“England is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly.”
These immortal words were uttered by George Orwell, author of the iconic novel “1984” and one of the most influential British writers of the 20th century, in 1941. And they have, it must be said, contributed to one of the most enduring stereotypes of English life. But just how true are they today?
Before we even start, “social class” is, it seems to me, a bit of a loaded term these days. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair tried hard to persuade us all during his tenure (1997-2007) that such a thing no longer existed in modern Britain, siding instead with the US preference for money being the key differentiator between social groupings rather than the more traditional blood and background.
While this stance was underpinned by New Labour’s aims in moving the Party to the centre ground of politics and keeping the hard left in its place by positioning old ideas of “class war” as irrelevant and old-fashioned, that didn’t mean to say the notion of class disappeared completely. Instead it just appeared to morph in line with other changes in society, not least the progressive de-industrialisation of the UK economy which made traditional delineations less relevant.
So in order to get a better handle on what was happening, the BBC commissioned a massive survey in January 2011 – one of the largest ever studies on class in the UK, in fact. Some 160,000 members of the broadcaster’s audience took part in the questionnaire, the results of which were analysed by sociologists Mike Savage from the London School of Economics and Fiona Devine from the University of Manchester.
And their findings, which were published in the journal Sociology a couple of years later, were interesting. Responses to questions based on ‘economic capital’ (income, the value of home and savings), ‘cultural capital’ (cultural interests and activities) and ‘social capital’ (the number and status of people they knew) revealed that the three traditional social classes in Britain – upper, middle and working – had actually expanded to seven.
Even though people still tended to think they belonged to a certain class on the basis of their job or income, only 39% of participants truly fitted into traditional middle or working class stereotypes if cultural and social capital were also taken into consideration, indicating that, in category terms at least, things are much more fluid than they once were.
On the other hand though, the evidence still suggests that privilege will out. According to a study undertaken by a couple of economists, Professor Gregory Clark and Dr Neil Cummins, at the start of 2015, attempts to improve social mobility in the UK over the last 150 years have failed miserably.
In their research, they tracked 634 rare surnames such as Pepys, Bigge and Nottidge, to understand how wealth had been passed down through the generations since 1850, dividing 18,869 people into three categories in the process – rich, prosperous and poor. They discovered that not only were the descendants of the wealthy in 1850 still rich today, but they continued to live longer than average, were more likely to attend Oxford or Cambridge, reside in expensive areas and join professions such as doctors or lawyers.
In spite of the introduction of wealth taxes in the early twentieth century, the advent of mass education and the opening up of universities and professions to those outside of the elite in a bid to even things up a bit, social mobility rates have changed not “one iota”, Clark and Cummins attest.
Inequality and static social mobility
“There is no more popular political programme than that which calls for enhanced social mobility,” they wrote. “Our data suggests there is also no programme more guaranteed to fail.”
As a result, in order to create a more equal society, the only answer was to “do it directly, by taxing the rich and subsidising the poor”, Clark says. There is no other remedy in his view.
Such findings would appear to be backed up by other studies too. Research by The Sutton Trust, a charity that supports projects providing educational opportunities to underprivileged children, revealed earlier this year that a privately educated elite continues to dominate the country’s professions. Whether we’re talking about law, politics, medicine or journalism, a public (confusingly for non-Brits, this is the term used elsewhere for private) school education undoubtedly makes you much more likely to reach the upper echelons of public life in Britain, it seems.
So although only 7% of the population attend fee-paying schools – compared with the 88% who go to comprehensives – just under three quarters of pre-eminent judges working in the high or appeal court today were privately educated. So were 71% of the top military brass, 61% of top doctors, 51% of leading print journalists and just under a third of politicians.
But as Sir Peter Lampl, chair of The Sutton Trust, aptly points out, sailing to the top is not just about having the money do so. “As well as academic achievement, an independent education tends to develop essential skills such as confidence, articulacy and teamwork, which are vital to career success,” he says.
As a result, Lampl recommends opening up private schools to all pupils based on merit rather than money as well as providing more support for very able pupils in state schools.
But sadly, it doesn’t seem as if the UK’s high levels of inequality are likely to change any time soon. In fact, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, for the first time in almost a decade, the situation is getting worse rather than better.
This scenario is, unfortunately, mainly due to rapidly increasing house prices, particularly in London and the South East, driven by the Bank of England’s attempts to prop up the British economy following the 2008 recession using policies such as low interest rates and quantitative easing.
In the years between July 2012 and June 2014 when the research was conducted, these policies led to the richest 20% of households having 117 times more assets than the poorest 20% compared with 97 times two years ago.
Moreover, it appears that wealth and income fault lines are increasingly running along generational lines. So while a quarter of people aged 55 to 64 live in households with more than £1 million worth of assets, the same is true of only 4% of 25 to 34 year olds – a fact that simply can’t bode well for the future, whichever way you look at it.