Britain - A classless society? The development and influence of the middle class in Great Britain

Seminar Paper, 2003

16 Pages, Grade: 1,3-1,5


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Main Part
2.1 Definition of the term ‘class’
2.2 Aspects of the term ‘Middle Class’
2.3 Developments of Britain’s Society from 1780 till 1950
2.4 Middle Class in Britain today – “The New Middle Class”
2.4.1 The ‘embourgeoisement’ thesis
2.4.2 Towards a ‘classless’ society?

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Great Britain has often been described as a very class-conscious society. Some people even proclaim the British as “obsessed with class” and Britain as a “very rigid society”[1].

Compared to other countries such as Germany this statement seems true. These different states of society are due to ‘individual’ developments and national attitudes towards class e.g. whereas in Britain the Industrial Revolution already had begun, Germany still suffered from feudalism.

Apart from those historical developments class gains in almost every modern nation another emphasise. In Britain the recent years opened up the discussion on a classless society. Politicians more and more referred to this vision of a society in which the rigid divisions between social groups are reduced and everyone benefits from the wealth and efforts of modern life.

In this paper I firstly want to discuss general ideas and definitions concerning the term ‘class’ and especially the ‘middle class’, which is my main topic. Secondly, I want to draw the attention to historical developments and therefore, how the middle class succeeded to gain more influence in politics and economy.

Finally, I will concentrate on the recent debate on the question: “Is Britain a classless society?”. In this part I will try to compare different opinions and arguments in

present- day publications.

2. Main Part

2.1 Definition of the term ‘class’

The term ‘class’ embodies different aspects. Under an economic perspective, class is used to define a group of people within society who have the same economic and social position (cf. Cambridge International Dictionary of English).

Karl Marx, who spent several months in England studying the effects of industrialisation, gave a more specific definition. He once characterised ‘class’ by three main features: Firstly, he defined class as an economic category. Secondly, he emphasised the importance of the development of class-consciousness within a social class. According to Marx, only class-consciousness turned a group of people into a class. Moreover Marx spoke of “the will to compete for political power and to use it for the protection of economic interest” (Jordan 1971: 25).

In which way did this definition correspond with the British society and where were the important changes?

At the beginning of the 18th century only one class in British society was actually based on all three characteristics – namely the landed gentry and the aristocracy. Their economic status was founded on their land. Regarding class-consciousness, the landed gentry “were very conscious of being distinct from the mass of the people below them, and prided themselves on the privileges of gentle birth” (Dickens/ Gash 1977: 40). They were also in a dominant position concerning political power and authority in the Government as well as the Parliament.

Since the British society in the 18th century only had one class one can hardly speak of a class society. Thus, some historians use the term a ‘one- class society’. This situation started to change with the industrialisation, the growth of the middle class and class-consciousness among lower classes.

Another important aspect, is that the concept of ‘class’ is fluctuating and it depends on the historical context, as one of the following sections will show.

2.2 Aspects of the term ‘Middle Class’

The term ‘middle class’ has often been defined as the part of society, which came between the aristocracy and the manual labouring class. People belonging to the middle class were neither of a high social rank nor extremely rich nor poor.

Although there have been several important changes during the last centuries, this division of society is still relevant as the following present-day definition makes clear:

“Middle class: a widely based and expanding social class in Britain which is generally considered to be above working class and below upper class and sometimes is split into upper and lower middle class. It includes a range of businessmen, clerical workers and professional people, although more occupational groups are now regarded as middle class.”[2].

As Edward Royle[3] points out: The middle class is a significant sector of society who makes up between one-fifth and one-third of the whole (Royle 1997: 105). Members of the middle class have a number of different functions in society. In recent social studies labour force has been distinguished in five social occupational groups, whereas in general the middle class is usually associated with non- manual work such as service workers in public administration, managers and shop- keepers. Another way to describe the middle class is a characterisation with the help of special professions because middle class representatives usually work non- manually. Their status in the social hierarchy depends on income, wealth and public role. People belonging to the middle class are to different degrees conscious of their class and position in society.

However, neither the definitions concerning typical middle class professions nor the demarcations towards the upper and lower classes are very clear. At the lower end of the social scale it almost merges with the working class and at the upper end members of the middle class aspire acceptance into the upper class e.g. through education (cf. Royle 1997: 105). The process of aspiration is called ‘social mobility’ and refers to the movement of individuals from one class to another e.g. from middle to upper class or middle to working class etc..


[1] Both quotations refer to the article “The British Obsession with Class” published by ‘The Week’ on June 17, 2000, which was later reproduced on <http://>.

[2] Oakland, J. A Dictionary of British Institutions. London/ New York,1993.

[3] Royle, Edward. Modern Britain. A Social History 1750- 1997. 2nd. Ed. London: Arnold, 1997

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Britain - A classless society? The development and influence of the middle class in Great Britain
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Anja Reiff (Author), 2003, Britain - A classless society? The development and influence of the middle class in Great Britain, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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