Titanic disaster: class division and inequality. One hundred years on has anything really changed?

This is my 100th blog post on WordPress and the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic on her maiden voyage. To commemorate both of these anniversaries, I decided to write this blog around the theme of this maritime disaster. A topic that still ievokes passion today, as it did back then in the previous century. It is the subject of class: social class and the huge inequality between rich and poor. The divide of wealth against poverty, privilege against opportunity, social fortune against hardship.

In the cold, iceberg littered waters in the North Atlantic sea, approx 1,500 people perished on the night of the 14th/15th April, 1912. At 11.40 pm, an iceberg blew five of the 16 compartments, the design of which was to prevent the ship from sinking. Had there been one less damaged, the ship would have stayed afloat. The sinking was cruel and quick. At just before 02.20am, the ship cracked in two, against the opposing forces of water pressure, against the lean of the ship.  The odds of dying were very much marked by where, depending on which class of deck you travelled. The lack of lifeboats, their half filled capacity and lack of organisation in the evacuation meant that less than a third on board survived. No truly accurate figures are known of how many survived, given the ship’s passenger logging system at the time. And paradoxically, whether you were a woman or a child for once did have an advantage. Against the tide of the women in the suffragette movement who were risking their lives and freedom in another way to gain the vote and a voice. Men being a dominant force in an unequal society towards being female was centuries old. However, being a women not a man, for once, was a huge advantage that night.

I have been following the ITV1 series of Titanic, the focus of which has been the stark snobbery and deep class division and segregation of those who had, against those who had little or nothing.This rigid British society was based on the have and have-nots and men versus women. The rich and the poor, the titled and the unknown. The pecking order of who was who, the hypocrisy of the people of the time. Even the hierarchy of the servants in first class, to second, from second to third. The locking of the ship’s deck doors so the rich did not have to mingle with the poorer travellers. This factor alone was a disaster for those in 3rd class who may have survived. The ship’s church service, the only time that these second and third class passengers could venture upstairs and worship together-obviously God did not mind such integration on that occasion. And God’s people allowed that!

When it came to the lifeboats, it was women and children first, but class was a central factor. You needed to be a first-class traveller and female on that night. Only three percent of first-class women died compared to 54% of third-class women. 92% of second- class men perished and 84% of third. You can see here the account of the disaster, how and why and who survived from which class.  At the time, there was public outrage at what happened but also the fact that the poor died in the highest numbers. Sweeping changes were made in maritime law which still exist today.The question I asked myself before writing this blog was, has anything really changed with inequality and class division? Hence, I started to pursue this question and wish to share my thoughts.

The start of the 20th century saw a tide of rebellion against inequality, privilege, and class division. I have already mentioned the suffragette movement in the UK, and in Russia the autocratic monarchy in 1912 was about to lose its grip in a furious revolution in 1917. A country, inspired by Lenin’s leadership ousted the old guard of plenty, in supposed favour of the peasants in the field scrapping a living from the soil.

Karl Max had a vision and he writes :

”  A classless society is the ultimate condition of social organisation expected to occur when true communism is achieved.”

Everyone being equal and all the same? We will mention this briefly later.

When we talk of a classless society, another more recent political figure immediately popped to mind. This is what another person said:

“We will have to make changes so that across the whole country we have a genuinely classless society so that people, according to their ability or good fortune, can rise to what ever position.”

John Major, 24th Nov 1990: Prime Minister of the Conservative Party, 1990-1997.

He went on further to say he wanted to see a country at ease with itself.

In 2011, we hardly saw a country at ease with itself, as riots saw a nation’s confidence in pride, law and self-respect take a battering as strong as the iceberg that hit the Titanic. Nights of rioting left the police force, the politicians, the think-tanks and ordinary people wonder what had befallen this country. Many causes were blamed but one central fact was stated. It was the disadvantaged and disenfranchised members of society who felt they had nothing to lose, because they felt they had nothing and no future. So they took what they could get and hang the consequences for a few fleeting nights.

I passionately believe in education and a skills base as a means of self-advancement. As a child of one low-wage earner in a manual job, with an outside toilet and a tin bath as a means of washing, I strove to become something better through hard work at school and by going on to further education. I trained in a profession, the nursing profession and this had led me to break free from very low-wages become a home owner, something my parents have never done. I have attended University and embraced higher education. I am very thankful never to have known unemployment, well, only for four days just recently, at my own volition, and have never had to sign on and collect any state benefit. I am perhaps a true example of the John Major vision?

But in 2012 what is the reality? Another Tory government in coalition with the Lib,Dems but John Major’s words seem hollow somehow. Tuition fees which have recently trebled from £3,000 to £9,000, per year, has brought debate about how the poor can finance a University education. Headlines from The Telegraph, 30th Jan 2012″ Thousands give up on University because of tuition fees.” My own daughter is wary about taking on such debt but knows if she has any chance at all of a future that pays anything she sees little alternative. Youth unemployment is at its highest in the 16-19 age group. A recent BBC, Panorama programme looked at the Government’s apprenticeship programme and found poorly organised skill provision, courses that were virtually worthless and Government contracts which saw a few companies make a lot of money but left the young still largely unemployed and no better off.

Along side this subject, I wanted to dig deeper into the data about how much wealth people really had. I turned to the Institute of Fiscal Studies Paper, “Poverty and Inequality in the UK 2011.” This is a brief summary of some of the points found:

  • UK income distribution 2009-2010. 65% of households having an income below the national mean of £517 per week.( Based on a couple with no children).
  • 1.4 million individuals out of a private household have an income of above £1,500 per week.
  • Late 1990’s saw a boom in income in the top 1% of earners due to the financial boom at the time.
  • Poverty of working age adults without children is at its highest since the start of the institutes data from 1961.
  • There has been growth across much of the income distribution with the highest at the very top and relatively vigorous growth at the bottom of the income bracket. However, this income rise in the lower group was due to increases in benefits and tax-credits seen over this time period. ( Note, not because of decent wages).

In conclusion: The report states, beyond 2010, it is acknowledged that the proposed deep cuts to welfare and tax credits are likely to increase inequality year on year. This is where we are now. We know too well how much this is hurting many people and there are not enough words left for me to keep this blog relatively contained to dwell upon the misery and unfairness this is causing.

So what do I make of all of this to sum up the question I set myself. Can there be true class equality? I would like to think so but history tells me otherwise. Take Communism, as one example, I mentioned. The ethos of everyone being the same. In the present time, we have a call of the Republican movement to abolish the UK monarchy. Whether it was Lenin or now Putin, Obama or the Queen, they all reside in large presidential or palaces of residence. They all have advantage and privilege. There is so such thing as true Communism, based on all having the same. For us back in the UK, we could argue that we would pay less tax to not keep a Queen. However a new governing body would still be living in style whilst we live in our ex council houses or semi-detached properties. No, there will always be class division as unfair as it seems. But what I would like to see is where there is more wealth distribution and greater opportunities. Less of the I have it all and you have little: a more equal society. OK, we are not back in 1912 when you worked or starved, you paid a medical bill or you might die. There have been great advances in the lives of people, both socially, medically and financially. If we were in the Titanic tonight we would all have an equal chance of surviving, or would we? So indeed, you could call that social progress, fairness and humanity. However, we can acknowledge that class still exist and inequality flourishes. And I personally can see no legislation or sweeping reform, that occurred after the Titanic disaster in maritime law, to prevent that tide from turning.

This is my own conclusion but you might disagree. You also might think there is another way of creating a more equal society. I welcome your comments and thank you for reading. Personally, I have very much enjoyed researching and writing my 100th blog on this 100th anniversary of the Titanic disater. And it seemed fitting that I should mark it in this way with this important subject.

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5 thoughts on “Titanic disaster: class division and inequality. One hundred years on has anything really changed?

  1. athinkingman

    I understand your passion about inequality. However, I feel compelled to argue that there are major differences between Obama and the Queen. Both may be diligently serving their countries in different ways, BUT:
    * One has been elected in a system which is open to any citizen. He is there on merit. He is doing a real job and being paid for it. If he does a bad job there is a system for removing him. His election is testimony to equality of opportunity.
    * The other is there because of an accident of history and birth rather than merit. She has inherited a considerable amount of wealth that arguably belongs to the country, and receives considerable extra wealth for her and her family to do a largely ceremonial job. Her presence in maintaining the monarchy maintains gender inequality (males still have precedence) and religious discrimination (the monarch effectively has to be a practising member of the C. of E.).

    For me, equality is not really about money. I have no problem with qualified, or talented, or people with great responsibility, being handsomely rewarded for their work. There will always be rich and richer and poor and poorer. For me the real obscenities are the systems which automatically give unjustified privilege on the basis of gender, birth, or religion.

  2. onethoughtfulwoman Post author

    Thanks very much for your contribution here. I can see what you are saying and throws an convincing argument re: the monarchy.
    I don’t have a problem for people being paid very well for talent or services. But I do feel some people have been paid far too much for not a good service. Like our banking sector. And there is the” old boys network” and corruption in our society where pay is not based on talent but just on where you are and who you know.
    I still maintain this country needs a more equal and fairer society.

  3. pennymead1

    A very well written and interesting piece of work, well researched and argued. I agree in principle with all you have said although I find myself looking at this from a completely different angle. It is society that must change, it’s thinking and it’s beliefs in what is a persons right. Wealth will never be distributed fairly whilst there is a cut throat one better than another theme running through society. The question is one of nature or nurture, are we born rich or poor? Are our thoughts beliefs and expectations set at time of birth?
    What of the poor man who wins the lottery? At what stage does he consider himself a ‘have’ and look down with disdain on the ‘have nots’
    Circumstances including a persons wealth can change, do they then become less than they were with their wealth? Are they treated differently? The answer is yes. Therefore it is societies attitude that must change before we can hope to become a less divisive country.

  4. onethoughtfulwoman Post author

    You have put forward some very good arguments here, especially abou when someone wins money. I agree about the need for society changing. Thanks for reading and for your positive comments. It is not an easy subject to talk about and causes a lot of emotion. I enjoyed writing about it. It just shows what a complicated subject this is and how it can be viewed from many angles. Many thanks for looking here. Much appreciated.

  5. Pingback: thethinkingblue.com Blog » Income Inequality and the Sinking of the Titanic

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