"Class is to Britain what sex is to teenagers -- more talked about than practiced" (Willetts 1995:1). The fact that Britain is a class-conscious society is taken as a universal given; when virtually any author wishes to use an example of class-stratified society, they look to the UK. The famous play by George Bernard Shaw entitled Pygmalion immortalized the nation as a world in which one's accent could determine one's entire fate. In popular culture, slang and stereotypes relevant to class abound. But should this be taken as a sign that social class still exists, or should it merely be interpreted as vestiges of an older era, ironically translated into 20th century terms? This paper will examine dueling perspectives on class, and finally assess its material reality.
First of all, what is meant by class? According to David Cannadine's work Class in Britain, one model of class-consciousness is hierarchical, whereby the upper classes are seen to have more wealth, status, and power (and sometimes superior morals) to the lower classes. A second model is one of class enclosures, where each class has its own standards and values. This is often advanced by middle-class authors who see the middle class as the "repository of wisdom and prudence," not bowed down by economic concerns like the lower classes nor self-indulgent like the 'upper crust" (Willetts 1995:1). A third, Marxist conception of class sees class as eternally polarized in a dialectic between the haves and the have-nots.
However, if Great Britain's cultural references are class-obsessed; this does not necessarily mean that real, historical evidence bears out the concept of the durability of class and its current significant in British society. In fact, even during the Middle Ages, traditionally thought of as the highly segmented and class-bound age of feudalism, class may have been far more fluid than is usually conceptualized. "Even in the Middle Ages Britain was not a traditional peasant society, but an individualistic one in which cash transactions were very important" and where it was fairly easy, compared with other European nations, to shed one's class within a generation, or to leave one's village and start a new life (Willetts 1995:2). The French writer Alexis de Tocqueville observed: "The nobles and the middle classes in England followed together the same courses of business, entered the same professions, and... more significant, inter-married" (Willetts 1995:2).
The famous similarities of accent and markers of class indicate the fluidity of British society, rather than its class-bound nature. "Highly mobile societies can be very diverse at the macro level but very homogeneous at the micro...Britain has been a mobile society for much longer than continental Europe. What follows from that is not the absence of social distinction but, instead, a particularly finely-graded and nuanced set of patterns of living in which even the street that you live in tells a social story" (Willetts 1995:2). According to Tory MP David Willetts for all of the much-vaunted barriers to success, "every year The Sunday Times publishes a list of the 500 richest people in the country. In a recent list, six of those were sons of miners" (Willetts 1995:2).
It is, however, rather telling that material success of an elite few is seen as 'proof' of the ephemeral nature of class by this Tory MP. Firstly, not all members of the traditional British gentry have wealth, and some famous 19th century novels such as Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility depict aristocrats who must marry for wealth, and some, in the case of Edith Wharton's The Buccaneers, depict wealth-poor gentry lusting after wealthy but class 'poor' Americans as a way of retaining social status. Wealth is one demarcation of class, but far from the only one. But even 'class' without wealth gives one access to the bastions of privilege, and makes it far easier to pull one's self up by one's proverbial bootstraps. Also, 'class' as a cultural concept clearly exists as a method of self-reference. A sense of unity with a specific class begins early in life.
Furthermore, the mere fact that some members of the 'lower classes' have succeeded is hardly proof that Britain has moved beyond class. It is a commonly-cited truism that merely because America has elected an African-American president it still has yet to eradicate racism…