It was once possible to tell what class a person belonged to by the clothes he wore. (I shall use the word ‘he’ because, in general, I am talking about a male-dominated society.) Hence, there was a broad division of ‘white collar’ people and ‘blue collar’ people. There was also a general assumption that the interests of the two classes were diametrically opposed. Thus, there was a ‘class war’. But it was never that simple – there were working class people with conservative views – and who knew their place in the pecking order – ‘working class Tories’. This was exemplified, for example, by the butler in the TV series, Upstairs Downstairs.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

In the UK, there was the cloth cap, and other indications of class – the principal one being accent. This was evidence of schooling and breeding. In the Great War of 1914-18, there were ‘Pals battalions’. This was where men from the same shop floor all joined up together – the Pals battalions were generally working class. Robert Graves, in Goodbye to All That, records how the officers – in the first years of the War, generally drawn from the upper classes – had great difficulty in understanding what the men were saying. There was a working class language – especially in the north of England. (As the War ground on and the casualty lists grew longer, men with provincial accents became officers – the first sign of class breakdown.)

By the late 70s, the working class or provincial accent was accepted in the UK. Such people as Melvyn Bragg, Michael Parkinson and Michael Caine helped things along; and now a regional or class accent on the radio or the TV is a distinct advantage. The working class Tory – for example, Alf Garnett – also became acceptable, even loved.

In America, the formal class divisions were never there as they had been in Europe and, through the availability of credit, American workers were encouraged to purchase the fruits of their own labours. Thus, the consumer society was born. (Archie Bunker was a good example of the American version of the working class Tory. Archie would have been a dyed-in-the-wool George W. Bush man.)

In Australia, the working class clothes came, but the accent did not. Well, that’s not quite true. On the radio and TV, what was known as ‘BBC Standard English’ was obligatory. The ABC played its part in the ‘cultural cringe’. What is noticeable about old TV now are the toffy accents.

The insignia of class – the cloth cap, the soft felt hat, the Trilby, the blue collar – have all but gone. Even the necktie is going. Businessmen often don’t wear ties any more; and politicians don’t at the weekends. A trip to the country also means a certain informality.

(As a digression, I have a theory that men who wear coloured shirts with white collars and cuffs are bastards. Nine times out of ten, I’m right. Watch out for it.)

As clothes are no longer a sign of class, so the class-lines have become blurred. This is one reason, among many – not the least its leader and its front bench – why the Labor Party is having such a hard time of it. The ALP has lost its traditional, working class base. A lot of people who once voted Labor now live in Mickey Mouse Georgian or Italianate homes in the heavily mortgaged outer suburbs and vote Liberal. And in town are the boutique socialists like me, who used to vote Labor, but who now vote Green.

All this brings us to the Liberal Party – and Peter Costello and John Howard in particular.

Through his friends and allies – Michael Kroger, et al – and through his job as Treasurer, Peter Costello has connections with the Big End of town. More importantly, Costello has the air of an over-bright member of the Junior Chamber of Commerce. To put it another way, Costello gives the impression of a clever-dick, financial man who’s just emerged from an important board meeting. He is the up-and-coming new upper-middle class. There is a touch of the arriviste about him. He would be equally at home selling expensive cars or pricey real estate.

Not so with John Howard. He may ride in that big white car (always next to the driver); but he’s never quite forgotten he’s from Earlwood and that his father owned a garage. Howard is one of ‘us’. And where ever he goes, his wife, Janette, is always with him to lend a helping hand. They’re such a nice couple. John Howard wears his class on his sleeve; and the Howards are profoundly middle-middle class – as is, indeed, Australia.

Classes gave the world a structure and a certainty. The children sang:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

John and Janette Howard have this function in a time of terrorist peril. Neither Peter Costello nor Kim Beazley has the same comforting, paternal touch. And neither has the same certainty. (Both will, of course, end up in the rubbish bin of history.)

As the class-lines have become blurred, so have the people in politics. Policies aside, (Does the Labor Party have any policies?) it is impossible to tell which member is in what party. The time was when the Labor Party had a certain edge or flavour. Not any more. Politics has become homogenised. If you’ve seen one politician, you’ve seen ’em all.

I’m pretty certain that a majority of the Liberal Party knows it has a vote-winner in John Winston Howard – he reflects the Australian middle-middle class perfectly. And he could be PM longer than Robert Gordon Menzies.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.