In Depth

Five ways Britain may be turning into Downton Abbey

Social mobility has flat-lined, the rich are getting richer and class prejudice is on the rise. Are we living in Downton Abbey?

The leader of Britain's trade union movement has warned that the UK is in danger of turning into a "Downton Abbey-style" society, with Victorian levels of inequality.

Trades Union Congress general secretary Frances O'Grady said that social mobility had "hit reverse", with "no sign of the economic recovery in most people's lives".

In a speech to TUC delegates in Liverpool, O'Grady said: "Are we going to settle for a nastier and poorer Britain - a Downton Abbey-style society, in which the living standards of the vast majority are sacrificed to protect the high living of the well-to-do? We are piling yet more riches onto a privileged few.

So is Britain in danger of heading back in time to the era of the popular ITV drama? Here are five ways in which the union leader may be right.

Upstairs, downstairs

Part of the appeal of Downton Abbey is its exploration of the lives of the Crawley household’s servants, as well as the aristocrats upon whom they wait.

After the Second World War, the number of servants in the UK declined dramatically, but these days that trend has been "dramatically reversed," Janet Street Porter says in the Daily Mail. In recent years there has been a 25 per cent increase in domestic servants in London alone, Street Porter says.

Kalayaan, a charity based in west London that helps and advises migrant domestic workers, has argued that many of the 15,000 migrant workers who come to Britain every year endure conditions that amount to "modern-day slavery".

Lobby groups say that a large proportion of the foreign domestic workers working in the UK are paid less than £50 a week to work 20-hour days.

Social mobility is low

Downton Abbey depicts an historical moment in which social mobility was almost non-existent. According to O'Grady, those days are back: "Silver spoons are ever more firmly clamped in the mouths of those who were born with them," she said in her Liverpool address.

Some senior governmental analysts would be inclined to agree with her. Last year, Alan Milburn, a former Labour MP and now the government's adviser on social mobility, said that decades of entrenched elitism had resulted in a "shocking" lack of social mobility in the UK.

He said: "Economic recovery is unlikely to halt the trend of the last decade, where the top part of society prospers and the bottom part stagnates".

Rich are born rich, poor are born poor

"Ooh good, let's talk about money," says the Countess of Grantham witheringly in an early episode of Downton Abbey. Earlier this year, France's "rock-star economist" Thomas Piketty set off a firestorm with his book Capital in the Twentieth Century, which argued, among other things, that ever-rising wealth inequality is an inevitable feature of capitalism. Those who are born rich will acquire more wealth, Piketty argued, while those who are born poor will not.

Class prejudice is on the rise

O'Grady contends that "under this government, class prejudice is becoming respectable once again." However, class prejudice in modern Britain works in both directions and increasingly "Old Etonian" has become shorthand for rich and privileged rather than a mark of positive social status. Indeed, while it is often thought that Cameron's Conservative Party is a return to the "chumocracy" days of Harold MacMillan, statistics show that the percentage of old Etonian Tory MPs has fallen from 24 per cent in 1951 and 20 per cent in 1959 to 6.5 per cent today, the Daily Telegraph says.

Julian Fellowes, the creator of writer of Downton Abbey disputes that the show is about class division. In fact, he told the Wall Street Journal, it is the opposite: "I think the — well, not even the subtext, the supertext — of Downton is that it is possible for us all to get on, that we don't have to be ranged in class warfare permanently—that for the general public, the fact that people are leading different lives with different economic realities and different expectations is perfectly cope-able with".

Swift technological development is causing redundancy

Over the course of Downton Abbey's five series, Britain is shown to undergo vast technological upheaval. The scullery maids are introduced to radical new household technologies including the electric mixer, sewing machines and refrigerators. Some, such as Molesely, who trained as a butler but ends up as a lowly footman, find themselves displaced and left with with few useful skills.

"I see Molesley as the 1920s counterpart of the contemporary highly skilled worker in manufacturing – left behind by changed circumstances," Eric Maskin, a Nobel Prize-winning economist who teaches at Harvard University told the Washington Post. "Today’s Molesley might be a former printing press machinist now restocking shelves at Wal-Mart," the paper says.


Is social media bad for your mental health?
In Depth

Is social media bad for your mental health?

Inside Plan B: government quietly revives mandatory Covid passports plan
People dancing at a nightclub
Between the lines

Inside Plan B: government quietly revives mandatory Covid passports plan

A look back at the 2019 Conservative manifesto
Boris Johnson in December 2019
Getting to grips with . . .

A look back at the 2019 Conservative manifesto

End of the furlough scheme: what happens next? 
Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak
Business Briefing

End of the furlough scheme: what happens next? 

Popular articles

Penguins ‘might be aliens’
Tall Tales

Penguins ‘might be aliens’

The most extreme weather events in 2021
Wildfire in Greece
In pictures

The most extreme weather events in 2021

The man tasked with putting a price on 9/11’s lost lives
Kenneth Feinberg at a Congressional hearing

The man tasked with putting a price on 9/11’s lost lives

The Week Footer Banner