LONDON (AP) — For the past three decades, many Britons had hoped the rigid class system that defined their country from Dickens to "Downton Abbey" was finally dying. Now they fear that class, their old bugbear, is back on the rise.
From 1979, Britain was led for more than a decade by Margaret Thatcher, a grocer's daughter, and then by John Major, the son of a music-hall entertainer. The current leader, David Cameron, is a descendent of King William IV whose Cabinet is stacked with men, like him, from the country's toniest private schools and Oxford and Cambridge universities.
Even entertainment has a more upper-crust flavor these days. A recent Sunday Telegraph story with the headline "young, gifted and posh" said Britain's oldest private schools, such as all-male Eton and Harrow, had become a "production line of young talent," including "Homeland" star Damian Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch of "Sherlock" and Dominic West of "The Wire."
Major, alarmed by the apparent reversals, recently sparked a flurry of debate with a speech that made front-page headlines.
"In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class," Major said. "To me, from my background, I find that truly shocking."
So is it true that class divisions are deepening again?
While the ancestral upper caste still retains its mystique in Britain, the numbers reflect a more complicated reality. An elite still dominates, but it is now a club where money — and the education money can buy — counts more than lineage.
This means more women, ethnic minorities and foreigners have made it to the top. But the increase in diversity masks the fact that it's becoming harder for the poor and unconnected to climb the social ladder, as the government's social mobility commission concluded in a hefty report published in October.