Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads: everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom ... to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Numerically, the Church of England (or Anglican Church) has the largest number of adherents of any religion in Great Britain, accounting for 48 percent of the population; most members reside in England. The second largest religion, statistically, is Roman Catholicism (16 percent); Catholics reside throughout the kingdom. Other religions include Protestantism (which includes the state religions of both Wales and Scotland), Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Sikhism.
In comparison with some other European countries, and with the one notable exception of Northern Ireland neither religion nor politics is an important part of people's social identity in modern Britain. This is partly because the two do not, as they do in some other countries, go together in any significant way.
Historians say that the class system has survived in Britain because of its flexibility. It has always been possible to buy or marry or even work your way up, so that your children (and their children) belong to a higher social class than you do. As a result, the class system has never been swept away by a revolution and an awareness of class forms a major part of most people's sense of identity.
People in modern Britain are very conscious of class differences. They regard it as difficult to become friends with somebody from a different class. This feeling has little to do with conscious loyalty, and nothing to do with a positive belief in the class system itself. Most say they do not approve of class divisions. Nor does it have very much to do with political or religious affiliations. It results from the fact that the different classes have different sets of attitudes and daily habits. Typically, they tend to eat different food at different times of day (and call the meals by different names), they like to talk about different topics using different styles and accents of English, they enjoy different pastimes and sports, they have different values about what things in life are important and different ideas about the correct way to behave. Stereotypically, they go to different kinds of school.
An interesting feature of the class structure in Britain is that it is not just, or even mainly, relative wealth or the appearance of it which determines someone's class. Of course, wealth is part of it - if you become wealthy, you can provide the conditions to enable your children to belong to a higher class than you do. But it is not always possible to guess reliably the class to which a person belongs by looking at his or her clothes, car or bank balance. The most obvious and immediate sign comes when a person opens his or her mouth, giving the listener clues to the speaker's attitudes and interests, both of which are indicative of class.
But even more indicative than what the speaker says is the way that he or she says it. The English grammar and vocabulary which is used in public speaking, radio and television news broadcasts, books and newspapers (and also - unless the lessons are run by Americans - as a model for learners of English as a foreign language) is known as ‘standard British English’. Most working-class people, however, use lots of words and grammatical forms in their everyday speech which are regarded as ‘non-standard’.
Nevertheless, nearly everybody in the country is capable of using standard English (or something very close to it) when they judge that the situation demands it. They are taught to do so at school. Therefore, the clearest indication of a person's class is often his or her accent. Most people cannot change this convincingly to suit the situation. The most prestigious accent in Britain is known as ‘Received Pronunciation’(RP). It is the combination of standard English spoken with an RP accent that is usually meant when people talk about 'BBC English' or 'Oxford English' (referring to the university, not the town) or ‘the Queen's English’.
RP is not associated with any particular part of the country. The vast majority of people, however, speak with an accent which is geographically limited. In England and Wales, anyone who speaks with a strong regional accent is automatically assumed to be working class. Conversely, anyone with an RP accent is assumed to be upper or upper-middle class. (In Scotland and Northern Ireland, the situation is slightly different; in these places, some forms of regional accent are almost as prestigious as RP.)
During the last quarter of the twentieth century, the way that people wish to identify themselves seems to have changed. In Britain, as anywhere else where there are recognised social classes, a certain amount of ‘social climbing’ goes on; that is, people try to appear as if they belong to as high a class as possible. These days, however, nobody wants to be thought of as snobbish. The word 'posh' illustrates this tendency. It is used by people from all classes to mean ‘of a class higher than the one I (the speaker) belong to’ and it is normally used with negative connotations. To accuse someone of being posh is to accuse them of being pretentious.
Working-class people in particular are traditionally proud of their class membership and would not usually wish to be thought of as belonging to any other class. Interestingly, a survey conducted in the early 1990s showed that the proportion of people who describe themselves as working class is actually greater than the proportion whom sociologists would classify as such! This is one manifestation of a phenomenon known as ‘inverted snobbery’, whereby middle-class people try to adopt working-class values and habits. They do this in the belief that the working classes are in some way ‘better’ (for example, more honest) than the middle classes.
In this egalitarian climate, the unofficial segregation of the classes in Britain has become less rigid than it was. A person whose accent shows that he or she is working class is no longer prohibited from most high-status jobs for that reason alone. Nobody takes elocution lessons any more in order to sound more upper class. It is now acceptable for radio and television presenters to speak with ‘an accent’, (i.e. not to use strict RP). It is also notable that, at the time of writing, none of the last five British Prime Ministers went to an elitist school for upper-class children, while almost every previous Prime Minister in history did.
In general, the different classes mix more readily and easily with each other than they used to. There has been a great increase in the number of people from working-class origins who are house owners and who do traditionally middle-class jobs. The lower and middle classes have drawn closer to each other in their attitudes.