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Why class is crucial to the English

CLASS IS a slippery word, used this week by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) in one sense and by ordinary mortals in quite another. According to the ONS, the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, is upper class, on the highest rung in the ladder, the creme de la creme, as Miss Jean Brodie would say. But that is not how Mr Prescott describes himself. In fact he would burst his sides with laughter, and/or knock your block off, if you called him upper class - take it as a grievous insult. He describes himself - I once heard him do so - as working class and proud of it. So, of course, does Mr Major, the former Conservative Prime Minister, who is also, according to the latest findings of the ONS, upper class. No mystery here, really, of course. The ONS is using class as a term to describe how power and wealth in this country are nowadays realistically distributed, and you and I are using class as a term to describe the old social order, fond or bitter memories of which lie deep in all our hearts.

After the Labour landslide victory in 1945, I remember my mother - who was an ardent egalitarian, at least in theory - welcoming the imminent end of the snobbish old class system. In a way her expectations were justified. The snobbish system to which she was referring has indeed come to an end. For the social cache attaching to a tycoon risen from the working class is far, far greater than that attaching to an impoverished nobleman, as the pages of Hello make all too clear.

Whereas in the old days ambitious young men struggled to get rid of a working-class accent, today they struggle to acquire one. Yet still people talk about Britain being a toff-ridden society, uniquely deferential and so on. The reality, in my view, is quite otherwise. Bernie Ecclestone and the Saatchi brothers with their millions - or is it trillions? - have far more power and influence in today's society than do the Dukes of Devonshire or Marlborough, with all their titles. As for a very rich grocer, like the Sainsburys, they really are the tops. Who else could have a new wing of the National Gallery called after them in Trafalgar Square, the very epicentre of the British Empire?

Nevertheless, I agree, something about class in the old-fashioned sense still does exist, much more so than anywhere else. Only we continue to make a thing about our individual place an erstwhile hierarchy which no longer functions in any practical sense. For example, I once had an imperious workingclass editor who chose to nickname me, quite affectionately, as "the toff". His nickname "Comrade" for my closest friend and colleague, a Yorkshire miner's son, was equally affectionate - and in practice equally irrelevant to the way he bawled us both out.

This nostalgic harking backwards to the traditional understanding of class, however, was cohesive rather than divisive, a bond binding us together rather than a barrier keeping us apart and, on a national level, a blessing rather than a curse.

Now I come to the difficult bit, which is to explain quite why. It (a sense of where we spring from) is, I believe, something which a true Englishman - let alone a true Englishwoman like Nancy Mitford - knows instinctively. Indeed it is a crucial part of being English, a defining characteristic, one of the last remaining pleasures of being English, conducive to solidarity rather than alienation. As such, it is a unique strength rather than a unique weakness. It was not always so, I agree, but that is what it has evolved into, and I hope it may long remain so, as it almost certainly will, despite the abolition of the hereditary House of Lords.

The explanation is very simple. Britain has never had a bloody revolution, except in the 17th century, the baleful effects of which were soon undone by restoring Charles II. Unlike the French or the Russians we have never physically liquidated our aristocracy, or, like the Americans, started afresh without ever having one. So something of the old social order remains, rather as a country's uneven physical landscape remains intact unless levelled by a bulldozer. In fact even when bulldozed down by 70 years of Communism, as in the Soviet Union, something survived, as became evident recently when returning Russian emigre aristocrats were welcomed home to their erstwhile ancestral estates by tearful "peasants" - about the only decent thing that has survived in that benighted land.

So let us hang on to our unique hierarchical heritage for dear life, in spite of it not tallying one little bit with the findings of the Office of National Statistics. Office of National Statistics indeed! How could anything with that name possibly be telling the truth?