How important is social class in Britain?

How important is social class in Britain?
Guardsman stand in formation at Windsor Castle for the arrival of U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama

The UK is famed for the rigid distinctions between the different strata of society - but what's the truth in the myth? And how does it compare to other countries?

Like it or loathe it, many see the class system as a quintessential element of British life, together with our obsession for tea and cake and talking about the weather.

"Class distinctions do not die; they merely learn new ways of expressing themselves," the British sociologist Richard Hoggart once wrote. "Each decade we shiftily declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty." A quick perusal of the foreign media would certainly paint a picture of a rigid class system, especially compared to places like the USA where ambition, talent and elbow grease are thought to be the only limits.

But how well does this stereotype really hold up? Is the British class system still as entrenched as it ever was? Or are those old distinctions a thing of the past, best left behind with the corsets and top hats of our period dramas? These questions have been difficult to answer with any certainty, but recent data has offered some surprising insights.

As Hoggart noted, writers have been ringing the death knell for the British class system since at least the early 20th Century. Writing an open letter to his friend Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh claimed that "the vast and elaborate structure grew up almost in secret. Now it shows alarming signs of dilapidation." His own novel Brideshead Revisited is itself an homage to the English nobility, which seemed to be crumbling along with the titular stately home.

But although the structure of the class system may have changed since Waugh's day, there are still very clear strata in our society, each with different levels of social, cultural and economic capital.

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