According to Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the taxation policies of the Tory (Conservative) Party were decided on the playing field of Eton (one of Britain’s top private schools). Thus, Gordon Brown, whose Labour government trails in the opinion polls behind the Conservative opposition, seemed from this and other remarks to be trying to inject an element of class warfare into the forthcoming election campaign.

He hopes that calling the Tory leaders toffs will resonate with Labour’s core supporters, who are supposed to be the cloth cap-wearing working class. Such cheap jibes will please a few supporters but are unlikely to be of much long-term value with the majority of middle-income voters on whose support the Labour Party has had to rely.

Brown has, however, reopened the debate about the nature of class in Britain and the degree of class consciousness in Britain compared to other countries. The old strata comprising the landed gentry at the top followed by the new wealth of commerce and industry and then the professional classes (doctors, lawyers, teachers), shop assistants, artisans and laborers who work with their hands no longer reflects reality — at least since the end of the World War II. Britain has become much more of a meritocracy and birth, at least, counts for very little. Wealth and education remain determining factors.

Many successful British companies are headed by entrepreneurs who have achieved their wealth by flair, hard work, toughness and luck, without much in the way of formal education. Even some of the most successful bankers have often earned their huge rewards more by brashness and instinct than by their education. The mega-rich do form a class of their own and their status — in their own eyes, even if not in the eyes of wider society — is distinguished by the size of their bank balances and possessions such as expensive sports cars and yachts.

Status among the professional classes is also generally determined by the amount they earn. Accountants, lawyers in top City firms, and medical and surgical consultants can all earn large salaries or fees, but most professionals are only in the middle-income bracket. Some white-collar workers earn less than the average wage.

Blue-collar workers in certain trades are doing well. Qualified plumbers, electricians and cabinet makers are much in demand and can command significant incomes. A divide based on educational standards remains, but neither wealth nor education, let alone birth, command subservience or even respect.

Places in the schools (public and private) that achieve higher exam results are much sought after, as are places at the higher-ranked universities. The government wants universities to discriminate in favor of children from “disadvantaged homes,” but in the competition for places, wealth and the home environment still matter. It remains more difficult for a child whose parents have limited education or income to succeed than for one from a well-educated family (but in this respect Britain is not unique).

Two other factors that influence the class structure are race and religion. Many British people from Afro- Caribbean or Asian cultures have not assimilated with traditional British culture. To that extent they form separate social groups. Within those groups class divisions also remain. Religion dictates for many the selection of a spouse, and interracial marriage is frowned on severely in some immigrant communities.

The key to a classless society in Britain lies in achieving improvements in the educational system by leveling up, not down.

Class structure in other countries naturally differs, although there are many similarities. Titles have been abolished in most European countries, but the snobbery attached to belonging to one of the old European aristocracies remains. Germans cherish their “von,” “v.” and “zu” prefixes and incorporate “Graf” (count) into their names. In Italy one often comes across a marchese (marquis) and there seem to be lots of conte (count). Even in France one hears of “Duc de” (duke).

The university hierarchy also counts, especially in Germany, as do titles of doctor, professor or even oberpostrat (senior postal inspector). In France, a graduate of one of the grandes ecoles (top schools) commands high status and respect.

The United States prides itself on being classless, but the old aristocracy of the East Coast has hardly died out. Graduates of Ivy League universities have easier access to jobs than those from lesser universities. Wealth remains a passport to various top posts such as ambassadorships, while in the civil service the most senior posts are reserved for political appointees.

India, with its caste system, growing numbers of university graduates and burgeoning middle class, to say nothing of the old princely families, is far from an egalitarian democracy. In China, the class system seems to be based on the hierarchy of the Communist Party and the growing wealth of the entrepreneurs who have flourished under Communist Party “capitalism.”

Nor can Japan justify its claim to be a classless society. Although the old hierarchy of shi-no-ko-sho (warrior, farmer, artisan, merchant) had ceased to count by the end of the 19th century as Japan industrialized and depended increasingly on trade, society became dominated by hierarchical bureaucrats — military and civil — who held most of the power, and by wealthy industrialists and traders who developed Japanese industry.

Japan became a more meritocratic society sooner than most other developed countries, but admission to top schools does to a considerable extent depend on access to the juku (cram school) and the ability of parents to pay for extra tuition. The existence of wealthy classes in Japan is now more obvious than in the past. The narikin (newly rich) displays his wealth in ways unthinkable to the old “aristocracy.”

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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