You don't have to be a nob to be a snob. Just ask the Duchess

Blatant snobbery is again acceptable - indeed chic - in Britain. But it's the nouveau riche, not the aristos, who are at it. As Sarah Ferguson prepares to weigh in against class consciousness, Katy Guest and Anthony Barnes report on why we're all looking down our noses

She married into royalty, gave birth to princesses and has used her title to make a fortune among Anglophile Americans in love with lords and ladies. But now the Duchess of York is reinventing herself as new style champion of the people, railing against - of all things - snobbery.

She married into royalty, gave birth to princesses and has used her title to make a fortune among Anglophile Americans in love with lords and ladies. But now the Duchess of York is reinventing herself as new style champion of the people, railing against - of all things - snobbery.

Tomorrow, Sarah Ferguson will be given control of Radio 4's flagship news programme, Today, and she has chosen this forum to give the nation a stern ticking off about looking down their noses at each other.

"I believe that snobbery is a form of grandiose behaviour which really stems either from believing you're someone more important than you are, or from having too much money too quickly," she will tell listeners.

Some of them might be a bit surprised by this. After all, they will say, she is a woman who still makes ready use of her title, and has not hitherto been accused of being the People's Princess. But the duchess's spokeswoman told The Independent on Sunday: "I do know that she is absolutely not a snob and she dislikes snobs and pomposity. She doesn't subscribe to snobbery."

Her campaign has struck a chord - for, according to experts, snobbery has thrown off the shackles of class and is no longer about old money and breeding. It is more concerned with taste, brands and style. Whether it be intellectual or social, traditional or inverted, the British are all snobs now. Brand snobbery is taught to children the minute they step out to nursery school in their Baby Gap trainers. Posh and Becks are the new royal family - but at the same time as idolising them, many sneer at their taste.

Suddenly, snobbery is back in vogue. One hundred years since the birth of Nancy Mitford, whose definition of people as U and non-U was seen as the ultimate in society snobbery, Julian Fellowes's best-seller, Snobs, is to be made into a BBC television series. Meanwhile, Lynn Truss has chosen to write about our manners, in what many will see as a snooty follow-up to her runaway success, Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

According to Charles Mosley, the editor-in-chief of Debrett's Peerage, the toffs' bible, snobbery is more rife now than "at any time since pre-1780s Versailles". "Rock stars are having parties where the people who serve the canapés are told not to look the celebrity guests in the eye," he said. "A peer of the realm would never have got away with that. The staff would have walked out.

"The more fluid a society, the more rampant snobbery is," he added. "People are constantly searching for reassurance about their positions - even more so now than in Queen Victoria's time.

"They may not be kow-towing to peers any more, but they're kow-towing to footballers or rock stars or celebrities.

"It's mutated; it's a more variegated snobbery now."

Jilly Cooper, whose novel Class summed up the mood of the Eighties, agrees that snobbery is more pervasive and varied than ever. She particularly attacked television's makeover programmes for their sneery opinions, singling out Trinny and Susannah, the stars of What Not to Wear, as "a very thinly disguised form of class snobbery".

"Have you seen these programmes that tell you how to sell your house?" she complained. "They tell people to get rid of the books, the pictures, the dog - all the most important things in the world." Not everyone agrees.

Brian Sewell, the acerbic art critic, will arguethe case with Fergie on the radio tomorrow. "It's very difficult to define exactly what snobbery means now. It's like the word 'elite', which to me is a compliment and to everybody else is a term of abuse. It's one of those Humpty Dumpty words," he said, referring to Lewis Carroll's Alice Through the Looking Glass. "It means 'whatever I choose it to mean'."

John Scott, president of the British Sociological Association, who has conducted research into the British class system, believes increasing snobbery in Britain stems from the insecurity of the upper and middle classes who fear their position is under threat. "There is no longer any room for Nancy Mitford's kind of snobbery in this type of society," he said. "Those without power are now more likely to criticise them [the upper classes] than to defer to them."

Cary Cooper, Professor of Psychology at Lancaster University, said: "Snobbery used to be the preserve of the upper middle classes trying to protect their status. Now what is significant is how much money you have. The nouveau riche are the new snobs."

The Duchess of York has long been seen by some as a victim of snobbery herself. Lord Charteris - Provost of Eton College and a friend of the late Queen Mother - once called the duchess "vulgar, vulgar, vulgar". But she has also demanded airtime for serious items on obesity - she was once branded the Duchess of Pork before famously triumphing in the US by making a fortune as the face and body of WeightWatchers.

Intellectual snobs may be rather alarmed at her guest editorship, but Jilly Cooper supports her right to attack snobbery. "This beautiful, non-academic person is taking over the Today programme. People will be getting in a frightful state."

How snobbish are you? Take our test

1 It is honorary degree day at your local university and you are chancellor. Whom do you seat on your right hand?

a) The Earl of Borsetshire, whose sister you once met in Biarritz

b) Harry 'Monster' Hutchins, Australian beer magnate who is funding the new Chair in Barbecue Studies

c) Dr Hilary Bookworm, the working-class woman from your town who is now a Nobel Prize-winning physicist

d) Jonah Plagiarise, new darling of London's literary scene

e) Wayne Hubcap, top scorer for your local Premiership side

2 You see someone walking towards you wearing Burberry. Your first reaction is to:

a) Walk up and say: "Oh, hello. And where do you people come from?"

b) Stop and ask them if Burberry does a wallet for your credit cards

c) Cross the road - just in case

d) Ask them if they know how to spell Burberry

e) Reach inside your pocket for a knife

3 In your view, no one is well read until they have:

a) Studied that week's Tatler

b) Learnt Das Kapital off by heart

c) It's more important to enjoy reading than to be "well-read"

d) Consumed all this year's Booker shortlist

e) Mastered the instructions on a packet of Angel Delight

4 You refer to the room at the front of the house as:

a) Part of the south wing

b) The lounge - and proud of it

c) The living room

d) The sitting room

e) The Dolby surround-sound home cinema. Or the porch

5 This afternoon you will be:

a) Saddle-soaping your whip ready to deal with the saboteurs proles at tomorrow's hunt

b) Watching reruns of Phoenix Nights and The Royle Family while throwing Wotsits at the telly

c) Eating turkey sandwiches, like everybody else

d) Writing to upbraid the board of Mensa about this year's pitifully easy Christmas crossword

e) Unconscious

6 At an expensive restaurant, cutlery is:

a) Always used in strict order, from the outside towards the plate

b) Probably made by beleaguered steel workers who are earning below the minimum wage

c) Always used from the inside out

d) From the Middle French coutelier, from the late Latin cultellarius - obviously

e) For when you've run out of fingers

Answers: Mostly As - Congratulations, you are a good old-fashioned social snob. Mostly Bs - Inverted snobbery is still snobbery, you know. Mostly Cs - You have no snobbish tendencies at all. Mostly Ds - You are a fearsome intellectual snob. Mostly Es - Sorry, but you are an irredeemable chav.

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