IN 1997, John Prescott announced: “We are all middle-class now.” It sounded better coming from him than from his unarguably privileged leader, but the classless meritocracy, everyone jostling together under the “big tent”, proved as illusory as all previous such visions. And, today, politicians unwittingly acknowledge the naïvety of such ambitions by invoking a term that defies the laws of physics: “levelling up”.
The historian David Cannadine would like us to think beyond class when we look at both past and present, although in Cannadine on Class (Radio 4, Monday), he appeared to conclude that — far from escaping class distinctions — we have today made them more complex. The Great British Class Survey of 2013 identified no fewer than seven, ranging from the Elite to the Precariat; and, thanks to Pierre Bourdieu, we have learned that culture and education grant us “capital” that might enable us to spend above our purely financial weight in the class marketplace.
As the sociologist Mike Savage admitted, most people do not like to be put in boxes, and prefer to think that they have a unique story to tell. So much for class consciousness. But we are a good deal better at putting other people in boxes, and, when we hear Alan Johnson, after the last election, declaring that Jeremy Corbyn “couldn’t lead the working class out of a paper bag”, we not only know what he’s talking about, but acknowledge his right to say it.
The complexity of class identity and political affiliation is neither a contemporary nor solely a British phenomenon. In Composer of the Week: Beethoven — Spirit of the Age (Radio 3, Friday), we heard of the great composer’s shifting relationship with the Establishment. If the high point of that struggle — at least in creative terms — might be regarded as the “Eroica” Symphony, whose dedication to Napoleon was famously erased by a composer incensed by his hero’s assumption of Emperorship, then the low point might be works such as the cantata The Glorious Moment, whose text celebrates with nauseating sycophancy the Congress of Vienna.
The theme of this episode was Beethoven’s beliefs, which, like his politics, shifted during his life. And it is to the programme’s credit that we were not spared the duds: notably “Der Freie Mann”, a youthful work whose undoubtedly worthy text praising freedom of speech and belief cannot excuse the music, which sounds like a particularly earnest passage of Gilbert and Sullivan.
On the other hand, when the Berlin Wall came down, it was Beethoven’s Ninth that was played. But do you know what Angela Merkel did that day? To find out, you need to download No Such Thing as a Fish (released each Friday), the podcast that has achieved near-cult status. The format is simple: four clever people introduce a fascinating fact and laugh uproariously at one another’s jokes. If you can abide that and the pervasive odour of smugness, then it is worth it — especially to know that Merkel was at the sauna when the Wall came down.