Status anxiety

Britain's upper class is now too snobbish to speak its name

The more unequal we get, the less we want to talk about it

25 January 2014

9:00 AM

25 January 2014

9:00 AM

Last week, YouGov conducted a poll in which people were asked to judge how middle class the party leaders are. Ed Miliband was the winner, with 45 per cent deeming him ‘middle class’, compared with 39 per cent who thought him ‘upper class’. David Cameron was the clear loser. Only 15 per cent judged him ‘middle class’, against 77 per cent who thought him ‘upper class’. Cue much handwringing in the Conservative party about what the Prime Minister can do to appear less out of touch.

I don’t use the terms ‘winner’ and ‘loser’ loosely. Being perceived as upper class in contemporary Britain is the kiss of death, and not just in politics. In the same poll, YouGov asked people the question, ‘What class are you?’ Forty-six per cent said ‘working class’, 49 per cent ‘middle class’ and just 1 per cent ‘upper class’. I’m surprised the number was so high, frankly. I’ve been hobnobbing with society types for over 30 years — including dukes, billionaires and minor royals — and I’ve only ever heard one person describe themselves as upper class.

To complicate matters, the person in question was, in fact, middle class. It’s become so unfashionable among the upper classes to be thought of as posh that anyone who identifies themselves as such is, almost by definition, not. These days, even calling yourself ‘upper middle class’ is taboo. George Orwell’s description of himself as ‘lower upper middle’ would be condemned as unacceptably self-aggrandising today. In the hall of mirrors that is the English class system, identifying yourself as ‘upper’ anything has become Non-U, with the paradoxical result that genuinely posh people are too snobbish to call themselves upper class. They don’t want to be thought of as ‘middle class’ in the pejorative, old-fashioned sense, so they call themselves ‘middle class’ in the new, deliberately vague sense. I’ve never asked David Cameron what class he is, but I’m sure he’d say middle class. Or, to use the correct phrase: ‘I don’t know, middle class I suppose. I’ve never really thought about it.’

What polls like this reveal is that we’ve become a nation of inverted snobs. To be precise, everyone dis-avows the class hierarchy that prevailed until about 25 years ago, but they do so partly because to admit you set any store by it is, in itself, a low-class indicator. So the English class system hasn’t really gone away, it’s just become more insidious. Officially, it’s ceased to exist in the sense that no one cares whether you say ‘serviette’ or ‘napkin’. But unofficially, it’s still there, casting its ancient spell.

The metamorphoses of the class system from overt to covert, above ground to underground, must be connected to the massive increase in economic inequality in the past 25 years or so. According to Oxfam, the 85 richest people in the world now control as much wealth as the poorest half of the global population put together. ‘Widening inequality is creating a vicious circle where wealth and power are increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, leaving the rest of us to fight over crumbs from the top table,’ says the charity’s executive director.

It’s a little known fact that the Gini coefficient – the standard measure of income inequality – has declined in the UK since David Cameron became Prime Minister, but, clearly, the direction of travel has been towards a greater concentration of wealth. If these plutocrats are to hold on to their money — if they’re to avoid a repeat of the redistributive taxes that crippled the British aristocracy in the aftermath of the second world war — it’s essential to present themselves as meritocrats rather than the beneficiaries of class privilege. That way, their vast wealth is more palatable. It’s earned, rather than inherited. The pretence that Britain has become less class-bound since 1979 is a noble lie. It’s the illusion that prevents the masses from erupting in open revolt. What’s so remarkable is that everyone in our society has bought into it, not just the richest 1 per cent.

I realise I’m beginning to sound like Owen Jones, so I’ll caveat this by saying it’s not an out-and-out deception. Some of the richest people in Britain have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. And there has been a convergence in habits and taste across the entire social spectrum. But the fact remains that Britain is as class-bound as it’s ever been. We just won’t admit it to ourselves.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • Hereward

    The old upper class, i.e the aristicracy and landed gentry have learned to keep a low profile, but they still own over half the land. The ‘new’ upper class, i.e self made multi-millionaires have not learned to do this but enjoy flaunting their wealth and behaving in anon-trad upper class manner, such as the Greens, Ecclestones, Branstons of this world, but I doubt they are truly seen as anything but middle-class parvenus. For those members of the heriditary upper middle class who truly run the country, such as Osborne, Clegg, Milliband, senior judges, financiers etc to describe themselves as ordinairy middle class people is either disingenous or delusional. They are all in the !% and in a very different world from the rest of the middle and lower middle class. That is why the rest of the population see them as a different class and tend to lump them all together. It used to be called the establishment. I do not knwo why we dropped that term.

    • Colonel Mustard

      You have omitted the most important purpose of the ‘hereditary upper middle class’. To serve as a useful scapegoat and target for the left wing collective that really infests and influences much of the ‘establishment’ and would like to acquire absolute power. What we are seeing in Britain is not any kind of equalisation but merely a transfer of powers. The new ‘egalitarian’ elite (ha!) of champagne socialists is just as detached and snobbish as the old elite, but if anything their appetite for wealth and power, their shamelessness when their scandals are exposed, their nepotism and their sense of entitlement is even worse.

      Meneer Clegg has no time for hereditary lords so he wants to replace them with appointed or ‘elected’ Lib Dem lords instead.

      I know which I prefer.

      • greggf

        Yes Colonel; WW2 was supposed to have been the twilight of the old oligarchy but it seems that a new leftist oligarchy has emerged in many and various forms and far more parasitic than before.

      • Andy

        Give me the old rich and the old aristocracy and gentry any day. I loath the ‘champagne Socialists’. They are dreadful people and never know how to behave. They are far more snobbish and just nasty than the old rich. My Grandmother (old Gentry) always said you could tell a persons class by the way they treat a waiter in a restaurant. Quite so.

        • Fergus Pickering

          I tret witers jolly well, partly because my daughter worked as a waitress when she was at university. That must make me upper class then. I tip them good too. I always gathered the upper class were mean with their money. Is that so? Getty and his phone box and all that.

          • Andy

            Most of the aristocracy and gentry were rich in assets but usually income poor. Getty was new money.

        • Orchid Swan

          I completely agree.

          Nouveau riche have absolutely no manners. They never say please or thank you.

          It drives me crazy. There is a nouveau riche neighborhood in my city, and I hate going there, because I cannot stand the tacky, uncultured, and rude ways of the new money.

          Even the Queen of England apologized to her footman when she stepped in his way.

    • Frank

      The establishment got blown apart by the pre and post war arrivals from continental Europe. The question of who runs this country is interesting, but saying that Osbourne, Clegg, or Milliband run the country is simplistic. Apart from anything else, one good sex scandal could finish any one of them and then we, lucky country, would have yet another gormless turkey telling us his/her vision for the future.

  • saintlaw

    WTF is Toby Young doing decrying how class-bound Britain is? Pretty much every political and economic policy he supports entrenches inequality.

    But then joined-up thinking was never his strong point.

    • Eddie

      Getting rid of grammar schools and abandoning the selective schools system instead of making it better for all is what has entrenched the class system and stopped social mobility in its tracks.
      The comprehensive mess of sociality policies have entrenched class privilege.
      But it’s hilarious that someone like Ed Milliband, owner of a 2 million quid house, from an intellectual elite background (and who didn’t really go to a bog standard comp either) is seen as middle class. Upper middle class, maybe. Ditto with Clegg. Cameron was born to, and married, aristocracy, like Tony Benn. THEY ARE ALL MILLIONAIRES (like Harriet Harman too).
      Hilarious too that many pompous twerp academics claim to be working class (because they teach leftwing politics) – all whilst earning £70k pa in jobs from which they are unsackable, jobs which irresponsible mass immigration does not affect negatively, and vast pension pots – paid for by the taxes paid by minimum wage cleaners. Owen Jones is the son of such a hypocrite, which is no doubt where he gets his self-righteousness and double standards from.

      • Nicholas chuzzlewit

        Well said sir!

    • Colonel Mustard

      You are quite wrong. Mr Young does not support the Labour party.

    • Nicholas chuzzlewit

      You mean like opening free schools in areas where the only choice presently available to working class parents is a failing ‘bog standard comprehensive’ (Alistair Campbell’s words) which whilst utterly useless passes Labour’s ideological purity test. That does not entrench inequality but then you are too busy make snide remarks to think otherwise.

      • rtj1211

        You really do need some basic education about the history of the Blair Government, which was, shock horror, a LABOUR Government. Their Academy Programme was hardly one of ‘bog standard comprehensives’, was it??

        Now I know you have to trot out your tired mantras year after year, but attendance to FACTS is usually more worthwhile……..

        • Nicholas chuzzlewit

          Yes I know it was a Labour government and do not need to adopt the juvenile practice of using capital letters to prove it. I know it was a Labour government because This country suffered the largest structural deficit in peacetime history as a consequence. It also suffered a 7.3% contraction of the economy. You can troll away until tea time but you cannot pin that on the coalition. Now those are the facts and as for ‘getting over it’ – I estimate that should take between twenty and thirty years. Always assuming of course that the country does not go collectively mad and elect a Marxist sixth-former and his coterie of idiots to plunge us back into the mire so ably constructed by his mentor. As for the academy scheme, I just love the utter hypocrisy of supporting the programme when it is a Labour government but opposing the Conservative version. Now get lost and stop trying to engage in adult debates.

          • Well said, Nicholas! I love a vigorous defence of freedom and you’ve just made one.

          • Nicholas chuzzlewit

            Many thanks. These sites are infested by leftist trolls and the truth needs telling.

          • It sure does, partner! :^)

        • Fergus Pickering

          It wasn’t a LABOUR government. It was a New Labour Government. New Labour is dead, killed by Gordo and his henchpersons, Balls and the Millibum.

          • Colonel Mustard

            The current New Labour government in waiting have dropped the ‘New’ but remain committed to re-invention.

    • And what do you support? Enforced equality in which we are all equally poor and miserable? We tried that in the last century. It’s called Communism. It doesn’t work.

    • Fergus Pickering

      No it doesn’t. Twit.

  • Eddie

    Oh god, not that same photo again! I used it in teaching 15 years ago and have seen it countless times since in the printed media. There must be other photos out there!

    • Patricia

      “Oh god, not that same photo again! ”

      Yes, it’s the Left’s pet “toff versus working class” photo. It really should be updated to an Islington dinner party versus Foodbank recipient.

      • Colonel Mustard

        I think it might be a more appropriate representation of modern Britain to have a photo of Polly Toynbee enjoying First Class on her way to her Italian retreat.

        • Eddie

          Yep, or perhaps Harriet Harman? Or Tony Blair? Or Diane Abbott visiting her son at public school? Or Ed Milliband in his £2 million home?

    • Icebow

      One has to admit it’s unforgettable. Born to rule….

  • RavenRandom

    Don’t you know, it’s okay to hate upper class people purely on their class, also okay to hate wealthy people. (Wealthy and upper class are not always the same thing).
    It’s one of our acceptable hates since 2008.
    We should all venerate the mythical “hard working families” (Trade mark: all politicians).
    Hate is not acceptable based just on class, or race or religion… except when it is.

  • Kitty MLB

    Here we go again.
    Another little class war to play into Labours hands.
    Everyone trying to be middle class any being ashamed of the upper class.
    Cameron is a fool not because of his class or attending an excellent school like
    Eton- he is a fool despite his education- and I utterly deplore the estuary English that Sam Cameron speaks.
    How about showing pictures with working class people wearing flat caps ( no offence)
    and see how much in common they have with the Labour front benches
    and their excellent education.

    • …’ deplore the estuary English’
      Would you mind explaining? I’m interested in what this means (never having heard of ‘e. English’).

      • Fergus Pickering

        It’s OK, Swanky. She means the way John Major,who left school at siixteen, speaks. She’s a creep. Nothing to see.

      • Colonel Mustard

        Don’t be misled by Fergus’ hang ups. Estuary English is not cockney and Major never spoke it:-

        And for an example of confused bigotry in modern Britain:-

        “conservative RP” is “not good” she says (subliminal attack on Tories). Which explains why this posh privileged bird is so at pains to disguise her privileged poshness.

        • Thanks for filling me in, Colonel.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Why do you deplore Estuary English. Because you are a dreadful snob, that’s why. You can’t quite bring yourself to say you deplore Eliz Doolittle’s cockney, but you do. What YOU like is the way the Beeb used to speak in the 1950s. Up yours, lady.

      • Colonel Mustard

        “Why do you deplore Estuary English. Because you are a dreadful snob, that’s why.”

        Perhaps not. Perhaps it is the artful adoption of the patois that is deplored. At least that is my personal view. Loving the genuine cockney of those born within the sound of Bow bells then. Deploring the Kennedyesque artifice of contriving a version to wage class war now, man.

        As for Beeb 1950s speak. Missing it as a lost language. Only the Scots seem to be enraged with prejudice at hearing it uttered.

        • Kitty MLB

          I did not quite know how to respond, You have done so very
          eloquently and with good manners.
          I deplore Estuary English because it is fake, without any character and is used by Politicians and others to hide behind.
          I much prefer regional accents, have nothing against genuine
          cockney and the beautifully spoken English that as you say is quite lost now.
          Also someone needs to tell Mr Pickering that his insults are quite commonplace and without character, perhaps Shakespeare, Cicero or Pope might help him with the put downs.

  • CentralLondoner1

    Less social mobility is related to prior government’s removal of incentives to work. If you can sit and and collect benefits, isn’t it less likely you will aspire to something better?

  • Gordon HoneyCombes Lovechild

    Its when posh, over educated upper, middle class twits like Owen Jones start believing themselves working class heroes and leaders of the workers revolution that the real damage is done to the vulnerable and poor in society. The upper class twits like Peter Mandelson and Polly Toynbee only escalate the problem.

    • Geronimo von Huxley

      Really? How insightful. Why is Alexander de Pfeffel posing as a Johnson then? But it does not stop there though, does it – that peculiar piffle of an accent offered up by the likes of Jay Rees-Moog, what is it all about?

    • Frank

      Peter Mandelson and Polly Toynbee are upper class? Very funny, betrays a deep lack of knowledge of the British class system. In addition, neither of these two are twits. A better description might be insanely self-deluded.
      Further, regarding Toby Young’s article, the Tory party is deluding itself if it thinks that its main problem is the social class of its Prime Minister. My take is that most people (excepting the media) don’t give tuppence what social class the Prime Minister comes from, so long as he/she is effective at solving the issues facing Britain. Manifestly, running a country by focus groups, or on the basis of advice from an Australian, tends to make people question Dave’s moral courage and leadership abilities – supposedly two the key ingredients in high social status!

  • PeteCW

    If being upper class is the kiss of death in British politics – as Cameron and Osbourne very obviously are, having connections to the aristocracy – how do you explain the fact that they are at the very top of the political dungheap despite not being very good at what they’re trying to do?

    • almondaxles

      Because in Whitehall and Westminster incompetence and stupidity are always rewarded.

      • Frank

        Because their smarter counter-parts from school days, or university, didn’t, on the whole, go into politics, so Dave and Gideon have never faced a very competitive pool of talent. Not sure that this has anything to do with social class.

    • JamesdelaMare

      Because their colleagues put them there. Why ask a silly question?

  • The Laughing Cavalier

    The Cameron family’s origins are decidedly pedestrian, going no further back than to yeoman farmers in the eighteenth century.

    • That’s not what we were told. The Speccie says he’s related to Catherine the Great.

      • Fergus Pickering

        I am related to Oliver Cromwell. I drink his gin all the time.Also to Hereward the Wake.

        • Oh goody. If I drink his gin all the time, does that mean that I’ll be related to Oliver Cromwell? Neat! (Not the gin, I want that with lemon and tonic.)

          • Fergus Pickering

            Certainly you are, Swanky. And I believe I am also related t the late Pope on my mother’s side.I think this makes me upper class if indigent.

          • Good evening/morning to you, Fergus. Can we get my aspiration together with your upper class and end up somewhere in a castle in Scotland? I’d prefer the Weald but that may be asking too much.

          • Fergus Pickering

            One of my castles is in Scotland but I wouldn’t bank on the weather for much. I have a bijou residence at Clacton-on-Sea where the Essex Penguins sport in the breakers. We could be very happy there with the youngest of my three wives and my Cambodian houseboy.

          • %^o Perfect!

      • The Laughing Cavalier

        His mother’s family are well connected but the Cameron male line is really rather common.

    • Fergus Pickering

      You don’t mean pedestrian. You mean plebeian.

      • Shiraz Qaddoumi

        Since pedestrian means ‘undistinguished and ordinary,” I’m fairly certain the Laughing Cavalier does in fact mean pedestrian.

        • The Laughing Cavalier

          Spot on old bean.

      • The Laughing Cavalier

        No, I didn’t.

        • Fergus Pickering

          You are right. I posted without sufficient thought.

  • … the person in question was, in fact, middle class.

    Must have been James Delingpole.

  • Liberty

    ‘Widening inequality is creating a vicious circle where wealth and power are increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, leaving the rest of us to fight over crumbs from the top table,’ And the solution? As Owen Jones would say, transfer it to smug, ignorant, useless socialists elected by the ignorati to dispense as they see fit. It has been tried – dozens of times – and it has always ended in disaster for the workers, peasants, etc as well as the the middle and upper classes when they cannot get out in time. Just imagine ten years of Milliband to get a flavour fo the consequences.

    And the idea that wealth concentrated in a few capitalists is denied others is nonsense. It is either banked to be invested by bankers, invested directly or spent to be managed by someone else. It is never wasted unless it is invested badly. As we know, governments are the least efficient spenders and investors of all and socialist governments the least efficient form of government.

  • Paul Giles

    “And there has been a convergence in habits and taste across the entire social spectrum. But the fact remains that Britain is as class-bound as it’s ever been.”

    I’ve read your aricle, Mr Young, but I can’t disentangle your class system from your inequality of wealth, and I’m not convinced that you can, either. How much you owned used to be just one of the dividing lines between the classes, and not even the most reliable one. It used to be a cultural thing but, as you say, the cultural gap is getting smaller all the time. I can see that there are wide disparities of wealth, and that a tiny number of people go to the horse races on specific days and wear eleaborate hats, but I can’t cobble that together into a class system that involves me. What am I missing?

  • kittyhawk58

    Class division exists in every country. In the US, as I’m sure you’ll remember, it’s all about money. In Malaysia it’s all about ethnicity. In India it’s Caste etc etc….. I prefer the good old fashioned up front British version myself.

    • JamesdelaMare

      Yes, indeed it does exist. Just a pity people go on and on about it relentlessly and pointlessly. But these comments are a recreation in self expression for those too timid or cowardly to write under their own names who post them, more than a useful contribution to discussion of the advantages or drawbacks of having class difference in society.

      • Colonel Mustard

        There is nothing wrong with a ‘recreation in self expression’. Who decided that online comments must make more than a useful contribution to dscussion? You? Who made you Sheriff of Coffee House?

        In the United States, the right to speak anonymously online is protected by the First Amendment and various other laws. These laws restrict the ability of the government and civil litigants to obtain the identity of anonymous speakers. The First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”. This protection has been interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court to protect the right to speak anonymously offline.

        For example, in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, the Supreme Court overturned an Ohio law banning the distribution of anonymous election pamphlets, claiming that an “author’s decision to remain anonymous…is an aspect of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment” and that “anonymous pamphleteering is not a pernicious, fraudulent practice, but an honorable tradition of advocacy and of dissent”, as well as a “shield” against the so-called tyranny of the majority.

        In the UK we have the ‘tyranny of minorities’, the hair trigger offence industry and people like you who seem to take an unhealthy interest in what others choose to do of their own free will. So don’t be surprised at the preference of some for posting comments under pseudonyms.

  • Davidgw

    Purely for the sake of interest, the older Harrovian in this picture, Thomas Dyson, sadly died a year later (in 1938) of Malaria while the boys from the local school, “St Paul’s Bentinck” in the photo all appear to have lived…or are still living, long and successful lives. They are on record as saying that they were never at all jealous. It was how it was said one.

  • Fergus Pickering

    Oh God, there’s that bloody picture again. Whenever I look a it it I feel sorry for the two little boys in top hats. The other boys I recognise from my childhood. They are the sort who tried to make my life a misery and even over the years I want to kick them in the balls.Up the ruling classes!

  • Shiraz Qaddoumi

    Ahhhh, it is just the same in America! Unending yap flap about “the middle class’ from politicians and sanctimonious self-righteous leftists who fancy themselves Champions of the Common Man. We have no landed aristocracy, so it’s purely about money. Unless of course you’re an. insufferable celebrity with great concern for the middle class, then you have an honorary membership in it, no matter how many millions you have. It helps to extol your “working class background,” too. Oblahblah is about to give his state of the Union address, and if you were to take a shot every time he says “middle class” and “working class,” you’d be on your way to the hospital with alcohol poisoning halfway through. Class warfare is the new national pastime, and you’ve got people bringing in half a million dollars a year calling themselves “middle class,” while you’re not doing your job as a politician if you don’t constantly talk about the need for a vibrant middle class and vociferously denounce policies that “balance [x] on the backs of the middle class.”

  • Smithersjones2013

    And there has been a convergence in habits and taste across the entire social spectrum

    No there has been a massive reduction in choice as many free-markets evolve into cartels and monopolies.and government after government adopt a narrow minded over-centralized one size fits all vision of our society. People are no longer given the choice they once had. We are forced to adopt common habits and tastes as a result of corporate expedience, government oligarchy and a tame media

  • Weyland

    Many of todays upperclass who are successful in politics are from aristocrat families who married into Jewish money in the last century, David Cameron-Levita, Peter Mandelsonn, Boris Johnson.

  • Terry Field

    They have democratic accents and have marginalised democratic freedoms, with all real control and authority concentrated into the hands of very few, supremely rich and powerful people.
    One of whom is Peppa Pig.

  • DonPhil

    A single sentence in Kenneth Clark’s autobiography reorients us valuably: “In June 1933, when I was still under thirty, I received a telegram from Mr Ramsay MacDonald offering me the directorship” of the National Gallery.

    Macdonald was a member of the ruling class because he actually ruled as prime minister (for six years) but never of the upper classes, because born into the lowest level of the working class as the illegitimate son of a housemaid and a farm labourer.

    By contrast Clark was in 1933 eligible for a place in the ruling class but (like half his classmates) had declined to occupy it. His grandfathers had typified the rising middle class of the Victorian era, combining memory of the need to work for a living with the wealth to afford idleness if individuals felt like it. Kenneth Clark like his father before him was born rich and leisured, deemed in the 19th century
    characteristics uniquely of the upper class . Both were eligible to join the ruling class and both declined individually to do so (until 1933.)

    Clark’s autobiography reveals how normal this was, both among his father’s house party guests and his own contemporaries at Oxford. Some individuals took up silver-spoon careers in the ruling class while others chose not to, and some of their middle class or proletarian classmates tried and succeeded to climb into
    the ruling class.

    This confirms it a mistake to identify Britain’s ruling class with the top level of the pyramid of working, middle and upper social classes which the English are used to, whether profiteers or losers. The critical difference may have been that members of the upper class were recognized by the ruling class as individuals in ways the working classes were not.

    Toby Young betrays his own class consciousness by pointing out he ” never asked David Cameron what class he is.” This prime minister belongs ipso facto to the ruling class just as much as Ramsay MacDonald did, at least while in office: so that anyone in a position to ask the PM a personal question must himself
    also belong to either the ruling class or the upper class.

    Toby Young may also be wrong in suggesting “redistributive taxes . . . crippled the British aristocracy in the aftermath of the second world war.” Downton Abbey tells us taxes of the 1920s defunded the aristocracy, as the number of country houses demolished 1920-40 seems to confirm.

    Military service was obviously a factor in changing England (and Scotland much less) so far as the army replaces class differences by a different sort of hierarchy. Most Englishmen born between 1880 and 1940 were subject to conscription, and most served in uniform for at least a year or two. The youngest of this age class have now passed retirement age and no longer influence public life. Today’s ruling class lacks the common experience of uniformed service under army discipline, so should not be expected to feel the same way as Thatcher’s or Callaghan’s contemporaries.

  • cosmopolite

    In 1750, rental payments on farm land made up about 25% of British national income. In 2000, such payments were 2% of UK national income. Thus the fate of the time honoured British landed gentry.

    A powerful reason for some convergence in habits and tastes is television programming.

    100 years ago, all Brits, and nearly all Americans who grew up in cities, were competent amateur sociologists. This is no longer the case. Hence confusions proliferate in the mouths of politicians and in the writings of many everyday journalists.

    Gregory Clark writes that OECD nations are going to have to accept that 10-15% of their households will be supported long term by the public purse. This is the underclass, whose bad behaviour is the reason why a number of older American cities have become the worst eyesores in the OECD.

    The working class consists of households supported by occupations not requiring a uni degree, and for whom more than 1-2 years unemployment would result in a major decline in their standard of living. In the USA, the phrase “working class” has disappeared. In fact, as many as 40% of American households are working class. The Great Recession has harshly revealed that many Americans who thought they were middle class are in fact working class, although nobody says this aloud.

    The middle class consists of households supported by occupations requiring a uni degree, or by the ownership of a business with a turnover exceeding about 500K/year. The upper middle class was commonly mentioned in the USA 50+ years ago, but not nowadays. The upper middle class is dominated by corporate executives, and by the successful self-employed professions, including medicine and law. The lower middle class is all too real, but is also the hardest class to define.

    The upper class consists of households that can live comfortably on investment income alone. Many households for whom this is the case do nothing to draw attention to the fact. Where I live, many families with modest employment live in fine residences.

    Religious affiliation used to be a signal determinant of where one fell in the class system. Over the past 50 years, this reality has eroded in the USA.

    The sort of school to which one sends one’s children remains very revealing, even in the USA. All American cities of any size have elite private schools (Obama attended one), and America easily still has at least 100-200 elite boarding schools.

    The underclass retires on the minimal state pension and lives in council flats. The working class augments the minimal state pension with some tier 2 and occupational defined benefit money.

    The middle class retire on generous defined benefit pensions, and/or tax deferred savings. The upper middle has more of the same. Retirement is not defined for the upper class.

    If two consecutive generations of a family take maximum advantage of their nation’s tax deferred savings system, and invest in mutual funds investing in shares, I submit that the family will attain a level of wealth that makes them upper class within 2 generations. About 10% of American married couples begin old age worth at least 2M. A major reason the democratisation of wealth has not proceeded further is the temptation to spend one’s resources on flash houses, flash cars, overseas holidays. The Protestant ethic driving wealth accumulation has mostly died in the English speaking countries. It has not died in continental Europe and in East Asia, and all praise be to them for that.

    Before WWI, it was commonly understood that personal freedom required property income or self-employment. Being an employee was something one accepted out of necessity. What was obvious to our ancestors has been forgotten, and the Great Recession has been a rude awakening. To be completely dependent on a job from which one can be made redundant in any recession, and to owe a fat mortgage on one’s residence, is a very polite updated form of serfdom. My dream is to see the median household financial net worth in the OECD nations rise to US$500K in today’s dollars, and to lower the cost of housing by 30-50%.

  • cosmopolite

    The young men in top hats were probably circumcised. The 3 lads making fun of them almost certainly were not. British class distinctions reached into the most intimate body.

    • The Laughing Cavalier

      Oh dear, another circumfetishist.

      • cosmopolite

        If I have a fetish, it lies in the opposite corner 🙂

    • Fergus Pickering

      What are you talking about?

  • Picnicl .

    What has happened by first reducing the ‘cultural power’ of the upper class is that the same has happened to the working class. Did people not see how the two are inextricably linked? Not quite ‘master and slave’ but, still, a hopefully mostly benevolent relationship in recognition that those 2 classes are, broadly speaking, ‘no nonsense’. And not necessarily mutually exclusive from each other e.g. Lady Chatterley and Mellors.

    In the middle is the soggy mass of middle class one upmanship, resentment and sometimes appallingly pseudo-bourgeouise tastes. The new middle class – or wannabe middle class – are the ‘nonsense’ class. The old middle class were fine in general. I find it peculiar how a new breed of people who have risen to the top without particularly traditional principles are deemed ‘upper middle class’, a term I would reserve for the likes of school headmasters or old school bank managers. What these politicians are instead is practically ‘nouveau rich’, versed in left wing ideas.

    Ever since the 1960s, good people have been lead a merry dance through no choice of their own by ‘modernisation’ in politics, in social ways, in how ‘good old fashioned austerity’ (in every class) is regarded. I might sound older than I am – 34. But I can see how society has lost its soul hand in hand with how it has demonised its working class. This accelerated in the late 80s with the likes of Hillsborough. In the 60s through to the early 80s, a clever working class man with ideas was something very exotic. Nowadays he’s regarded as a museum piece – the Ken Barlow of the population. But just like Ken Barlow, the clever working class man with vaguely hippy ideals allied with common sense who hasn’t had his head dazzled by materialism is still going strong in places. You just need to know what to look for – if you even care to look for it whilst you pass him by in your fast sports car on the way to your Pilates class.

  • If I may touch on another matter, is it still the practice to address retired military officers with the rank of Major and up by their rank? It used to be the practice here in the colonies (South Africa) but over time it was mostly applied only to the rank of Brigadier and up. Most plebs seem puzzled or amused when one refers to oneself as “Major…”. One gets a sort of whiskey tango foxtrot look.

  • wfraser11

    British society is infested with snobbishness, the desire to rise in social status, ineptitude in the workplace as a result, poor productivity, and a zero sum losing game for all but the smallest percentage of participants.

  • mawdesleytractor

    Mawdesley – a desolate dormitory enclave for retired snobs and inbred far-right wing bigots is simultaneously the UK’s most boring, featureless, lifeless, most inbred and snobbiest place. Quite a feat for what is effectively a tiny fragment of a Surrey commuter village dumped on some drained bog land in a flat, desolate corner of Lancashire.

  • bas h

    I wouldn’t worry too much, as a whole you look down on the rest of the wretched planet with their funny little manners. By being the only tourists careless enough to drink and smoke their weight’s worth and forget Amsterdam has children, bicycles, nice quiet streets and canals- with H2O in them. But that’s not what most Britsh do, it’s a way of language use that has different connotations, and I think it fools you too in your self- image. IMHO. You use a lot of self-depreciation, excuse me, and unexpected irony that’s pleasant and in general gets a positive response. It’s also cultural, part of how you perceive manners compaired to other Brits. irony is cruel as the intonation is not obvious ople People switching to English are at a disadvantage, plus they have other of adressing each other.
    I think- even when we switch to English after hearing you struggle- “bonjour, un baguette et deux oeufs s’il vous plait.” is doable.
    In a way some of the nderstandable being a shard of land that once possessed much of the planet. You don’t have to wait much longer before your own country is colonized btw

    Just one thing, Mildred: The idea to use a giant island, months away, to dump criminals- instead of tossing them overboard, or any shore along the way. Then visit a french brothel and be home without perishing in a tropical storm? Or you could move everybody to the sun except the baddies to nice weather.

  • Dugoth


  • Dugoth

    This article is nonsense. The Super Rich are there by controlling Governments and being granted tax free monopolies.Get rid of them and the real Tory entrepreneurs can prosper