British Elites Know Who Isn’t Quite Their Type
The term “posh” appeals to foreigners, but the British know there are teeth underneath the smile.
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As a British journalist living abroad, I get asked many questions, from the role of the queen to the peculiarities of Parliament. But one theme comes up again and again: poshness. What does it really mean? What’s posh, and what isn’t? Outsiders think they know the term, but they don’t understand it viscerally. And they often miss that when the British deploy the term, it comes with an edge whetted on the stone of class.
Understanding poshness matters, especially since it is in the air again: Like the damp in an old country house, it never truly goes away. And it’s back now with the current British prime minister, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, an alumni of Eton College, the University of Oxford, and the Bullingdon Club. It can be seen plainly in the leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, a man whose aristocratic self-fashioning is so risibly parodic he’s been labeled the “honorable member for the 18th century.”
Americans, in particular, lap it up. The notion of poshness seems to stir in them a kind of longing for the orderly hierarchies of the old world. They think of it as classy. They chuckle at those Brits and their cute accents, or they gasp in admiration or bewilderment at Downton Abbey. In fact, outsiders everywhere seem to admire it—but they miss the underlying complexities of class, and, as a result, they misunderstand Britain.
Poshness has frayed and faded over the years, but it lives on in a series of customs and habits, many of them inherited from feudal times: riding to hounds; murdering pheasants, rabbits, foxes, squirrels, and really anything with a pulse in the right season; drinking too much wine; and occasionally bonking each other’s spouses. It’s an attitude better suited to times of indulgence than ones of moral rectitude; the Victorian era, with its great surge of the middle class, was distinctly anti-posh, until it swung back the other way with the bulgy sybarite Edward VII.
More than anything else, to be posh is to reside at the top end of an ancient caste system. This is what outsiders all too often miss about class. They admire the aesthetics and the charm of what appears posh but miss the unforgiving social stratification that class imposes on Britain.
Johnson is the 20th prime minister to have attended Eton—a single astonishingly dominant school. Under Boris and his Etonian predecessor David Cameron, homelessness in the United Kingdom nearly tripled. Posh people, meanwhile, still own much of the country. Research published in 2019 found that some 25,000 people—and a few corporations—own more than 50 percent of land in the U.K. The Duke of Buccleuch’s estates, for example, extend to nearly half a percent of the entire country. And even when working-class people break into the professions, they earn 17 percent less a year than their posh contemporaries.
At the core of poshness is a network, a tapestry of titled aristocrats, gentry, and the fanciest of the upper-upper-middle classes. They attend the same schools (Eton, Harrow, Downe House, Marlborough, Winchester) and universities (Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Bristol, St. Andrews) and eventually intermarry to keep the whole show on the road. Poshness derives much of its power from educational hegemony. Even as the number of privately educated pupils at Oxbridge has declined, the grip of the elite high schools has tightened. A 2018 report revealed that eight top schools in the U.K. get as many pupils into Oxford and Cambridge as three-quarters of all schools and colleges put together.
And that’s key to poshness: It’s not just about money. It’s about signaling your access to wellsprings of power that have flowed through the U.K. for centuries—to being “the right kind of person.” Poshness usually comes with wealth but not always. You can be posh but not rich, though it’s difficult to sustain indefinitely, and you can certainly be rich but not posh. Self-made moguls such as Philip Green (of Topshop) and Alan Sugar (of Amstrad) are seen as decidedly gauche. What poshness guarantees is access to wealth, even when you’re broke: the ability, for example, to bum around friends’ house parties and borrow holiday homes in Italy or France. And it can catapult you into the top; going to the right school makes you 94 times more likely to reach the country’s professional elite.
Posh is also an aesthetic, the original shabby chic—one that signals not just possession of land but also the antiquity and confidence of its ownership. Grand houses, yes, but with fraying rugs and dreadful central heating, full of tweed jackets and Wellington boots that don’t belong to anyone in particular but line up muddily by the front door for whoever is nominated to take the dogs out.
Poshness is a voice, sometimes described as cut glass—pronounced clearly and carefully. And with the voice comes a dialect: Say loo, not toilet; scent, not perfume; and napkin, not serviette. The forbidden terms are French and thus associated with middle-class social climbers striving to use seemingly classy language.
Many foreigners think posh is a compliment, but only posh people view it as such—and even then not always. Everyone else in Britain uses it as an insult. To be called posh outside of the houses of the posh is to be called spoiled, entitled, or pretentious.
The British monitor class carefully. And maybe that gives them an edge, a certain realism, especially over their trans-Atlantic cousins. Class is not the story America chooses to tell about itself today. People don’t write about it. They don’t make movies about it. The national myth is founded on the idea of freedom, wealth, and opportunity unshackled from the conventions of the old world. And if one doesn’t like that story, well, then there’s a far gloomier one to tell about racial oppression and native genocide. Class doesn’t usually come into it, much as the British often overlook race.
But when you examine the numbers, the British have a slight edge on social mobility over Americans. A child born into a family in the bottom 20th percentile of income levels has an 11.4 percent chance of making it to the top 20th percentile in the U.K.—as compared with a 7.8 percent chance in the United States. Tellingly, Americans are much more likely to overestimate social mobility in their country, even though the middle class has grown in Britain while it has shrunk in the United States. Much of Britain’s relative success on that front has been driven by traditional equalizers such as universal health care and low-cost higher education. Yet those systems were in fact created in part because of poshness—the middle-class politicians who created them despised and campaigned against the aristocracy. So too, ironically enough, was the Thatcherite revolution of the 1980s—a grocer’s daughter who taught herself a posh accent but whose contempt for antique institutions was legendary. A country that thinks about class so obsessively also understands its power better.
The specifics of British poshness might be unique, but to understand its core, take a look at the people who have power almost anywhere in the world—and examine whose kids they are and what schools they went to. They might speak with a different accent, be less charming, and have less of a fondness for dogs and horses—but they will likely embody the inherited privilege that comes with being posh.
This article appears in the Winter 2020 print issue.