- Associated Press - Monday, February 10, 2014

LONDON (AP) - 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.

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.

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