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British society changes overnight as bureaucrats re-classify us all

EVERY ONE being British - or at least able to exercise that quintessentially British quality of restraint - no one actually mentioned the eldest son of Princess Margaret by name. But the Viscount Linley question hunger in the air at the launch of the Government's new definitions of class yesterday.

The big question, of course, was in who's up and who's down. (Teachers, bank managers, police and prison officers have risen, while shop assistants, hairdressers and plasterers have fallen in the socio-economic league tables.) But that is not the most interesting bit.

Given the exponential changes in the British economy since the official categories were drawn up for the 1911 census, some such changes in the pecking order of individual jobs was inevitable. But, though there have been several such modifications in official categories since then, the essential demarcation of the population into classes which Marx would happily have embraced - professional and plebeian, white-collar and manual, skilled and unskilled - has remained unchanged. Until now.

Yesterday, the National Statistics Office unveiled an entirely revised set of socio-economic classifications. The new gradings reveal the rise and rise of the middle class who make up 60 per cent of the population now (compared with 51 per cent in 1984). They also reflect the shift from manufacturing to services: the cleaner has replaced the coal miner as the archetypal manual worker; shop assistants now constitute the largest single occupation group (about 3 per cent of the population) and a staggering 1 per cent of the workforce are now employed in telephone call centres.

The new categories also take account of the increased role in the workplace of women, who today occupy 18 per cent of all professional posts (compared with 4 per cent in 1984) and have only now been categorised for the first time in their own right rather than according to their husband's job. The new class system also includes a new rank - the self-employed individual or small firm owner.

Which is where Viscount Linley comes in. He may be 12th in line to the throne but because his job is that of cabinet-maker he is now down there in class 5 with all the other "lower supervisory, craft and related occupations". Unless, that is, his firm employs anyone else, in which case he moves up just one step to class 4.

Professor David Rose, the Essex University sociologist who led the team which drew up the system, sighed wearily at this point. Cabinet-makers are generally not members of the aristocracy, he declared, but the sons of working class fathers. "We surveyed 65,000 people across 371 occupations to create the new tables. Do you believe them or some anecdotal exception, he said. "Socio-economic class has nothing to do with social standing."

You could have fooled the rest of us. Class in Britain may be less hidebound than of yore but it is still tangled up in a complex nexus of prejudice and experience. It is not simply socio-economic but is rather about how cultures accrete through the generations. It is bound up, too, with self- perception, with the groups we belong to, the clubs we join and even the religions we embrace. Class is at once, when we are feeling traditional, about hierarchy and stability and, when we come over political, about conflict and change.

It is wider too than the marketing classifications which see social grade as co-terminus with spending power in their A, B, C1, C2, D, E lexicon. And yet the nature of our employment has a greater impact upon the chances we have in life than almost anything else, which is why occupation remains at the heart of the new system.

But there is a subtle shift. It is not based on earnings. (On average someone in the new class one earns only 2.3 times more than someone in class seven). Rather it is concerned with employment conditions like job security, salary increments, sick pay, non-financial perks and the amount of control the individual has over their workload. It is because of deteriorations in these criteria, compared with those of other jobs previously categorised as non-manual social class III, that check-out operators and sales assistants have found themselves sliding down the slippery socio-economic pole.

In any case the purpose of the official categories is not social but to assist governments in working out how to counter blackspots in health, education, crime and so forth, so that resources may be better targeted. It is still the case that men in the lowest category, class 7, are three and a half times more likely to die from a stroke than men in class 1 - they were also twice as likely to die from cancer, five and a half times from an accident and four and a half times more likely to commit suicide.

No statistics - on health or otherwise - are provided for those in the "never worked" and "long-term unemployed" category. Professor Rose's report wanted to place them in a class of their own. But the Government has decided against a class eight. The argument was that it would be too difficult to find a definition which would describe them all circumstances.

It might, of course, also draw increased attention to those who, whatever they are called, are still at the bottom of the heap - and to the problem, not of what to call them, but what to do about them.