The rebirth of Britain's upper-class

The elites in British life are increasingly drawn from a class privileged by the school their parents sent them to, while the prospect of social mobility for the poorer in society decreases steadily, writes Jill Lawless.

The rebirth of Britain's upper-class

FOR the past three decades, many Britons had hoped that 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.

From 1979, Britain was led for more than a decade by Margaret Thatcher, a grocer’s daughter, and then by John Major, son of a music hall entertainer.

The current leader, David Cameron, is a descendent of King William IV, monarch from 1830 to 1837. Cameron’s sabinet is stacked with men like him, from the country’s top private schools and Oxford and Cambridge universities.

Even British entertainment has a more upper-crust flavour these days. A recent Sunday Telegraph story with the headline “young, gifted and posh” said Britain’s oldest private schools, such as 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. However, this 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 recently concluded in a hefty report.

When The Sunday Times 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, Gerald Grosvenor, who owns vast swaths of central London, supermarket magnate Lord David Sainsbury, and food mogul Lord Sam 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 Grosvenor 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: “When I first started 25 years ago, about two thirds of the rich list were people who had inherited their wealth. Today, approaching 80% are self-made and that’s really a legacy of the Thatcher years.”

If business has grown more open, many Britons express concern that an old upper class is reasserting itself at the top of politics.

“No one would have imagined 20 years ago we’d be going back to Old Etonian prime ministers,” said historian David Kynaston, who is chronicling the way British society has changed since the Second World War. “It was kind of thought once that class was going away.”

But here, too, the picture is more nuanced. While Britons may focus on the aristocratic lineage of Cameron and his finance minister, George Osborne, they often overlook a new category of career politicians, many of them wealthy individuals with school connections. And while gender and ethnic diversity have grown, the participation of working-class candidates who enter politics after holding “real-world” jobs has withered.

When Thatcher became prime minister in 1979, she was one of only 19 women in the House of Commons, 3% of the total. Not one MP out of more than 600 came from an ethnic minority. Almost half had attended private schools, while 36% went to Oxbridge, as Oxford and Cambridge are collectively known. The MPs included 96 lawyers, 49 teachers and 138 businesspeople — but also 98 manual workers, including 21 former miners.

In the current parliament, 22% of legislators are women and 4.2% are from an ethnic minority. Just over a third of MPs went to private school and 27% to Oxbridge. There are still scores of lawyers and businesspeople, but only 25 former manual workers. A total of 90 members of parliament give their background as “politician/political organiser,” more than four times as many as did so in 1979.

“There are many more call-centre workers than ever there were miners, but it’s hard to envisage how a call-centre worker would become a member of parliament in the current system,” said Labour MP Jon Trickett, a former plumber and builder.

If the bastions of business, politics, and the professions were hard for working-class people to storm, there was always entertainment, where a working-class hero, as John Lennon put it, was something to be. You don’t need money or a degree to be a movie star.

Or do you? Britain’s leading actors appear to be drawn from a smaller pool than a generation or two ago.

In a list of actors with the highest cumulative box-office earnings on website Box Office Mojo, there are 10 Britons in the top 50. The older end of the list includes actors from working-class backgrounds such as Michael Caine, 80, the son of a fishmarket porter, and 55-year-old Gary Oldman, son of a sailor and a London housewife. Ian McKellen, 74, attended state-funded school.

As the list gets younger, it climbs the social scale: Ralph Fiennes, 51, grandson of a wealthy industrialist; Helena Bonham Carter, 47, great-granddaughter of a British prime minister; and Orlando Bloom, 37, educated at private school. Of the three stars of the Harry Potter trio, now in their 20s, Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson attended private schools; Rupert Grint went to a state school.

IF actors are becoming posher, surely there’s still plenty of room for working class heroes in popular music?

The best-selling British pop stars of all time, according to data from the Recording Industry Association of America, are The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Elton John, and the Rolling Stones — often self-taught musicians, mostly from lower- or middle-class backgrounds who worked their way up from small, smoky clubs to the big time.

But that was several decades ago.

There’s a growing perception — though hard proof is elusive — that the upper classes are gaining ground in the music business. Now, for every working-class singer made good, such as Adele, there’s a posh, privately educated Coldplay or Mumford & Sons.

That leaves sports — especially soccer — as the one arena whose stars are overwhelmingly working class. Sport provides a parallel elite, complete with an honorary king, David Beckham, who is handsome, regal, and at ease standing alongside Prince William to lobby for British sports.

But in the parallel universe of sport, only a tiny minority of the most talented can even hope to make a living.

In most areas of British life, success comes down to going to the right — usually expensive — school.

A third of Britain’s MPs, half its senior doctors, and more than two thirds of its High Court judges went to private schools, which educate just 7% of British children, according to statistics from the House of Commons. Well over a third of Oxbridge undergraduates still come from these private schools, although the figure for non-white students has gone up over two decades from 5% to 13% at Oxford and 16% at Cambridge.

Advocates of greater social mobility point to the education system as the key to loosening the grip of a wealthy elite. Some lament the demise of Britain’s academically rigorous grammar schools, where pupils were selected by exam at age 11.

As engines of upward mobility, grammar schools worked. A list of Britain’s Nobel Prize winners in science over the past 35 years includes the sons — no daughters — of mechanics, gas fitters and stonemasons as well as doctors and academics. Ten out of 18 British laureates since 1979 attended grammar school.

However, the grammar schools were largely abolished in the 1970s because the system put most children on a lower-tier track that gave them little chance of attending university.

Now, middle-class parents with the means move to areas with the best state schools, or send their kids to private schools, building what critics say is an educational fortress that starts at kindergarten.

In the end, British society faces a fundamental problem: For talented poor people to succeed, some less talented rich people will have to fail.

“If you talk about having a more meritocratic society… we would have to have much more downward mobility than we do,” said sociologist John Goldthorpe.

And there’s the rub.

Downward mobility: Who’s going to campaign on that?

More in this section

News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up