Class Act

How do inequality and class discrimination differ between France and Britain?

21 February 2018

One good thing about living in continental Europe is it puts you beyond the British class system. Distinctions by birth and background do not mean the same thing here. Not everyone is equal in France but at least égalité is an overt aspiration written on every town hall wall and there are fewer barriers to advancement through brains and merit.

Britain, in contrast, is deliberately and proudly unequal – as symbolised by its monarchy, aristocracy, House of Lords, Honours List, land ownership and private schools (never try to explain to anyone French that a public school is really a private school).

Is this, perhaps what motivates Brexit: the desire to hold fast to a society of inequality and privilege that has ensured continuity and stability for the Sceptred Isle?

The EU, for all its many faults, represents a political project to smooth out differences between European citizens and nurture a meritocracy that, as far as possible, works to neutralise ideas of privilege by birth and unearned entitlement.

In a fluid, pan-national social order based on treaty rather than tradition, no one’s place is fixed by unspoken, uncodified rules of superiority and deference. This can be disconcerting to those who feel identity depends on looking with disdain at those of lesser status and envy at those above.

Is the argument over Brexit really the contest of two world views: one looking to the past for reassurance and one looking forward in experimentation?

Holding fast to a system of ‘knowing one’s place in the pecking order because things have always been this way’ may feel the safest ploy but it should not take precedence over opportunity, freedom and extended rights for a generation that would like to leave social class behind.

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