What else

IssueFebruary - March 2024
Comment by Rebecca Elson-Watkins

The phrase ‘two-tier society’ has become a fairly commonplace one. We hear it in reference to healthcare, housing, education, and the North/South divide. But the phrase is wrong. British society has at least five tiers. Which tier of society you experience comes down to one thing in modern Britain. The same thing it has always come down to: social class.

We have the Ruling Class, the monarchies, the elite of the Conservative Party, we all know the sort. Unaccountable and untouchable; the Boris Johnsons, the prince Andrews, the Michelle Mones.

We have the true Middle Class, an ever-shrinking number of homeowners who are comfortable enough to not worry about paying the bills, and can maybe afford a few luxuries like private school for their children and private health insurance. This is what we are told is possible, if only we work hard enough. This is a lie, of course.

We have the Working Class, the vast majority. ‘Normal’ folx just looking for a fair wage for a fair job that won’t destroy their health or demand 70-hour working weeks. Since Thatcher’s Right to Buy decimated the social housing stock, the Working Class are increasingly at the mercy of private slumlords who prefer to maximise profits by renting a three-bedroom house out room by room as a ‘house in multiple occupation’ or HMO.

After nearly 14 years of Tory rule, the Working Class are now also at the mercy of a healthcare system that lies in tatters. Say I am a builder and I need a knee replacement. This is an ‘elective’ surgery.

Last year, over 10,000 people were waiting more than 78 weeks for elective surgeries.

Many people are so disabled by the conditions they need surgery for that they will be unable to work until after the recovery period.

Of course, if you have £11,000 – £17,000 to spare, you can skip the queue, get a knee replacement privately and get back to the building site. The consequences of being, potentially suddenly, unable to work are of course awful, and risk pushing members of the Working Class into another tier.

Those of us in that tier are usually here through no fault of our own. For me, it’s disability that put me here. Unable to work, I am dependent on the mercy of others for my physical existence. I am housed, but only because I have social housing. I have healthcare, but only because the NHS still exists.

I hesitate to name this tier, as many of the names historically attached to us have been less than kind, but we are what we are.

We are The Poor. I choose this Dickensian sounding title for a good reason – attitudes towards us have shifted little since his time. Scratch the surface and many of us are told, sometimes in these actual terms, that we are lucky to get what we are given as ‘charity cases’.

I’ve personally experienced this attitude when dealing with housing staff, social workers, legal aid lawyers and even our beloved NHS. It’s quite something to be told to be grateful for a year-long hospital waiting list, a mouldy home that is making you ill, or a substandard legal defence. Yes, they are better than nothing, but not what things should be, and not what is available, should you not be a member of The Poor.

Even more vulnerable are the homeless, asylum seekers, trafficked people, sex workers and anyone who falls into the category of ‘no recourse to public funds’.

These unfortunate souls experience the least mercy of any human existence in this country, and are often viewed as having brought their situations upon themselves – particularly in the right-wing press, where not reading the comment section can usually be considered an act of self-care.

It is a sorry situation that creates this system. As far as I can see, in one of the richest countries in the world, The Poor and the Even-More-Vulnerable exist only to keep the Middle and Working Classes afraid that things can and will get worse for them. The message is: ‘you too can be cold, hungry and homeless, so don’t complain and don’t ask questions, just keep working!’

This is not justice. This is not living. Our beautiful human existences deserve so much more. We can achieve so much more, together, if only we shed ourselves of this ugly class system and see the inherent value in every single human being.

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