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  • Robert Farago

The British Class System Explained

The Monarchy and all that jazz

When I moved to London, Queen Elizabeth II was sitting on the throne. In a fairy tale wedding to Prince Charles, Princess Diana had joined “the firm.” Trouble was brewing…

Newspapers owned by Australian Rupert Murdoch (The Sun) and the 4th Viscount Rothermer (The Daily Mail) broke with centuries of tradition, airing the Royal Family’s dirty laundry in public.

The tabloids headlined Diana’s dissatisfaction with her adulterous marriage to Prince Charles, exposed Princess Sarah Ferguson’s “shrimping” (with someone who wasn’t Prince Andrew) and all manner of titillating tidbits.

In some ways, the coverage worked in the Royals’ favor. They made the leap from monarchy to celebrity, becoming fully-fledged soap opera stars, increasing “the firm’s” cultural clout.

In others ways, the relentless media exposure was a pain-in-the-ass. Previous members of the Royal family were born to unquestioning deference and enough privacy to do whatever the Hell they pleased.

Her Majesty was not amused by the salacious coverage. But what could she do? Especially when Diana – the people’s Princess – died in the rear of a Mercedes driven by a drug addict.

The outpouring of grief did nothing to harm the Monarchy’s standing. Which, it must be said, perches atop a class system that defines the United Kingdom.

Pomp and Privilege

King Charles’ subjects will tell you the Monarchy has “no real power.” Nah mate. It’s ceremonial innit?

This despite the fact that the Prime Minister is obliged to visit the ruling monarch on a weekly basis. Just to check-in. And sign-off on any legislation. Not to mention all the pomp and circumstance that reminds everyone involved who sits at the top of the food chain.

“The Royals are good for tourism” justification also runs contrary to the fact that titled gentry have considerable power and privilege.

If you’re Lord this, Lady that or Viscount the other, your life is not going to take the same path of a “commoner,” at least in terms of education and access to the lever of power™.

Good Knight Irene

To make the hereditary class system seem somewhat “fair,” the monarchy regularly knights celebrity commoners – earning these non-hereditary Sirs and Dames a metric shit ton of the Royals’ stock-in-trade: deference.

The British class system extends well beyond royal affiliation. Like the U.S., regional accents reveal a U.K. subject’s relative position within society. Unlike America, money doesn’t define their social position.

In fact, there remains a strong historical bias against people in “the trades.” And not just among the titled few.

After centuries of subjugation, the “working class” (formerly known as peasants) view financial gain beyond a certain level as inherently exploitative, in a Marxist kinda way.

The Overarching Aristocratic Gestalt

Thanks to its elaborate class system, Brits aspire to aristocratic indolence, not achievement. No matter where you are in the social strata, you’ve succeeded in life when you don’t have to do anything other than party like it’s 1899.

To that end, the English upper class has more fancy dress rituals than the Catholic Church. Royal Ascot, polo, drag hunting, vintage car rallies, weekends at the country house, punting down the Thames, summer balls – it’s all so boring darling. And we really should have a black face in there somewhere.

For their part, the British middle and lower classes have their own indolent rituals (e.g., #publife).

And never the twain shall meet. Unless a commoner marries into the upper class, which is nowhere near as much fun as it sounds, for anyone concerned.

Birds of a Feather? Flock That!

I remember a Brit explaining the difference between an American and a Brit. “When an American sees a Rolls Royce, they think ‘I’m going to have one of those one day.’ When a Brit sees a Rolls they say "‘fucking rich bastard.’”

I hope that’s still true – about Americans. Anyway, attending a Moet & Chandon motorcycle tour, I came face-to-face with the the upper class’ disdain for anyone not within it. Specifically, me.

My wife and I accompanied this romp through France with members of the British aristocracy. To start, the tour provide a police escort that blocked traffic, allowing us to scythe through London’s beleaguered motorists (just like the Royals). In terms of accommodation, the organizers put us in the attic. Literally.

The titled participants all knew each other. We were shunned. Viscount Linley broke our isolation once – to ask if I was holding out on cocaine. (As if.) They all drank like fish and drove their bikes three sheets to the wind.

Inbreeding Breeds Adultery

Again, by tradition, Britain’s upper class are exempt from questions about bad behavior. Cheating on your spouse, for example, is standard practice. Often with a commoner – a natural inclination given the lack of genetic diversity amongst the titled few.

Hence Prince Harry’s decision to marry a divorced minor league Hollywood actress. The result – Prince Harry’s self-imposed exile and worldwide privacy tour – is a feature, not a bug.

Harry’s departure leaves King Charles and Prince William in an improved position.

As long as the King and his Queen Consort (elevated by the former Queen) don’t do anything stupid, as long as William and Kate provide controversy-free glamor, the Royal family is returned to its Elizabethan pedestal.

Not All Class Systems Are the Same

As a small “r” republican I am repulsed by the British Monarchy and the class system it embodies and perpetuates. Yes, America has a class system based on celebrity, politics and money. But at least it’s earned. Well, it was. At some point.

One more thing: the rampant socialism and open borders policy reducing the United Kingdom to a third-rate superpower may seem weird for a country with a white ruling aristocracy. But it isn’t ironic.

Socialism is the price the English aristocracy pays for allowing their class system to persist. A social compact that allows the upper class to keep their jobs. Sorry, positions.

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