Allan Takes Aim Blog

Canberra: a city of class

Posted on: 22 September 2011

Unedited version of the article published The Chronicle, Canberra, Tuesday, 20 September 2011  

On my first visit to Australia more than fifty years ago I gained the impression that Australia was a country without a class system. At the time, I was impressed by the fact that it seemed to have done something that seemed impossible in the UK: made the class system disappear. 

Like many towns in Britain, the Scottish mining and steel town where I was born had a class system beside which, the caste system in countries such as India paled. This class system comprised an Aristocracy, Upper Class, Middle Class and Lower Class, each divided in the same way and each with their own unwritten rules of status that members breached at the risk of becoming outcasts.

For example: if a member of the Upper Class was seen shopping at a store usually patronised by people from the lower class they risked exclusion from the social activities of their class for a brief period. However, if they persisted in this behaviour they paid the ultimate penalty – social death.

To illustrate that such behaviour was not confined to the Upper Classes let me relate the following marriage story of a young man – my father – a skilled tradesman but considered one of the upper lower class, and a young woman – my mother – from a poor family with many unskilled sons in what seemed a permanent state of unemployment who, in the class system would have been have been considered lower, lower class.

One might think my mother’s family would have welcomed the marriage because she would gain benefits unavailable to her if she married someone of her own class. Many years later however my mother told me that was not the case. She said: “All hell broke loose” when she and my father told their respective families of their plans to marry.

Both sets of parents said no good would come of it. My father’s family said he was marrying beneath him, my mother’s that she was marrying into the aristocracy. They were wrong. The marriage lasted not only just short of fifty years on the death of my mother but also until a few years ago on the death of my father.

Earlier I said one of the strongest impressions I gained on my first brief visit to Australia was that it was free of class attitudes, an impression that remained with me during the years until my return in 1969 as a permanent resident. Unfortunately, within a couple of years of arrival, during which my family and I lived in various parts of Australia, this impression started to fade. Sad to say it was not until coming to settle permanently in Canberra that it disappeared and I began to realise that the class system and its consequential snobbery was not exclusive to Britain and, despite arguments to the contrary, was solidly entrenched in Australia.

I came to realise also, that many of the Australian born Canberrans I have heard denigrating the UK as a class ridden society were more class conscious and snobbish than the people they denigrated. Worse perhaps, many of them held positions of power and influence in government, business and the bureaucracy, not because of talent but by inheritance or – there’s no way to be polite about it – because they were very good at brown nosing.

Many of the talented brown nosers have managed to reach what is commonly known as ‘the top of the heap’ from which position they see themselves as Canberra’s aristocrats. Unfortunately they do not understand the meaning of the word; they are not aristocrats but arrivistes who do not realise that true aristocrats, of whom there are but few, have that special quality, humanity, that does not rely on status or wealth a quality they neither possess nor recognise.

Dynastic ambition is also alive and thriving in Canberra’s “arriviste aristocracy” with family members inheriting positions of power and influence. At the same time, in common with other arrivistes, they are surrounded with brown nosers ambitious for elevation to the aristocratic ranks.

Fortunate as it is, some egalitarians still exist. Unfortunately, there are too few of them to stage a renaissance although I live in hope.


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