To what extent does modern Britain exhibit a class system?

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Historically, British society has been defined by a clearly demarcated system of social classes. In the medieval period, this was characterised by a feudal system of landowners and serfs (Bloch, 2014); in the early modern period the courtly aristocratic model defined the British class system, and this morphed in the last two centuries to form the traditional tripartite model of the working, middle and upper classes. However, in recent years such a system has been called into question.

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It has been argued that Britain is a class-less society, that socio-economic and democratising political forces have combined to rid the society of its vertical, pyramid structure. Proponents of this levelling process have argued that Britain, in the globalised twentieth century, is characterised by other, wider contextual forces than those of the national class system (Portes and Walton, 2013). However, this essay will take issue with this contention, and argue that announcements of the death of the class system in Britain are not merely premature or exaggerated, they are fundamentally wrong. Whilst net measures of wealth, education and so on point to improvements and progression en masse, the kinds of intra-societal divisions which mark out the class system have, if anything, increased in recent years, rendering Britain a society not merely defined but dominated by its class system. One of the defining features of a class system is that it has a lowest strata or group. This has been defined variously as the lower classes, the working classes, the serfs or the ‘under class.’ Irrespective of terminology, this presence of a lowest social group is one which is a defining feature of class systems; it is seen, notably, in other cultural contexts such as the ethno-religious Hindu caste system, which identifies a clearly lowest class in the form of the so-called ‘untouchables’ (Rahaman, 2015). Thus, one argument in favour of Britain no longer exhibiting a class system might be the contention that no such underclass exists any longer. Such an argument is false, however, as social marginalisation, social exclusion, greater inequality and other social realities of contemporary British life make evident. What has often been mistakenly identified as the erosion of the class system is in fact a net movement upwards with respect to standards in British society as a whole. Therefore, it is true that British people, across the income spectrum, are better educated, live longer, and enjoy better living standards than they did in previous centuries (Graham, 2012). Yet, this has been matched by a general increase in standards for British people as a whole. The class system is a measure of demarcations within the collective social body, not a measure of general standards, and thus, it may be argued that the class system in Britain has become more rather than less entrenched in recent decades,

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