The British Chancellor George Osborne took the 15:11 from Wilmslow to London this week and ignited a firestorm. The spark? Osbourne bought a standard-class ticket, but upon boarding the train went straight to the first-class carriage. We're told Osborne - a former public schoolboy, reportedly worth more than £4 million (Dh23.5m) - eventually agreed to pay £160 for an upgrade. So why the front-page fuss in the UK? Because of the unending British obsession with class, of course. So just what is it, exactly, about the British and social class? Time to hit the books.
Class in Britain
Go, first, to David Cannadine's Class in Britain for a survey. If it's possible to trace the origins of the modern British class system back to 1066 - when a gaggle of aristocratic Frenchmen conquered England - Cannadine says it was the industrial revolution that established class in its contemporary form: upper, middle, and working.
A-Z of Modern Manners
Since then, that tripartite division has exerted a terrible hold. In the 1950s the writer and aristocrat Nancy Mitford - with tongue in cheek - famously helped codify the linguistic differences in her essay U and Non U, stating that upper-class people say "napkin" while middles say "serviette". See Debrett's A-Z of Modern Manners to ensure you're never lost for the right word, whatever company you're in. Today, though, the British class system was supposed to be a relic of the past. And yet the current Conservative-led government - stuffed full of minor aristocrats and public schoolboys (such as Osborne)- has brought British class-consciousness back to the surface.
The Middle Class Handbook
Not Actual Size,
See The Middle Class Handbook to ponder eternal questions such as: is Victoria Beckham middle class? Meanwhile, read the journalist Owen Jones's Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class (Verso, £9.99) for a polemic against the new elitism.
- But what's the truest indicator of the continuing British obsession with class? The vast success of (Lord) Julian Fellowes's aristocrats-and-servants TV drama Downton Abbey, of course. But Downton is a worldwide hit: could it be that the world is secretly just as interested in class as the British? If you can't get enough, read Fellowes' Snobs (Phoenix, Dh47) - about a middle-class girl who marries above her station - to get another fix.