What Is The British Class System?

A comprehensive guide from a tired Brit, for Americans.

Hannah Davies

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Corsham Court, Wiltshire, England. A classic example of an aristocratic stately home. Image via Unsplash

AtAt 18 years old, I left a northern mining town for one of the top 50 universities in the world. I left with a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy — a plastic golden ticket — still in my pocket. A tongue-in-cheek parting gift.

Needless to say, I experienced a little culture shock.

(It was the literal caviar left to spoil above the fridge for me...)

I never came back as quite the same person.

Class doesn’t dictate the life of any British person — but I realised, in that year, it shapes every single one of us.

A Warning

First things first, I am not writing this to glorify the British class system.

It’s an archaic social hierarchy we have nevertheless invented, internalised, judged and been judged upon, and enforced over centuries. The fact it is pervasive doesn’t make it inherently right or truthful.

This is a mirror. Not an endorsement.

If anything, I hope this article helps shine light on an often silenced topic, and explain why the U.K is The Way That It Is in 2021.

American VS British Class

Americans say “old money” about inherited, intergenerational wealth.

When British people say “old money” we mean literal nobility that trace their fortunes way back to William the Conqueror or Henry V.

You know, pre-16th century.

The British class system doesn’t rely on money and job titles. British people value history and pedigree over current material wealth.

This makes class harder to escape. Class is sticky.

If you win the lottery and become a millionaire today, you can still ostensibly be working class in the U.K. Not many British people would question the logic of that.

Cheryl Cole is a millionaire celebrity, and still “working class”. It’s her whole brand.

So what is “class” in a British sense? Class in the United Kingdom focuses more on where your family come from, who you associate with, how you carry yourself…

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Hannah Davies

Brit Psychologist (MBPsS, BSc), UX Researcher, human.