Toby Young Toby Young

Why are we still obsessed with class?

At a lunch party last Sunday with a group of journalists, the conversation inevitably turned to class and how this ancient English obsession has come to dominate the political news agenda. It’s now such a hot topic that the moment a member of the government does anything that can be construed as remotely snobbish — such as sit in a first-class carriage with a standard-class ticket — he is guaranteed to appear on the front pages the following day.

For a leftie, the answer is obvious. We live in the most class-bound society in the developed world and this government of millionaires, led by a toffee-nosed public schoolboy, is determined to make it even more so. That’s the barely concealed agenda behind raising university tuition fees, cutting the Education Maintenance Allowance, reducing the top rate of income tax, protecting the City of London and slashing benefits. As Alan Johnson said when George Osborne first unveiled his austerity programme in 2010, ‘This is what they came into politics for.’

Now, it’s plainly not true that Britain is more hamstrung by class than any other western country. Institutions like Oxford University and the BBC are often attacked for failing to do more to promote social mobility, but actually Britain doesn’t fare too badly in the international league tables. If you measure inter-generational social mobility according to occupation (typically a seven-class model with ‘higher managerial and professional’ at the top and ‘routine’ at the bottom), Britain sits somewhere in the middle of the table of developed countries, level-pegging with Germany.

True, if you measure social mobility by income instead, Britain fares worse. But even according to that metric, we’re still not the most class-bound society in the developed world. Not as class-bound as America, for instance.

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