February 10

Class system back on rise in Britain – with a twist

While the ancestral upper caste still remains, money – not lineage – defines the new elite.

By Jill Lawless
The Associated Press

LONDON — For the past three decades, many Britons had hoped the rigid class system that defined their country from Dickens to “Downton Abbey” was finally dying. Now they fear that class, their old bugbear, is back on the rise.

click image to enlarge

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II doesn’t even make the list of the richest Britons. The list is now dominated by international capitalists.

2013 Associated Press File Photo

From 1979, Britain was led for more than a decade by Margaret Thatcher, a grocer’s daughter, and then by John Major, the son of a music-hall entertainer. The current leader, David Cameron, is a descendent of King William IV whose Cabinet is stacked with men, like him, from the country’s toniest private schools and Oxford and Cambridge universities.

Even entertainment has a more upper-crust flavor these days. A recent Sunday Telegraph story with the headline “young, gifted and posh” said Britain’s oldest private schools, such as all-male Eton and Harrow, had become a “production line of young talent,” including “Homeland” star Damian Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch of “Sherlock” and Dominic West of “The Wire.”

Major, alarmed by the apparent reversals, recently sparked a flurry of debate with a speech that made front-page headlines.

“In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class,” Major said. “To me, from my background, I find that truly shocking.”

So is it true that class divisions are deepening again?

While the ancestral upper caste still retains its mystique in Britain, the numbers reflect a more complicated reality. An elite still dominates, but it is now a club where money – and the education money can buy – counts more than lineage.

This means more women, ethnic minorities and foreigners have made it to the top. But the increase in diversity masks the fact that it’s becoming harder for the poor and unconnected to climb the social ladder, as the government’s social mobility commission concluded in a hefty report published in October.

A NEW WEALTHY CLASS

When the Sunday Times newspaper published its first annual “Rich List” in 1989, Britain’s wealthiest individual was Queen Elizabeth II. The top 10 was dominated by established British property and business owners, including the Duke of Westminster, who owns vast swaths of central London, supermarket magnate Lord Sainsbury and food mogul Lord Vestey. It was a snapshot of an elite heavy on titled backgrounds, clubby connections and inherited wealth.

The 2013 list is a roll-call of international capitalists who have made London their base, with the Duke of Westminster the only carryover from the original roster. Even the queen has dropped out.

The top 10 now includes Uzbek mining magnate Alisher Usmanov; Indian industrialists Srichand and Gopichand Hinduja; Chelsea Football Club’s Russian owner, Roman Abramovich; Norwegian shipping tycoon John Frederiksen and Heineken beer heir Charlene de Carvalho.

The changes in the super-wealthy class were triggered, in part, by Thatcher, who deregulated business and banking and opened up London’s financial sector to the world.

Philip Beresford, who assembles the list, told the BBC that “when I first started 25 years ago about two-thirds of the rich list were people who had inherited their wealth. Today, approaching 80 percent are self-made and that’s really a legacy of the Thatcher years.”

The top 100 companies in the FTSE index also reflect the changes. When the index was established in 1984, 80 of the 100 chief executives on it were British. In 2008 the number was 64, and in 2012 it was 55. In 1984, 33 of the CEOs had gone to Oxford or Cambridge; by 2013 it was down to 15.

The increasing diversity does not extend to gender. There were no female CEOs on the list in 1984 and only three in 2013.

(Continued on page 2)

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors




Further Discussion

Here at KJonline.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)