an sez: ‘We serve no redcoats here.’ Rudyard Kipling: Tommy

In previous articles, I’ve referenced historical attitudes between different classes, and how those with power and influence regarded and treated those without. Kipling captured the attitudes perfectly in his poem “Tommy”.

Such attitudes weren’t just limited to Britain at the turn of the 19th/20th Century. “It’s a rich man’s war, and a poor man’s fight” was a common comment about the American Civil War, with the rich and powerful deciding that war was necessary, but many finding ways of avoiding being involved in the fighting. It was ever thus; draft dodging during the Vietnam War wasn’t so easily available to those without family resources and contacts to draw on.

Then one has things like the Caste system in India, which takes some understanding if one is not familiar with it.

However, I’m most familiar with Britain, and so shall limit this article to covering that. Others may well chip in on the experiences elsewhere.

What has this got to do with history writing, either alternate or actual history? Quite simply, it affects interactions between people, and it sets up fault lines in society. When one clique separates itself from another, and constantly dehumanises members of those outside, and sets up potential conflicts. It sets up potential divisions within a country, which could be relevant should the country face an external threat.

The class system in Britain has shifted slightly over the years, although anyone who thinks it no longer exists really needs to look at the proportion of public school educated people filling the top ranks of professions that get to determine what laws are made and how they applied, and perhaps listen to middle-class millennials talking about Chavs.

The Class System of the Edwardian period is well-known, although as my article on commonly accepted myths indicates, sometimes what is known isn’t necessarily how it was.

Then the First World War came along, and it is generally thought that this transformed society. Well, up to a point, in the immortal words of Mr Salter. There isn’t enough space to go into the subtle shifts of the Class System, but the General Strike and the Great Depression give a flavour.

We fast forward over the inter-war period, WW2, the immediate post-war period, Suez, retreat from Empire. A lot of people assume that class barriers were coming down in the 1960s and onwards. This was, after all, the period described by Michael Caine as when it was cool to be working class. Well, not exactly. If you broke through a barrier and achieved success in your field, that was fine. However, for every Michael Caine or Bobby Moore or Twiggy, there were a dozen who didn’t quite make it, and hundreds of ordinary people who didn’t have any hope of making it big. For those who didn’t make it out, there wasn’t so many opportunities.

It was still a period where the ordinary people of the working class weren’t considered as being fully part of more civilised society. To take an example from my youth as a teenager in the East End of London during the 1960s. A local teenage girl was raped and murdered. It was reported to the police, who treated it as a big joke. After all, it was only a Dagenham girl, and not worth their wasting time on.

It was possible to break out of the swamp, but difficult. If you were just a normal sort of person, not particularly important or well-known in any field, and you’d managed to get out of the East End, then you learned to hide your natural accent, and talked with a more acceptable accent until it became automatic.

One can fast forward to the current time, and it is easy to see a major division between those with access to the reins of power and influence, and those outside that circle. The sheer contempt one hears in people’s voice when they talk about Chavs or Proles or whatever the term of disdain happens to be at any given moment is very noticeable. I speak as someone of mixed-race who was frequently called “Breed” in my younger days, and I notice the same intonation in Chav that I remember from Breed.

What has this to do with alternate history? As I alluded to earlier, divisions provide potential fault lines. This is relevant for both story-telling Timelines and historical timelines. For story-telling timelines, these divisions provide challenges for the characters. For historical timelines, where the emphasis is on the broader picture, and how events develop, knowing where fault lines lie can help with determining potential outcomes.

For example, say we’ve decided to write a timeline in which World War One never starts. We’ve immediately got a number of things that need considering. In Britain at the start of 1914, there were two dominant political disputes going on; Home Rule for Ireland, and Votes for Women. Both of these had violent aspects associated with them, and there were social divisions within the forces for change in both cases.

For example, the Suffragist movement had a clear division in that, in the words of one critic, it was not interested in Votes for Women; it was interested in Votes for Ladies. It’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it does hold enough truth for it to be important. Sufficient Society Ladies and middle-class women were confident that they deserved the vote, but fought, sometimes literally, against the idea that the lower orders of society, male or female, might deserve the vote.

Naturally, the authorities exploited that division, applying different treatment to protestors of different classes. By and large, this was accepted by organisations such as the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), which allowed working class women to be members, but not to hold committee position.

There were exceptions: In 1910, for example, Lady Constance Lytton attended a protest disguised as a seamstress, using the name Jane Warton. She was arrested, and served a sentence and treatment that demonstrated the differential punishment meted out to the different classes. Despite this, in 1914, Christabel Pankhurst expelled working women from the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), saying that: “Working women are of no value. They do not have the education, the morality, or the strength to equip them for the contest.”

Naturally enough, working women tended to become disillusioned, as they seemed to be getting harsher punishments, being expected to do the dirty work without any say in running things, and, if the movement was successful, they’d get no benefits out of it, because the demand was for voting rights equal to those of men, which meant no votes for them.

And lo and behold, when women did first get the vote, it was limited to those who owned property. Naturally, this was regarded as a victory, many of the organisations that had fought for women’s suffrage disbanded, as the cause had been won. It wasn’t until 1928, with the Equal Franchise Act, that the cause was finally won, and women got the vote on the same standards as men.

It was ever thus, and it is likely to be ever thus. I’ll leave the last word to Oh, What a Lovely War. It summarises the long-standing tradition of the difference between those at the top, who make the decisions and reap the credit and rewards, and those further down who do the actual work and deal with the costs of the decisions.

Forward Joe Soap’s Army, marching without fear, With our old commander, safely in the rear. He boasts and skites from morn till night, And thinks he’s very brave, But the men who really did the job are dead and in their grave.

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