The old upper class - Britain's aristocracy

Term Paper, 1998

13 Pages, Grade: 2.0 (B)




Who belongs to Britain’s aristocracy and to the upper classes?

The national elite of status, wealth and power – A historical overview

The loss and the maintenance of political power

The preserved fortunes

Social survival: The public schools - a melting pot for the merged elite



List of Reference Literature


In his personal comment On Britain Ralf Dahrendorf detects the continuation of a powerful, self-confident and easily identifiable upper class lacked by other modern countries like Germany or France and the rather persistent survival of its old values as one of the reasons for the peculiar nature of the inequality of the British society.[i] He calls Britain a ‘society of fine distinctions’ which as well as economic inequalities between the occupational layers are responsible for the deep class segregation most of Britain’s population are still aware of.[ii] Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard take the view that, even though classes themselves have changed and social mobility is extending, the British class system separates people to the same extent as it did half a century ago.[iii]

What does this class system look like? The simplest but still applicable model divides Britain into three broad classes - the working, the middle and the upper class each of which can be determined by the occupational positions of its representatives, their education, status, housing, manners and even by the language they speak.[iv] Dahrendorf compares it with a layer cake - the dough at the bottom, the chocolate on top and in between a relatively broad jam layer - and stresses the clear dividing lines which separate them and which are characteristic for Britain’s society.[v]

Who do the upper classes consist of today and to which degree does the old upper class, i.e. the aristocracy, form the chocolate icing of Dahrendorf’s cake? How has its position in the society, its influence and its relevance changed? Can one argue that the British aristocracy managed to survive as a clearly defined class and what role do such institutions like public schools and the House of Lords, that are closely connected with it, play? These are the questions this essay is going to deal with.

Who belongs to Britain’s aristocracy and to the upper classes?

If we speak about the aristocracy today we refer to those approximately 7,000 people and their families who have got the claim to one of the hereditary titles. The Royal Family at the top is followed by 783 titles in a fixed order – 25 Dukes, 37 Marquesses, 173 Earls, 110 Viscounts and 438 Barons.[vi] They form all the hereditary peerages that are represented in the House of Lords.

But today’s British upper classes include persons from a broader social spectrum of the population. This was an effect of the rise of meritocratic elements and values that came to dominate Britain’s society after the Second World War[vii] and which led to the emergence of a new upper class called the Super Class by Adonis and Pollard. This class centres around the City of London and is dominated by the higher reaches of private sector professions and top managers. It is at once meritocratic yet exclusive, very highly paid and the gap between them and the rest of the society concerning wealth, education, residence and lifestyle is increasingly widening. From this group the so-called ruling class recruits, the people who run the society[viii] and who are comprised by the A category of the following contemporary class grading adopted by market researchers in the 1950s and based on six categories:

A – Upper middle class, e.g. professional, higher managerial, senior civil servants
B – Middle class, e.g. middle managers, executives
C1 – Lower middle class, e.g. junior managers, non-manuals
C2 – Skilled working class
D – Semi-skilled and unskilled working class
E – Residual, e.g. unemployed, state dependents etc.[ix]

In 1995, 3.1 per cent of the adult population belonged to the A category.[x] That is about 1.8 million people, while the aristocracy comprises only about 0.01 per cent of the whole population. Therefore, the aristocracy is just a small and quite a clearly defined part of the upper classes and is often called the traditional or old one.[xi]

The national elite of status, wealth and power[xii] – A historical overview

Until the 1880s, the role of the British aristocracy as the governing class had remained essentially unchallenged. Going hand in hand with the landed gentry they apparently dominated the whole country owing to their economic pre-eminence, their social supremacy and their political power.[xiii]

They possessed the overwhelming majority of the land. Four-fifths of the land was owned by only 7,000 families. Moreover, among them there were 26 territorial super magnates who all together possessed nearly 10 per cent of the whole territory of the British Isles. They all belonged to the nobility, 11 of them were dukes.[xiv] At this time, land, status and power were correlated to a high degree. As land meant wealth, the nobility were both the territorial elite as well as the wealth elite.

The social hegemony of the hereditary nobility was based on their titles of honour - at the summit the five ranks of peerage - and manifested itself in its aristocratic exclusiveness, its leisured lifestyle and the ideal of a gentleman who, by definition, did not have to work for his living. This ideal became an example that was followed and highly adopted by the rising middle classes.[xv]


[i] R. Dahrendorf, On Britian, London 1982, p. 52.

[ii] Ibid., p. 54; R. Sturm, Großbritannien, Opladen 1997, p. 135. Most British people (94 %) confidently place themselves in a social class, see Mori survey, 22 August 1991, cit. in The Economist, 5 September 1992, p. 36, and in A. Adonis & S. Pollard, A Class Act, London 1997, pp. 3-4.

[iii] Adonis & Pollard, Class Act, p. ix.

[iv] M. Storry & P. Childs, British Cultural Identities, London 1997, p. 208; P. Fischer & G. P. Burkwell, Kleines England-Lexikon, Munich 1995, p. 140.

[v] Dahrendorf, Britain, p. 55.

[vi] W. Glinga, Erben des Empire, Frankfurt/Main & New York, 1983, p. 46.

[vii] H. Händel & I. Friebel, Großbritannien, Munich 1991, pp. 247-248; Storry & Childs, Identities, pp. 208-209.

[viii] Adonis & Pollard, Class Act, p. 13, pp. 67-77.

[ix] The Economist, 5 September 1992, p. 34; Adonis & Pollard, Class Act, p. 8.

[x] Sturm, Großbritannien, p. 132.

[xi] Resulting from table 1.5 in H. Kastendiek, K. Rohde & A. Volle (eds.), Länderbericht Großbritannien, Bonn 1996, p. 530.

[xii] D. Cannadine, Aspects of Aristocracy, New Haven & London 1994, p. 244.

[xiii] D. Cannadine, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, New Haven & London 1992, p. 15.

[xiv] Ibid., pp. 8-11. Figures resulting from appendix A in Cannadine, British Aristocracy, pp. 710-711.

[xv] Ibid., pp. 10-13.

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The old upper class - Britain's aristocracy
University of Osnabrück  (Anglistics)
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Victoria Krummel (Author), 1998, The old upper class - Britain's aristocracy, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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