The English caste system?

Jill Clark has been reflecting on (the lack of) social mobility and the realities of the UK class divide. Although it’s easy to feel helpless and hopeless, she argues there are things that all of us can do.

The famous 'Class sketch' from the Frost show in 1966. We like to think that things have changed, but have they?


‘Once a peasant, always a peasant’. I’ve been pondering this phrase since reading the Government’s recent report Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: A strategy for social mobility.
It shows that there is less social mobility in the UK than we would hope for after many years of government spending on poverty reduction. Actually, it’s even more depressing than that. It shows that there is very little social mobility at all. Most people in professional jobs have parents who had professional jobs. Most children born into families with low educational achievement will also not receive a good education.

Should this report surprise us? Should it be a call to arms? This week I’ve had several conversations about this issue with people inside the church as well as outside. Friends from working class backgrounds mostly blame the local council or government. Middle-class friends put this down to one of the following: bad schools, bad parents or bad job opportunities. A banker friend even said, “Jesus had special powers to spend time with poor people. I don’t have that. I don’t want to put my wife and baby into harm’s way. I want the best for them”.

How did it happen, though, that some communities have schools with such low standards? And parents who are not able to inspire their children to achieve? And why are there not enough good job opportunities for those without a university degree?

Mostly people are embarrassed to talk about class, wrongly believing that if we don’t speak about it then it might not exist. To me this sums up a major problem with our response to news that the UK has a modern-day caste system, just as immovable as any seen in India. There is very little mixing of people from different classes.

I realised this a few years ago and later moved from Wimbledon (a very white and middle-class commuter-belt suburb) to Whitechapel (an inner-city Bangladeshi area with many homeless people). I had high hopes of making a difference in a poor area. Over time, though, the reality of burglaries, street drinking and violence has made me less idealistic about how these problems can be overcome. I have made only small steps to meeting people who are not middle-class. The problems sometimes seem huge and I feel the urge to retreat to an area where people look and act like I do.

For now, though, I will stay put. How will I ever understand the lack of opportunities for many people in the UK unless I know people for whom this is the case? In small ways I want to work against the belief that some people are too troubled or difficult to engage with. For now this means that I stand up for local people when they are told to ‘go home’ by white people. When I see conflict on the street, I intervene. I contact the police frequently. And in this way I have a small amount of hope (like a mustard seed?) that there will be a point in the future when good levels of social mobility will be normal.

Interested in this topic?

We like the research by Richard Wilkinson that show that inequality is the most important indicator of health, happiness and security in society. Read more in his book, The Spirit Level.

Jill Clark, April 2011

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About Livability Community Engagement

Part of Livability, a national Christian disability and community engagement charity. We are an enabling network, tackling barriers in society to make community livable.
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2 Responses to The English caste system?

  1. Greg Smith says:

    This is a huge issue which the church hardly ever talks about…in congregations it’s often the elephant in the room..

    But it’s complex… class stratification has changed in my life time.. In the 1950s there was a huge relatively poor working class, a triangular society, there was some flattening in the 60s.. now there is worse inequality but it’s more diamond shape with relatively few at the very bottom (and as they are marginal and unorganised there are no votes of and for the poor). It’s not just about income or wealth, there are issues of education, literacy and culture…

    Then of course there are all the other exclusions and inequalities, ethnicity in all it’s diversity, gender , age, region (its different here up north) etc.. etc.. which complicates things.

    But what do we mean by social mobility? Is it sufficient just for a few people from the working / lower class to have opportunities (if they have talent and work hard) to rise up the greasy pole of society and make their fortune. (The Dick Whittington / social entrepreneur approach). Or is it about a movement towards radical equality.. a flattening out.. which means some downward mobility for the rich..

    Here’s the biblical model (though we usually spiritualise it away)

    For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9 and 2 Corinthians 8:12-14)

    13 Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 14 At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need.

    The goal is equality.

    Help… How do we get there?

  2. Thanks for raising the issue Jill. I would love the independent schools to be seen as a waste of money, as they mostly are in other countries, rather than the place where the ruling class comes from. What I’ve seen where I live is also that people actually quite like being the “under class” as it frees them from responsibility or worry. They are not suffering from lack of food or shelter though, or being persecuted, so perhaps they have little motivation to rise above their station? Does our mobile and network society, rather than a geographical community base, make any difference to this class thing? In as much as it allows us to choose our friends and live in a world of our own making, yes it probably does.

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