Writing about equality in Britain, R H Tawney said: "the word, 'class,' is fraught with unpleasing associations, so that to linger upon it is apt to be interpreted as the symptom of a perverted mind and a jaundiced spirit." Perversely or not, there was lots of jaundice on offer, this past month, after Gordon Brown's onslaught on Magdalen College, Oxford, for not accepting a bright comprehensive school pupil from Tyneside.
The furious comments confirmed that class is an extraordinary obsession for the British. But they seldom distinguished between real social inequalities and surface perceptions. As David Rose, a professor of sociology at the University of Essex, points out: "Class isn't just about whether you eat peas off your knife." Class is a shifting sand. Sociology can cast some light on the underlying geology.
Strictly speaking, the obsession with class is English, rather than British. In Scotland, as in Northern Ireland, religion may still matter more than class. In one of Ian Rankin's thrillers, Inspector Rebus says that the Scots don't need race prejudice, "they've got bigotry". Hence, perhaps, the sectarian ferocity of the battle over Section 28. But England has 83 per cent of the United Kingdom population (and nearly 100 per cent of its non-white minorities), so the way the English feel has an almost unshiftable hegemony. And one of the things they delight to talk about, almost as much as the weather, is class.
In Mary Loudon's recently published Secrets & Lives, a revealing record of conversations in and around an Oxfordshire market town, a hairdresser says: "It's a different ball game now. I have different people speak to me now because I'm a salon owner . . . Before, they wouldn't speak to me because I was only a hairdresser and not good enough for them." She has begun sending her young daughter to a private nursery. Class runs like a tinsel thread through Loudon's reporting, just as it ran through Richard Hoggart's Townscape with Figures, his own account of a small Middle England town, this time in Surrey. Perception and reality interact. What you think of yourself affects what you make of yourself.
Some of the recent bile flowed from a notion that Britain was much more inegalitarian than other countries. This appears to be a myth. Recent work by the welfare economist Tony Atkinson shows Britain to be well below both America and Canada in inequality of earnings; not much different from France; but more unequal than New Zealand, Holland or Germany.
One of the few rigorous studies of class in Britain was carried out by John Goldthorpe and his colleagues at Nuffield College, Oxford. In a fully open society - one in which there are no class barriers - the correlation between the jobs of fathers and sons would be 0.0. In a rigid caste system, it would be 1.0. For Britain or, more precisely, British men, the Nuffield team decided that the figure was 0.36. Does this mean the glass is one-third full or two-thirds empty?
Is a fully open society - scoring a perfect 0.0 - something you can ever envisage? The Soviet Union be-tween the two world wars may have been the world's greatest experiment in attempting it. Land ownership was abolished, inheritance forbidden, the middle class harried and even killed. This produced enormous social mobility. The biographies of the Soviet nomenklatura show how many came up from worker or peasant backgrounds, often through technical education.
But from the 1950s onwards, ossification set in. The new class protected its own. At the top, it was a great help to belong to the Brezhnev or, later, Yeltsin clan. In The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958) - the first use of that word in English - Michael Young foresaw that family allegiances would break up even the most fiercely meritocratic system. In Unequal But Fair?, Peter Saunders, a professor of sociology at the University of Sussex, writes: "The essence of a meritocratic society is that it offers individuals equal opportunities to become unequal." Many people want to shelter their children from that cold wind.
In Britain, Goldthorpe's study shows seismic social shifts. He divides society into three broad classes: working class; intermediate class (roughly, the lower middle class); and service class (the middle and upper middle classes). Not many more than half, he finds, have stayed in the same social class as their fathers. Nonetheless, working-class sons of working-class fathers are the largest social group. The working class is judged more "hereditary" than the middle class. A H Halsey, a long-time tracker of change in British society, interprets the Nuffield findings this way: "The typical factory worker was at least a second-generation proletarian, while the middle-class man who looked at his fellows found that nearly two out of every three of them had come from birth in another social class."
All this was published just before the great de-industrialisation of the 1980s. The economy has had less and less need of an old-style working class. In the early 20th century, the census showed that about three-quarters of employed people were manual workers. By mid-century, the total was down to two-thirds. By the 1970s, the census recorded that it had shrunk to about a third. Now it's lower still. (You need only see these figures to understand the late 20th- and early 21st-century ideological dilemmas of the Labour Party.) There has been a Hoover-like suction up into higher social classes. And "once you got to the top, you had a good chance of staying there", according to Professor Heather Joshi, the deputy director of the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at London University's Institute of Education.
Goldthorpe produces elaborate analyses of the "relative" chances of upward mobility. This gives a much gloomier picture than the "absolute" shift in numbers. Fewer than one in nine of working-class sons, he finds, moved all the way up to the solid middle class, whereas half of middle-class sons end up middle class. This produced a celebrated row with Saunders, who argues that absolute changes matter more. After all, even if the "relative" mobility of each working-class individual is set pretty low, that shifts a large number of people down the decades, as those census figures show. It's a social version of the law of compound interest. As Rose says: "People's lived experience is that of seeing absolute mobility."
Saunders claims that class, in a tolerably open society, is a reasonably fair way of allocating rewards. People who combine "intelligence and effort together" (Young's definition of merit) will tend to rise, or fall, to the level of their just deserts - although "the importance of sheer luck should not be overlooked". If the children of middle-class families do better, Saunders argues, it's because, on average, they do have more merit, thus defined.
Pinning down changes over time, rather than just dipping into the present, is laborious and rare. Yet life is more like a movie - sometimes a movie where reels get tangled up, or are even run backwards by a demented projectionist - than an Instamatic snapshot. A new academic survey, Obstacles and Opportunities on the Route to Adulthood, to be published soon by the Smith Institute, gets closer to a moving picture.
The authors, John Bynner, Heather Joshi and Maria Tsatsas, draw on two long-running inquiries: the National Child Development Study, which has been tracking people born in 1958, and the Birth Cohort Study, which tracks those born in 1970. The life stories of these two groups have been followed right into the 1990s, and the latest findings draw on the experiences of more than 20,000 adults from the two studies.
The outcome emphasises the importance of education in contemporary Britain. "Class of origin exercises an impact largely through achievement at school and higher education." Class, as such, still matters, but it seems to be becoming less important. Among those people born in 1958, the sons and daughters of professional fathers "have a 20 per cent advantage in occupational achievement" over the sons and daughters of fathers who work in unskilled jobs. There is also a 10 per cent jobs advantage in favour of men. But among the 1970 birth-group, women's disadvantage disappears, and the social-class disadvantage halves.
Credentials are becoming ever more crucial. For the 1958 group, men without any formal qualifications are four times as likely to be out of work, compared with graduates. For the group born only a dozen years later, the differential has tripled: the unqualified men are 12 times as likely to be out of a job. Qualifications also lower the odds against women, but the differentials are not so great. This may be because one of the biggest expansions is in routine, white-collar or service jobs. These may not require much by way of quali-fications, and many of these jobs are filled by women.
The researchers' conclusion is clear-cut. "The education system provides the most important channel for selecting children for success or failure on the adult labour market." It's hardly surprising that private schools - although not boarding schools - are flourishing. As Saunders notes, they "tend to do better than state schools at getting people through examinations, irrespective of their abilities or their ambition".
Class still lurks behind the thicket of educational advantage or disadvantage. It's sometimes argued that what the middle classes pass on to their children is "cultural capital" - a house with books, broadsheet newspapers, a quiet space to do homework. But, as Rose observes, it can be much simpler than that. When a child thinks about university, middle-class parents - in, say, their forties - will still enjoy rising incomes. Working-class parents will already be at the top of their earnings cycle, maybe even on the downward run. The thought of accumulating debt for themselves or their children points towards a job that needs fewer qualifications, or a directly vocational, shorter course. The Labour government's policies have increased this fear of debt. "The pitch is always tilted," Rose says, "towards the middle class."
But is it tilted any worse in Britain than elsewhere? Halsey cites a couple of comparative studies of social selection in education by German sociologists. They found that, in France, 55 per cent of university degrees went to middle-class students, against 35 per cent in England. Scotland and Northern Ireland were also at the egalitarian end of the spectrum. Hungary was one of the least egali-tarian nations. Germany came in the middle.
You could argue with this. There are degrees and degrees, especially now that there are so many universities. Pecking order among chickens was discovered in the 1920s. Among British universities, it supposedly didn't exist until the 1990s. Now the top 19 vice-chancellors scuttle out of the campus hen-pen to meet regularly in the Russell Hotel in Bloomsbury, in order to protect their joint interests. (The "Russell Group" see themselves as Britain's Ivy League.) The Conservatives raised the proportion of school leavers who started degree courses to one in three. Labour's ambition is one in two. This is mass higher education, American-style. Without a pecking order, potential employers struggle to decide from among the myriad graduate applicants. Rose says it will all start to turn, as in America, on "whether students can afford that fourth year, to get an extra credential": an MA, MSc or diploma.
Will the present trends continue? Will the absolute increase in upward mobility keep chugging away? Sociology is not very good at prediction. One reason is that, as Raymond Aron, the French sociologist, once told Halsey: "The trouble is that British sociology is essentially an attempt to make intellectual sense of the political problems of the Labour Party." So there is always an element of wishful thinking. Halsey himself took Aron's point. (Does Anthony Giddens?) Chancing his arm, Rose wonders if we may not settle down to a lower rate of social mobility, after all the recent shifts, with "a much larger and re-established middle class" in which "those who have made it will know what it takes to maintain that position".
Others have probably lost their ranking irretrievably. Rose led the Office for National Statistics' new subdivision of British social classes. Coal miners, for example, were once the classic C2s, the crack battalion of the skilled working class. Greatly reduced in numbers, they have sunk into the new lowest grade, Class VII, to which "routine occupations" are allocated. The classic Class VIIs are drivers (both of white vans and of juggernauts) and cleaners. The test is not wage levels, but how you're paid (salary or piece-rate), how secure your job is, and how much autonomy you have.
None of this is about the topmost crust, the elite of the elite. Much of the ferocity about class focuses on this thin, gilded stratum. An American child can always dream, however hopelessly, about becoming president. In a hereditary monarchy, there is no election for the post of Queen. Nor do many people have the likelihood of accumulating the thousands of profitable acres of the Duke of Westminster (notably, most of Belgravia). Labour MPs' hostility to fox-hunting is motivated by hatred of the hunters at least as much as by compassion for the hunted.
But the rising meritocracy's chisel of intelligence-plus-effort is chipping away at many of the brick walls. Things don't stand still. Looking at the MPs elected in the 1997 general election, David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh found that only 18 had been to Eton: the lowest number ever; even after the Labour landslide of 1945, 29 per cent of MPs were Etonians. There were, however, more graduates than ever before: 66 per cent of the Labour members, 81 per cent of the Conservatives and 70 per cent of the Lib Dems. The parliamentary Labour Party had moved a long way from "the legendary committee of checkweighmen". Only 13 per cent of the newly elected MPs had been manual workers.
Looked at more closely, what we seem to be seeing is the steady advance of Goldthorpe's intermediate class: the lower middle class. This has always been the class sneered at by both sides. But this is where many of the new jobs are. Instead of a nation of shopkeepers, we may be becoming a nation of computer operators and care workers.
In Britain at least, race is only a blip on these charts. Outside London, the non-white minorities are too few to shape the statistics much. In any event, class mostly trumps race. In the official analysis of the 1991 census, the children and grandchildren of West Indian migrants are described as faIling into the "Irish" mode - meaning blue-collar. By contrast, Asians, and especially Indians, are expected to follow the "Jewish" path - that is, rapidly upwardly mobile into the professional classes. In school and university - and even in the toughest admissions contests, such as law and medicine, where Laura Spence stumbled - Indians already do at least as well as white British. Chinese do better. Many of the racial statistics you always see - about the numbers of white males on judicial benches, for example - will erode over time. Don't forget, there were once no Jews there.
The class imagery will take longer to change. The British love it so much. I take two recent books on class off my shelves. A Class Act, by Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard, has on its cover Ian Berry's incisive photograph of a man in a top hat at Glyndebourne in the 1960s, walking past a man in overalls who's pushing a trolley load of Schweppes tonic water. David Cannadine's Class in Britain has the even more widely reproduced picture of a top-hatted schoolboy in the 1930s, waiting outside the gate of Lord's at the Eton-Harrow cricket match, and stared at by three Camden Town urchins. I've always assumed that this photo, taken by Jimmy Sime for the Central Press Agency, was set up. Ian Berry's, I'm sure, wasn't. But my heart sinks slightly at the designers' use of easy caricature. Eton still exists and so does Glyndebourne. Eton is still the buttress of a power elite (if it produces fewer MPs, this may tell you more about the centrality of the Commons than about Eton). Glyndebourne is the cream in that coffee.
But, as symbols, they have had their day. In all the emphasis on society's vertical divisions, remember the tremendous horizontal impact of mass culture. However rich or poor you are, you can only drink the same Coca-Cola, eat the same McDonald's cheeseburger, wear the same Speedo shorts, hear the same track of All Saints, watch the same video of Bruce Willis, see the same episodes of The Simpsons. Owning Belgravia, like owning Brancusi's sculpture, La Negresse Blonde (sold at Sotheby's, New York, for $8m), is what economists call a positional good. This defines the social limit to economic growth: you can't have what someone else already has. But mass culture deals in material goods - which just keep rolling off the production line.
When George Orwell said he belonged to the lower upper middle class, it was a painstaking attempt to pin himself down socially. When Homer Simpson stomps along the sidewalk and announces he's a member of the upper lower middle class, it's a cue for a laugh. Even class is not what it was.
The writer is a senior research fellow of the Institute of Community Studies