"So-called" is my favourite word today because class is by its very nature a social construct and I think it is ridiculous. However, complaining that the English are obsessed with class is like saying that the Americans are obsessed with race, i.e. not something an outsider, e.g. a Canadian, should say.
I first came across the whole concept of class from British books. I found it interesting, as I loved categories, so I asked my mother what class we belonged to. My mother, who was probably in her early 30s at the time, very cleverly told me my family was exempt from the class system because my father was an intellectual. Being a froward child, I took this to mean that we were super-special, beyond aristocrats and royalty, because my father was an intellectual. So I became a bit of an intellectual snob. I even once referred to myself (on TV, how horrible) as an intellectual, and my father laughed quite a lot. So I shall never do that again.
When I got to Britain, I noticed that the class system, from which my ancestors fled, was still in effect, so I brightly asked B.A. what class we belonged to, and he shrieked like a tea kettle because that's not something one is ever supposed to think about. He also told me that being a foreigner I am exempt from such stuff, and how lucky I am.
This turns out not to be true, exactly, because although the English and, to a certain extent, the Scots still identify and classify everyone by their accents (and the wary Scots have learned that very often American-sounding people are actually Canadians), people here also judge you by your clothes, your address and your chosen form of transportation. And, rather horribly for me, there exists a form of class-conscious chippiness that wants to take down anyone who seems to be "putting on airs." Putting on airs can mean wearing snazzy vintage clothes, including (and especially) ladies' hats.
I suppose I could "get away with it" if I had the right car for the hat, but I don't know how to drive. I take the bus and because between the New Town and the Historical House lies a great swath of slum, B.A. sometimes makes me take my hat off, or leave behind Casimir (my fox fur stole), or exchange my glorious mohair cape for my green tweed coat with the hem that keeps falling down. The English are said to love eccentrics; the Scots, I suspect, not so much.
What I dislike most about class-consciousness is being hassled by drunk people about my clothes. When I was a child in Toronto, the other children made fun of my clothes because they didn't think they were fashionable enough. Now I get hassled for my clothes because they look funny or fall in the distressing category "too posh and yet not posh enough."
But that aside--and it can be really frightening--what I dislike next is moaning about the wicked "middle-class" with "their" terribly unchristian values, like jockeying to find a good salary and repeating ideas they learned from books and the Guardian/Telegraph and forcing their children to speak clearly.
The bit of British letters I have ever seen with the same venom shown towards the so-called working classes (as opposed to the so-called "socially excluded" (generational welfare recipients) as I recently read about the so-called middle classes, was a story by Muriel Spark, who was working class herself but went to a very good school before training as a secretary. In this story, the working class secretary comes from a home that is absolutely obsessed with germs, and would rather have new easy-to-clean furniture than antique furniture any day of the week. She is a nice girl and befriends some middle-classy bohemian people who shock her with their untidy ways, and she is terribly disappointed by a posh suitor because he is simply grubby. Oh woe!
Spark is having fun at the expense of the working-class, which may have been rather daring. Spark was not exempt from the reverse-snobbery of critics who, quite to find snobbery in others, have protested that Spark was not from "posh" Morningside (a neighbourhood in Edinburgh) as she is claimed to have claimed, but from humbler Bruntsfield (the Edinburgh neighbourhood right beside Morningside.)
As a matter of fact, Spark was born in a flat in Bruntsfield, and you could still see "Spark" on the doorbell until two years ago or so when her son (presumably) took it off. But she certainly went to
My own attitude is that, unlike gender, class is entirely a social contract and will disappear once people stop needing to snarl at those they think are looking down on them, and giggle at those they think are indeed below them, and sucking up to those they think will help them get into the coolest parties, wherever they may be. There is so much social mobility in the United Kingdom now that class distinctions don't really make any sense. Every British adult citizen (and the Irish resident in the UK, and Canadians, too) have exactly one vote--except the Queen. The Queen can't vote. So therefore the Queen is in a class of her own. And when I examine my beliefs about the Queen, I really do believe she is in a special relationship with God on behalf of the British Commonwealth. So, yes, I would certainly curtsey to the Queen--and to any other Christian Queen. Of course, the Queen of Poland outranks all the others.
Obviously there will always be poor people (the goalposts keep shifting on what "poor" is) and there will always be richer people, but I don't think one group is thereby better than another. I think cheery, friendly people who go out of their way to make others happy are the natural aristocracy, if aristocracy there must be.