It’s 9:30am. I sit in the library, fingers poised over computer keys. I have miraculously managed to leave Agnes Blackadder Hall before 10am in order to dive head first into an essay. The title has been typed, but the remainder of the screen looks back at me accusingly blank — but, alas! I cannot start. I am struck with a question that I have been dithering around since I arrived at St Andrews University, and in my frantic search for the answer, I text my father “Dad, what class AM I?!?”.
I had finally decided to face the question that had been playing on my mind since I first left my small home town in Fife six months ago. So, I stopped writing my essay and found myself in a place I had been many times before: staring into space in the library. The topic is not something I had considered much before I arrived at university. I put this largely down to the fact that everyone I had encountered thus far in life had not been all that dissimilar to myself, and yes, while there were variations in income, experience, and politics, I would never have considered these people to be on a different level or indeed, of a different “class” from myself.
This changed when I came to St Andrews and I gladly jumped into a new, diverse ecosystem of people. My opinions and preconceptions of the world were challenged. I had thought I had known people who were well travelled or had come from money. Oh boy, did I not! It made me question where I belonged amidst this diverse range of people.
Although it is undeniable that the concept of “class” has changed in Britain since its manufacturing heyday; that new class categories have emerged such as “the underclass” and the “liberal elite”; and that the traditional impact of social class on things such as voting behaviour has decreased, it nevertheless remains true that in general conversation, people still hold tight and identify with traditional class definitions and values.
But what is the problem? you ask; Why, Laura, are you having such a hard time determining which class you belong to? On paper, I have to admit that I am, despite my partiality to a good bit of Marxism, middle class: I spent half my school years in private education, and despite growing up surrounded by ex-mining towns, my neighbours made the daily commute to Edinburgh for work.
However, while on paper this may be true, in reality I have struggled to keep up the middle class appearances of many of my peers — I won’t be leaving university debt-free; my parents don’t have connections to the most influential people in their field; I don’t pronounce “yeah” as “yah”, and worst of all, I don’t even own a Barbour jacket.
So, how can I possibly be middle class if I don’t feel any affiliation with or possess all the nuances it truly takes to identify as middle class? My parents both come from traditional working class backgrounds: the children of tradesmen, and both the first in their respective families to go onto tertiary education. In fact, my parents today, particularly my father, still proudly identify as working class through and through and, as a result, have taught me all the nuances that come along with it such as putting “eh” at the end of sentences (much to my English teacher mother’s dismay), and a deep hatred of Margaret Thatcher the Milk Snatcher.
Speaking of Margaret Thatcher, I also feel a deep affiliation with the tradition of Scottish working class voting behaviour: a Labour vote, and since the centralist shifting of the party, an SNP vote (I guess this isn’t all that surprising given that I grew up a mere 15 minutes away from a street named after Yuri Gagarin and one of Fife’s only wards with a Communist councillor).
This has, however, not made me immune to associations by my peers with “Champagne Socialists”, and while I do undoubtedly find this amusing and can see where it comes from, I don’t find it true as I have never possessed the bubbled lifestyle to justify it. My phone pings in my hand. As I open my father’s response, I come to the conclusion that while class has changed, what hasn’t are the notions and stereotypes of social class in the public conscious.
My father reaffirms my suspicions: that I am, in fact, middle class on paper. But, he continues: Wayne Rooney is also middle class on paper, so too are the many Oxbridge and St Andrews educated Labour and SNP MPs and MSPs.
I close my freshly opened basket on Barbour.com – it appears I have been too hasty. He concludes, “Class isn’t just what appears on paper, it’s more complex than that — it’s a culture, it’s a state of mind. Also, Mum wants to know if you’ll be home this weekend so give her a call.”
Even with this nugget of wisdom upon my phone screen, I still was not clear about what class I am, although I did feel a step closer to establishing an answer. The crisis had been averted, and finally, the essay writing could begin.