Class: Divided we stand

From the Duchess of York to John Prescott, those who try to buck the British social system seem destined to fail. But who wants to live in a classless society anyway? By Bryan Appleyard; So what class are you?
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So John Prescott is now middle class, Prince Edward says the idea of a class system is a "load of codswallop" and Fergie - that experimental transplant from the braying Chelsea upper middles - has finally been rejected by the sluggish, but ultimately ruthless, immune system of the Royal Family. The class war survives in Britain as bitter skirmish, ludicrous posture and constitutional feud.

We are, it is routinely said, a class-ridden society. Americans sneer at our insidious, divisive rituals, the progressive left damns us for our failure to escape from an imperial past, and the economic right plots against our class-based institutions, the better to project us into a globalised, free market culture. In fact, nobody ever says anything good about class - the system is universally agreed to be a bad thing.

But, somehow, class survives. One reason for this is our infinite capacity for hypocrisy. We practise class distinctions even as we mouth our socially acceptable disgust. Snobbery courses through the leftish, bien pensant publishing party as surely as it does through Ascot or Henley. The wrong accent, the giveaway clothes are patronised and then avoided as rigorously in Bohemia as at Court. And the same process works in reverse - the working or under classes are just as suspicious and resentful of the middles and uppers. Something here seems to be just too ingrained, too fundamental to dismiss with a few airy phrases about social mobility and the culture of opportunity.

And this is the real point - even in contemporary Britain, class is destiny, not circumstance. Both Prescott and Prince Edward are being simple-minded. They seem to think of class as contingent, a kind of accident that can be corrected. The Prince thinks social mobility disproves the class system and Prescott thinks because he sits in a Jaguar and works in an office he has become middle class.

Indeed, this has been the naive, superficial assumption about class ever since the Cockney wide-boy photographers, hairdressers and actors appeared on the social scene in the Sixties. Look, everybody said, old, imperial Britain is on the way out. Here is the Mini, a classless car - Princess Margaret drives one. The deferential society is dying, anybody can make it. High society has cracked open to welcome all-comers.

But all this apparent mobility was, in fact, reinforcing class divisions. The point about Princess Margaret and her Mini was that we noticed and revelled in the contrast, it was almost grotesque. And, in any case, we always knew perfectly well she could go back to her Rolls. The Mini was just a chic accessory. Equally, the snappers and clippers had to keep their Cockney accents in high society, otherwise what was the point? Where was the piquant contrast, the thrilling sense that the smart people were slumming it?

The Americans have no right to feel too superior about this. It was, after all, in New York that radical chic - Leonard Bernstein feasting with Black Panthers - was born and where it survives today in the class- laden pages of the New Yorker and Vanity Fair. But it cannot be denied, the British have the stronger sense of predestination, of one's class being a matter of birth rather than circumstance. In the United States, social mobility does have some meaning, even if those who have moved upward subsequently become as fiercely clannish as any duke or duchess.

Understanding class predestination is the only way of really understanding the British class system. Any other interpretation is just media chatter. It is in the cultural bloodstream. Why does Oliver Twist glow like an angel against the grime of the poor house? Because, we later discover, he was well born. Whatever his circumstances, his soul was nourished by superior blood. Oliver proves that class can be concealed but never eradicated - so, even if the lout flawlessly apes the manners of the toff or vice versa, the soul remains eternally marked. And Shakespeare's clowns are not clowns by accident: they are incapable of being princes, they lack the right blood, and that is something you can never acquire.

The Fergie affair makes the point. We crow over her demise because it affirms our unstated, possibly unconscious belief that class is, and always will be, destiny. She was raised to Royalty from the giggling, wine-bar pond life of SW3, but the whole project failed. She carried on giggling. She didn't get it. "I simply didn't know what was expected of me," she said. Quite, we all murmur, how could you? She was, remarked the Daily Telegraph leader on her divorce, "irredeemably unroyal", capturing with that hugely loaded word "irredeemably" the fierce, unrelenting soul of British class.

Witless progressives might, at this point, claim that something so irrational as a belief in class predestination must, like religion, be on the way out. It doesn't make sense, so the cold light of modern reason will, one day, dispel this fog of prejudice and injustice. This is completely wrong. Destiny is a more persuasive force than ever, not just in British but also in global culture.

And the cause, ironically, is the very modern rationality in which progressives place so much faith. For, though we may no longer use the arcane concept of "blood" to explain intractable differences between people, we do use genetics, the hot new scientific discipline. "It's all in the genes" is now the most routine and popular explanation for any human behaviour from crime to creative genius. And, daily, it seems to be affirmed by stories about scientists finding the gene "for" criminality, homosexuality or any other trait that can, however loosely, be classed as deviant.

Genetic determinism is the new, scientifically respectable name of destiny. It means that, from the moment of conception, we are what we are and nothing much can be done about it. It echoes and reinforces the ancient belief in blood, in high and low birth. Fergie didn't have royalty in her genes. Prince Andrew was going against thousands of years of tribal conviction in ignoring that fact, and he paid the price.

So we arrive at the curious cultural moment at which the latest science appears to be confirming an ancient superstition, confirming, indeed, the most local and resilient form of that superstition - the British class system. This is not a remote, intellectual observation. Genetics has already changed real people's view of the world.

After the war, in revulsion against the Nazi abuse of genetic theory, we all swung towards the view that character was formed by nurture not nature. Never again, we thought, would we make the mistake of consigning people to hell because of their natural inheritance. But now the popularisation of molecular genetics has swung us back. People are bad because they are made that way, people are upper, middle or working because it's in their genes - the rich man is back in his castle, the poor man back at the gate. Of course, geneticists themselves would not go that far, but the almost daily stories they inspire and encourage about finding the gene "for" this or that makes that kind of popular assumption inevitable.

And genetics is global so, in world terms, this could mean a new scientifically underwritten class system in which deviant genes make you either a hopeless degenerate or a suitable case for treatment. The British belief in class predestination, meanwhile, can only be sustained by the swing from nurture back to nature. The progressives, the communitarians and the anti-deference constitutional radicals are now, therefore, swimming against the tide. The layered, hierarchical society is once more in tune with the convictions of the people.

Truth, in this context, may seem a trivial matter; reality will, as always, be driven by prejudice. But it is worth a try. First genetics. Nobody can yet honestly claim to have found the gene "for" anything except for about 4,000 rare single gene disorders such as muscular dystrophy, none of which have anything to do with behavioural traits such as homosexuality or criminality. All the evidence is contentious and the best scientific minds will acknowledge that we are almost completely ignorant about the interaction between genes and environment. If we insist that it was all in Fergie's genes, that she really was "irredeemable", then that is a statement of faith, no more and no less.

Second, class. All human societies seem to form themselves into some kind of class system. Hollywood and communist China are class-based as surely as White's club and, in their operations, are a good deal more savage. But the oddity of the British system is that it has retained both institutionally - in the Monarchy and the House of Lords - and psychologically the belief in class as inheritance or destiny. This belief has proved astonishingly resilient in the face of modernity and is now stronger than ever. It is, therefore, likely to be with us for some time.

This may be bad news, but it need not be. And here, at last, is something good to be said about class. If we regard ourselves as predestined to be upper, middle or working, then it only becomes a problem if you seriously want to change. But why should you? The one achievement of social mobility has been not to destroy the class system, but to remove its moral stigma. Everybody knows that working-class David Hockney is a greater Englishman than royal Prince Andrew, so what's the problem? Class persists but its moral depth has gone. It is now a set of mannerisms and rituals, of going to the pub or watching polo. Class is simply culture. Nothing, in fact, to get upset about.

Indeed, once we erase the moral stigma, class becomes something to celebrate, a precious expression of human variety that ought not to be eradicated by either illiterate egalitarianism or the globalised economy. I don't want East End pubs to become like Chelsea wine bars; I don't want Ascot to become like the White City. I want difference because loss of difference is death and, ultimately, the classless society is the dead society.