I am fascinated by the myriad ways the class system still operates in UK life – in a way that only the daughter of a working-class publican and middle-class secretary can be. Secret confession: I am always trying to work out how I and others fit into the hierarchies that clearly still exist, even if the boundaries and rules keep changing. In my parents’ Kent country pub wealthy landowners drank alongside middle-class stockbrokers and rural labourers. Standing at the bar every drinker was equal, but outside it… not so much. The quality of your education largely defined your life trajectory in the 1970s-80s, which is why my mother would have chewed her arm off to get her five children through the eleven-plus, or to bursaries for private education. Mum also had mysterious rules on things that might be thought “common” and were therefore out of bounds, like saying “toilet”, babies sucking dummies, watching ITV and serving Angel Delight.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Philip Hensher’s savagely funny essay on British snobbery will get you swiftly up to speed. As will Laura Thompson’s glorious appreciation of Nancy Mitford. However much people claim that class is no longer an issue, you only need to look at the ongoing tax row over the sale of Angela Rayner’s former council house to see it’s always with us. The Labour Party and Rayner’s supporters are swift to harangue upper-class Tories for trying to take down a working-class woman. Equally, when anyone points out the unhealthy hold that Eton and Oxbridge have on our major institutions (30 British prime ministers were educated at Oxford, 20 at Eton), someone will pipe up about “the politics of envy”.

Education is often the battlefield on which Britain’s class war is fought. We’ve tried to tease the issue out by asking Simon Heffer to defend grammar schools as engines of social mobility, while Suzanne Moore aims her slingshot at private education. But without doubt, the most poignant part of the magazine is Joanna Grochowicz’s interview with Earl Spencer about the appalling abuse he suffered at prep school. His bravery in talking about it cannot be underestimated and has even led some, he says, to dub him a “class traitor”. This may be because he discusses the fact that boys’ boarding schools were originally intended to toughen up their pupils and cauterise emotions, turning small Britons into effective rulers of Empire.

Elsewhere, Rebecca Smith, daughter of a forester who lived in tied houses on landed estates, takes a very personal look at the ins and outs of rural class structures, while Josh McLoughlin and Keiran Goddard question their identity, now that literary lives have swept them from their working-class roots. In similar vein, Lily Webb wonders why the middle classes don’t want to be sent to Coventry. Dominic Cummings – our other major interview subject – would seek to overhaul most of our creaking old institutions, posh or not. As a fervent Remainer, I found talking to “Dom” was a surprisingly energising experience. I couldn’t help feeling few people are working as hard as he is to establish something that resembles a genuine meritocracy. But like most revolutionaries, you wonder if the toppling – or creative destruction – might come at too high a price.

Of course, class structures don’t just exist in the UK. In our special report Anjana Menon takes a look at how the restrictions of India’s caste system are rapidly being replaced by a new spirit of entrepreneurship. And in our “Letter from Elsewhere” Gabrielle Bauer takes a look at one of the world’s most diverse cities – her native Toronto – and finds its welcome often only scrapes the surface.

I hope you’ll think – as we do – that this is a thoroughly classy issue.

Rowan Pelling, Editor

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Columns, June / July 2024, Letter from the editor

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