The Class System – Alive And Kicking In England

Like something out of Louis XIV’s French court in the 1600’s, where only persons of the highest rank could even sit on a stool in the king’s presence, Queen Elizabeth II recently updated the curtseying protocols for the Royal family. Officially called the “Order of Precedence of the Royal Family to be Observed at Court”, these protocols were last updated in 2005 when Charles married Camilla Parker-Bowles. Although Camilla was generally recognized as posh, she is in fact a commoner and apparently certain “blood Princesses” (namely the Queen’s only daughter, Anne) refused to curtsey to her. Now that all three of her sons have married “down”, the Queen has the task of updating the protocols to avoid hurt feelings and embarrassment.

Although Kate Middleton, is now the Duchess of Cambridge and a future queen, she must curtsey to Princess Anne, (a blood Princess who works very hard, I have to say), and Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie (grand-daughters of the Queen, who do very little and wear ridiculous hats and towering heels).Apparently this curtseying must be done in private as well as public, although “royal insiders” say this simply doesn’t happen and the royals only curtsey to the Queen and Prince Philip.

To foreigners, all this must seem terribly antiquated, but class and protocol doesn’t just concern those at the very top. During the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations in June, one of the more urgent questions on TV talk shows was whether or not decorating one’s house in Jubilee regalia was a working class thing. It appeared that in middle class communities, no one was hanging anything outside their houses for fear of looking “common”.

A quick explanation here for non-Brits – The Term “middle class” in the UK means you’re slightly above the workers, and unless you own vast tracts of land or have a title, you’re not upper class. According to the Cambridge Online Dictionaries the middle class is “a social group that consists of well-educated people, such as doctors, lawyers and teachers, who have good jobs and are neither very rich nor very poor.” Although Kate Middleton’s parents have a huge house, lots of money and sent their kids to one of England’s most exclusive boarding schools, they were still called “middle class” in a manner that was often derogatory. It was rumored that some of Prince William’s friends, in a dreadful display of snobbery, nicknamed Kate’s mother “doors to manual” because she had once worked as a flight attendant.

Unlike the USA, where money is more of a factor in defining class, a British bank balance doesn’t always cut the mustard. Dr. Julian Baggini, philosopher, writer and journalist says of the UK, “Culturally this country still is predominantly working class. Superficially it seems we are middle class because we have more of the trappings of middle class life, but the majority of people are just working class with more money, not middle class.” Complicated eh?

Amusingly, Brits can be upper class yet not have two pennies to rub together. The country is littered with landed gentry and aristocrats who have inherited huge estates and can’t even pay the electricity bills. At the turn of the 20th century, it was common for aristocrats to marry wealthy American heiresses such as Lady (Jenny) Randolph Churchill, or the fictitious Lady Cora Crawley in “Downtown Abbey”. Presumably Americans, while obviously not aristocrats, lacked a tell-tale non-aristocratic British accent and thus the strict class rules remained intact.

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Kate Fox, author and social anthropologist says in her great book, “Watching the English” – “We are clearly as acutely class-conscious as we have been, but in these “politically correct” times, many of us are increasingly embarrassed about our class-consciousness, and do our best to deny or disguise it. “ She continues, “…class in England has nothing to do with money, and very little to do with occupation. Speech is all important. A person with an upper-class accent, using upper-class terminology, will be recognized as upper class even if he or she is earning poverty-line wages, doing grubby menial work and living in a run-down council flat. …There are other class indicators …but speech is the most immediate and most obvious.”

Like I said, complicated.

Just in case you’re curious, there’s a little quiz, based on “Watching the English” that helps determine where you are on the social strata – “Are you Proper Posh?”

Toni Summers Hargis is the author of "Rules, Britannia; An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom", (St. Martin’s Press) and blogs as Expat Mum.


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