- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 22, 2003

OXFORD, England — The informal potluck lunch had just gotten under way at a gentrified farm house outside Oxford when that age-old British preoccupation with class suddenly surfaced.

The parents were drinking cocktails, and many of the 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 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 arrive each day to be entertained by a tourist industry that thrives on a dream of old-fashioned England.

Including the House of Lords, where some hereditary peers still sit; the royal family at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle; and 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, because 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 such as “Down and Out in Paris and London” and “The Road to Wigan Pier.”

But that was then, and 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, politics, business pop music and the civil service.

“Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling, once a poor single mother, is thought to be wealthier than Queen Elizabeth II, while 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.

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

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

But that doesn’t mean Britons have stopped pigeonholing one another 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, a specialist 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 about fox hunting, state vs. private schools, democratic reforms in the House of Lords, taxes that fund the royal family, private vs. 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 guest pretending to be a lord; and comedian Harry Enfield’s Tim-Nice-But-Dim.

But the traces of class are generally much more subtle in real life. Because my wife is British, she had no trouble detecting the body language of class disapproval. Being American, I could have easily missed it — or perhaps I’d even be exempted.

Another challenge is distinguishing between putdowns from above and resentment from below.

Katy Johnson, an administrator at the London School of Economics who graduated from Oxford University, says reverse snobbery was what impressed her at college.

“Some of the wealthy kids — the titled, the upper class — muddied their backgrounds and accents in public to hide their wealth, unless they were talking to their equals,” she said in an interview. “One friend didn’t even tell me she was a baroness and didn’t use her posh accent with me, a middle-class person, to avoid putdowns from below.”

It’s been years since the publicly funded British Broadcasting Corp. stopped requiring its radio and television staff to use the posh accent associated with the upper classes. Many now use regional accents with no apology.

But Ivan Reid, a sociologist at the University of Bradford in northern England, said that doesn’t mean judgments aren’t made on the basis of accent, word usage, sentence construction and speed of delivery.

As a boy, Mr. Reid said, he was given language training at a state school to shed his Cockney accent. His daughter, however, had to use both. She knew she would be teased by locals if she used her posh accent in the north, a region long considered inferior to the south.

As a teenager, she paid the price for that confusion while visiting Cambridge University in the southeast as a prospective student.

When she asked a question at a school presentation, the official on the stage replied: “Do I detect a northern accent?”

“She walked out and never went to Cambridge,” Mr. Reid said.

Some argue that every country inherits prejudices from its history that take a long time to shed. What caste is to India and race is to the United States, class is to Britain.

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