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Britain's social structure. This contains some stuff that you might not be familiar with.


Britain has far more class divisions than the United States or many other countries. There are several ways that these are categorised by people. Some people will tell you that Class is dead in modern Britain. Do not believe them. It has ceased to matter as it once did, and most of the old elitist bastions now happily admit anyone with the right qualifications or enough money. Class is sadly alive and kicking, though - a good way to tell is by looking at the different demographics targeted by British Newspapers.

Many academics have attempted to write a definition of the various classes, and most have failed to pin it down exactly, but it has a lot to do with what you do for a living. No, actually, it has a lot to do with what your parents do/did for a living, though you can transcend your class. Also note that class is not directly related to how much money you or your family earn, though it can be heavily related to what school and what if any university you went to. Alas, Tall Poppy Syndrome runs rampant; social climbing is not generally the done thing.

  • Underclass - Do not work and subsist on State benefits and/or crime.
  • Working Class - Blue-collar workers at the lowest pay grades. Historically the largest group in any country, this includes farm labourers in the countryside as well as factory workers in the cities. A good rule of thumb is "if you work standing up, you're working class".
  • Middle Class - divided into three:
    • Lower Middle Class is one step up from Working Class. Perhaps a factory foreman or a skilled tradesman (builder, plumber, roofer). Alternatively someone in a working class job, but self employed. Someone a cut above the Workers in terms of seniority, income and skills, but not quite at the level of:
    • Middle Middle Class - Office workers, particularly at Clerical and middle-Management grades, and other skilled workers such as teachers. Also most of the remaining small business community, including shop owners and such.
    • Upper Middle Class - Generally, anyone who's highly skilled and educated. Senior Management, professionals such as doctors, solicitors, university lecturers and the like.

These can be further subdivided, for example, confident established upper middles or aspiring middle middles.

  • Upper Class - If the other classes are defined by what you do for a living, Upper Class people traditionally don't. Historically, this is the landed gentry, living on the rent on the land they own and their family's Old Money. Times are harder these days and some of the younger lords and ladies actually do have to work, mostly in advertising and media, while their parents conduct guided tours of the stately pile in order to be able to afford repairs to the roof.

The upper and working classes have at least one feature in common with each other; being at the top and bottom of the scale respectively, they tend not to notice the many nuances found in the middle class, and instead have a more binary 'us and them' perspective. Kate Fox's book Watching the English has an extensive discussion.

Many commentators refer to these by a 'grading system'. AB is upper class, the three middles are C1,C2,C3, etc. Even the 'underclass' are only E, so there is no failing grade for F.

A person's accent is a good clue as to their social class, with upper class people sounding more formal.

Some people have a thing for posh young ladies. Conversely, posh young ladies are traditionally expected to favour 'a bit of rough'. That applies down under too.



DCI Dick Catherwood (white guy): Get in there, Get into the community and find out what they know.

DI Moses Jones (second generation Afro-Caribbean guy): You want me to go around asking local Africans about ritual killing?

DCI Dick Catherwood: Well it's better coming from you Moses. They're your people.

DI Moses Jones: My people, and who am I, Bishop Tutu?

DCI Dick Catherwood: If only.

DI Moses Jones: I am from Shepherds Bush.[1]
Moses Jones (2009 Miniseries)

An important note to begin with. When Britons use the term "Asian", they are referring to someone from the Indian sub-continent, not the Far East, usually. For many years ethnicity monitoring questions on goverment forms actually gave "Asian" and "Chinese" as different options! Partly this is simply because most ethnically Asian people in Britain are of Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi/Sri Lankan origin, but it's also because people from the other three countries in that region get upset for good reason if they're described as "Indian". Also, there's some sensitivity about referring to people as "Pakistani" because of the common British use of the abbreviation "Paki" as a racist insult as extreme and explosive as "the n-word" in the USA.

Britain has been colonised by many ethnic groups over the ages (including failed colonisations between Ice Ages), with identifiable Late Stone- and Bronze Age individuals found to be from France, Germany, Switzerland,and further East such as Hungary and Poland. Much evidence was lost when the North Sea Plain flooded in more recent ages. Cheddar Man (found in the nineteenth century in a cave in Cheddar Gorge) was Old Stone Age.

Britain is still a mostly white country, with 85.7% of the population being White British, 1.2% White Irish and 5.3% White (Other). Although this varies greatly around the country with Northern Ireland having less than a percent of it's population being non-white. The Irish have migrated in large numbers to Britain for centuries, though this has tailed off since the 60s.

The non-white ethnic minorities (7.9%) of the UK are mostly found in London. Significant minority populations (in percentage of the local population terms) also exist in Leicester, Birmingham, Slough and Luton as well this ghettos with large South Asian muslim populations exist in Lancashire and Yorkshire. Minorities are more common in cities and it is rarer (although they are still prevalent) to come across them in rural areas.

The main ethnic minority groups are:

  • Afro-Caribbean (2% in 2001): Split fairly evenly (10:8) between Caribbean (from the British West Indies) and African (from the African nations of the former British Empire)respectively. Most of these first arrived in the 1950s and are entering third generation status.
  • South Asian (4% in 2001): Those from the former British India. Split between Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and those who fled from Idi Amin's Uganda and stayed. These largely arrived in the 1970s. The second and third are mostly Muslim. This has led to some tensions in British society- with home-grown terrorism, most notably 7/7, carried out by British-born Muslims.
    • Britain does have the Asian Store Owner stereotype, in that you are likely to see South Asians running newsagents in fiction.
  • Central and Eastern Europeans: Not actually that new- a large number of Jews arrived in Britain around 1900 from the Russian Empire while there was considerable Polish, Greek and Italian immigration after the Second World War. However, since the admission of several new states into the European Union in 2004, quite a lot have arrived, taking mostly factory, building and service jobs. The credit crunch has seen many head back home.

These immigrants are now entering their third generation.

(Of course, although absolute numbers were far lower, there were non-white people in Britain before the twentieth century. The remains of ethnically African people have been discovered in graves dating from the era of The Roman Empire, there was already immigration from South Asia and China in the eighteenth and nineteenth century,[2] and black Africans were brought into Britain as slaves during the same period. Often, people who shout "Politically-Correct History!" just because they see a black actor in a work set before World War II are showing off their own ignorance.)

Race Relations

One could write a rather interesting comparative history of racism in the US and UK. The UK never had the system of legalised segregation that the US had in its southern states, but there was a considerable amount of informal discrimination. Originally, the British Empire was one of the largest sources of slave traders, but they also banned slavery much earlier than the United States did and took a very hard-line approach to traders who persisted... including non-British traders who weren't actually bound by British law.

However, "blacking up" lasted about 20 years longer on UK TV than in the United States.

There is still a fair amount of racism in the UK. The Far Right have a worrying level of support, although it's actually lot less than in most other European nations. The British National Party only just, as of 2009, won their first major seats in the European Parliament, and they actually received less votes than in the last election—they had the good fortune that the election occurred in the midst of a scandal over MP expenses, depressing voter turnout among supporters of the three major parties and thus increasing their share of the vote. And contrary to popular belief, the far right will probably do worse under proportional representation since a) the most likely forms involve ranked voting and they are a lot of people's absolute last choice and b) electoral reformers claim proportional representation will greatly increase turnout, swamping the committed nutters with less committed moderates.

Or, to put it more simply: racism, particularly casual racism, is arguably less prevalent in the UK than on the Continent, but is arguably more prevalent than in the US. For example, where a Brit might see a funny caricature or romantic painting, an American (particularly one born since 1975 or 1980) might well cringe at the racial undertones. On the other hand, if the American pointed out to the Brit, "that's actually kinda racist," he/she is more likely to say, "I see... you seem to have a point" than, say, a Frenchman or a Pole (unless, of course, the thing is racist towards Frenchmen or Poles, in which case the insult was probably intended).

Arguably though, and certainly in the opinion of the UK and Europe, there are some places where America is still more racist than the UK. There are still high tensions in many places between different races, which can also be seen through class barriers. For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina there were accusations of racism due to the majority of people not being able to leave New Orleans being black and working class. President Barack Obama has had to deal with accusations of "being too black", "not being black enough", being foreign and being a Muslim, all of which he has taken with very good humour. It could be pointed out, that despite America having increasingly equal amounts of White Americans to other ethnicities, if you look at their media you'll notice its predominantly white. As several sociologists have pointed out, out of A list actors, only two are black, none are Asiain, Hispanic etc, and both of those actors (Morgan Freeman and Will Smith respectively) are straight and male. As mentioned there is also a high amount of suspicion of muslim people ever since 9/11, though this to a lesser extent is in Europe and the UK too.

One could say that due to America and Europe having different histories of racism, different issues worry them and different things they interpret as racist. For example, slavery is a sore subject for America but in places like Scandinavia where countries had both white and black slavery, this isn't seen as much of an issue.


Cold is God's way of telling us to burn more Catholics.
Blackadder's Puritan Auntie, Blackadder II, "Beer".

Britain has not had the mass persecution of some other countries, but it has been there—especially against Roman Catholics.

After the Reformation, the monasteries were "dissolved" and the assets seized by Henry VIII, on the specious grounds of debauchery by the monks. Catholics were subjected to organised discrimination, such as the Disenfranchising Act 1727 in Ireland, barring all of them from voting.

This also applied to other "non-conformists", such as the "Clarendon Code" (though Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon and chief minister, didn't write them or fully approve of them). These effectively barred them from holding public offices.

Henry's daughter, Mary I, converted the country back to Catholicism, and executed numerous dissenters, hence being known as Bloody Mary. Her half-sister, Elizabeth I, converted it back to Protestantism, and made at least a token effort not to offend Catholic Europe by doing so.

During the reign of the Stuarts there was a kind of Red Scare against Catholics, thanks to the scaremongering tactics of Titus Oates and others—people believed that there was a widespread conspiracy to overthrow the British monarchy and forcibly convert all of the Britons to Catholicism. It got so bad that people were afraid to go out to the theatre in case the Catholics got them. Laws were put in place to make sure Catholics could never have power in Britain again.

Ironically, the last Stuart king (James II and VII) was a Catholic, which is why they got rid of him and replaced him with his very Protestant daughter, Mary II.

Most of these laws were repealed in the early 19th century, but there is one notable exception—if a member of the Royal Family becomes a Catholic or marries one, they are barred from ascending to the throne. Lingering anti-Catholic feeling may have contributed to Tony Blair not formally converting to Catholicism until he had left the office of PM, although it was more likely simply his not wishing to make a big deal over his level of religious belief, as profession of and the influence of such tends to be more subdued than in the US even with pious politicians.

This was far worse in Ireland and continues to have an impact in Stroke Country, and to a lesser extent in Glasgow, where there is a large population of Irish descent.

Jews have also suffered, with discrimination against them being common during the Middle Ages. There was ultimately the Edict of Explusion of 1290, where all the Jews in England were expelled—this was not formally overturned until 1656 by Oliver Cromwell, who it turns out wasn't as harsh a Puritan as people sometimes think. (Though in fairness letting the Jews back in was inspired by millenarianism. Why? Ask an eschatologist.) By 1874 Britain had an ethnically Jewish Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. (Religiously he was Christian, but this was still a big deal, and he was proud of it.)

The Treaty of Union (1707) which combined England with Scotland included protection of Scotland's own established church, which is Presbyterian. It has had several acrimonious splits over its history. The stereotype of these folks, in sharp contrast to the Anglicans, is grey-haired, grizzled ministers with hard boots preaching the coming Doom of the world and railing against sinful fun. This is seldom true, and almost any instances will be found in the Western Isles or rural areas of the Highlands. Most of these will be part of one of the churches known as the Wee Free (the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the Association of Free Churches, the Free Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) and so-on), some of which are unrelated and some of which result from the traditional habit of schisming.

There are now quite a lot of Muslims in Britain (1.6 million at the 2001 Census), mostly (South) Asians. There have been small populations of Asian Muslims for quite some time, but their numbers didn't really take off until The Sixties and The Seventies, when Asians in general started migrating. Discrimination against Muslims has generally been ethnic rather than religious (i.e., Asian Muslims and Asian Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Buddhists, etc., generally all faced the same treatment), but recent events have led Baroness Warsi, co-chair of the Conservative Party and a Punjabi Muslim herself, to claim that Islamophobia is the last socially acceptable form of racism in Britain. This created a small stir in some circles.

Britain also has a small number of other religious affiliations.

The North-South Divide

One clear division that can be seen in the UK is the divide between the "North" of the country and the "South". The precise divide is debated (common ones are the Watford Gap Service Station, the most northerly point where one can buy the Evening Standard,[3] and anywhere outside the M25), but the 1983 General Election, where Labour won no seats south of Birmingham outside of Greater London gives you a good hint.

Note that the North-South Divide refers to the north and south of England, not England/Scotland rivalry. Care must be taken when refering to a place as The North as this can mean northern England ("Oop North"), Northern Ireland ("Da North"), or northern Scotland. A not too uncommon conversation (here between an English and a Scottish person) might go: "I'm from the North." "Oh, like Inverness?" "No, Newcastle." "So the South." "Um, yes. But no."

  • 'The North' may be a limit rather than an actual place. Road signs on the A1 road out of London point to 'Hatfield, The NORTH'; on the A9 from Perth they point to 'Inverness, The NORTH'; and even in Britain's most northerly community recognisably a town, Lerwick in the Shetland Islands, the road out is signposted 'Hillswick, The NORTH'.
    • Those signs say that because on roads and motorways like the M1 often run basically north-to-south, and it indicates the direction you're going in. It has very little to do with the actual North-South divide.
    • It is also important to note that the line of the north-south divide does *not* run east-west, but rather North-east/South-West: somewhere around Bristol Channel-The Wash is one (not *too* controversial) common location.

See also British Accents.

  1. Shepherds Bush is a London suburb
  2. the first Indian restaurant run by Indian people in London was opened in 1809
  3. Oxford
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