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Britain Still Has a Touch of Class (Snobbery)

Meritocracy rules, but aristocracy retains the power to sneer. Judging acquaintances on how they talk and dress is commonplace.

June 22, 2003|Thomas Wagner | Associated Press Writer

OXFORD, England — The informal potluck lunch had just begun at a gentrified farmhouse outside Oxford when that age-old British preoccupation with class surfaced.

The parents were drinking cocktails, and many of our children from a local, private elementary school were playing rugby on a beautiful field of grass.

Most of the adults had met each other at the school during Sunday services or at sporting events. That's why my wife was surprised to realize that an acquaintance was sneering at her clothes.

"During our conversation, he kept looking down at my stretch velvet trousers. As we spoke, he kept raising his eyebrows, faintly curling his upper lip. The guy was appalled," she said.

Later, our 11-year-old daughter solved the mystery: "Mom, only 'townies' wear those kind of clothes."

In other words, it was a violation of class protocol.

As summer approaches in the United Kingdom, planeloads of foreigners will soon arrive each day to be entertained by a tourist industry that thrives on a dream of old-fashioned England.

From the House of Lords, where some hereditary peers still sit, to the royal family at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, to country estate museums redolent of Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited," the heritage industry will capitalize on one of the world's oldest cliches.

It goes like this: England remains a country ruled by an aristocracy-based social pecking order, that hierarchical class system that so defined it from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century.

This profitable inaccuracy could get even more attention this year since it's the 100th anniversary of the births of two famous class-conscious British authors: Waugh and George Orwell.

Waugh's classic novel "Brideshead" mourned the waning of the English aristocracy and the ascent of the artless masses. Orwell, a socialist who dreamed of a classless society, wrote about the poor in novels like "Down and Out in Paris and London" and "The Road to Wigan Pier."

But that was then; this is now.

Britain is no longer governed by a rich ruling class, where social distinctions take precedence over talent and merit. Rags-to-riches stories abound in everything from politics and business to pop music and the civil service.

"Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling, once a poor, single mother, is reported by London's Sunday Times to be wealthier than Queen Elizabeth II (although Rowling, like the queen, claims that her wealth is exaggerated). Knighthoods are bestowed on the likes of Mick Jagger, and the nation's most famous face belongs to working-class mate David Beckham, captain of England's national soccer team -- until he was sold this month to a team in Madrid.

Recently, a best-selling book by Philip Augar, "The Death of Gentlemanly Capitalism," told how in the mid-1980s, the deregulation of London's financial markets -- known as the City -- led to the foreign takeover of Britain's investment banks.

One reason, Augar said, was that some British managers still came from a traditional, class-based fraternity that had graduated from elite schools like Eton and Cambridge, belonged to gentlemen's clubs and owned country estates. Their old-boy, inflexible code of conduct affected everything from the style of their suits to their macho drinking habits.

"No one in the old City was prepared for the world in which the computer replaced the handshake," Augar said.

But that doesn't mean that Britons have stopped pigeonholing each other based on speech, education and dress.

The price one can pay for a regional accent in Britain is nowhere as high as it was in George Bernard Shaw's play "Pygmalion."

But as people size up one another, they still listen for indicators of class, generation and geography as subtle as whether a speaker uses the words napkin or serviette, sitting room or lounge, lavatory, toilet or loo.

"Many scholars have concluded that class doesn't matter any more, which seems rather odd," David Cannadine, an expert in the social history of the British upper classes, wrote in his book "The Class in Britain."

"Class is still essential to a proper understanding of British history and of Britain today," he said. "Class is undoubtedly a British preoccupation."

Newspapers are full of it.

Class intrudes into debates over fox hunting, state versus private schools, democratic reforms in the House of Lords, taxes that fund the royal family, private versus state-run hospitals, the huge amounts of land still owned by former aristocratic families, and the freedom to walk public footpaths near private property.

British TV capitalizes on class sensitivities by creating comic characters such as the pretentious Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced "Bouquet"); Basil Fawlty, who grovels to a hotel guest pretending to be a lord, and comedian Harry Enfield's Tim-Nice-But-Dim.

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