British upper crust debates meaning of 'working class'

October 30, 1990|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- In a day or two, the question before one of Her Majesty's Justices in the High Court of England will be: Does the working class exist any longer in these days of post-industrial affluence?

The argument is between the richest and unlikeliest of litigants.

Arguing that the working class is still with us is the Duke of Westminster, reputed to be Britain's wealthiest aristocrat.

Asserting that the working class went into terminal decline when brightly illuminated shopping malls replaced yesteryear's "dark, satanic mills," is Lady Porter, heiress to a grocery fortune and leader of the Westminster City Council.

The hub of the case is an apartment building, owned like much of the rest of London by Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor, the 6th Duke of Westminster, an officer (Queens Own Yeomanry) and a gentleman (Brooks's Club, Royal Yacht Squadron).

The building, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, who also designed the British Embassy in Washington, was acquired by Westminster City Council in 1937 on a 999-year lease from the duke's Grosvenor Estate. The lease stipulated that the 532 apartments should be used "as dwellings for the working classes and no other purpose."

Three years ago, under the impetus of encouraging popular capitalism through home-ownership, the Conservative-controlled council, led by Lady Porter, daughter of an East London street-seller who became a chain-store multimillionaire, made the decision to sell off the apartments to residents rather than transfer them to people on the public housing waiting list.

The council asked the duke to waive the "working class" clause, saying it had become irrelevant.

Opposition members of the Labor party -- the party of the working class -- were outraged.

The covenant, they said, was designed to provide housing for people with low income and prevent speculative investment. The duke accepted their point.

Without waiting for the judge's ruling, Keith Waterhouse, a son of the industrial north, wrote his own pre-testimony judgment in the pro-Conservative Daily Mail.

He suggested that the working class has had its day, not only because the old industries -- mines, shipyards and mills -- had closed, but because it had literally outgrown itself.

"The hallmark of the working class was a peaky face and bantam figure -- the stunted growth of the undernourished," he wrote, observing that today's young artisans seemed to be a good six inches taller than those of the 1930s.

There was another clue to its demise, he suggested: "The true definition of the old working class was that it knew its place."

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