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Useful Notes / A Touch of Class, Ethnicity and Religion

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This page is a brief guide to the United Kingdom's social structure. Whether you're British or not, it might contain some information that you might not be familiar with.

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    The Class System 

Social Class in Britain

Britain has far more strictly defined class divisions than the United States and many other countries. People categorise them in many ways. Some people will tell you that class is dead in modern Britain; do not believe them. It has ceased to matter as it once did, and most of the old elitist bastions now happily admit anyone with the right qualifications or enough money. Class is sadly alive and kicking, though — a good way to tell is by looking at the different demographics targeted by British Newspapers.

Many academics have attempted to write a definition of the various classes, and most have failed to pin it down exactly, but it has a lot to do with what you do for a living. In fact, it has a lot more to do with what your parents do/did for a living, though you can transcend your class.

Also note that class is not directly related to how much money you or your family earn, though it can be heavily related to what school and what (if any) university you went to. Alas, Tall Poppy Syndrome is still somewhat prevalent; while it's nowhere near as it once was, social climbing is not generally the done thing.

You could determine the classes as:

  • Underclass — People who do not work and subsist on state benefits or crime. Ten per cent of the adult population has not worked since 1997 and twenty per cent of British children are growing up in a household where no adult works. Depending on the definition used, this class may or may not specifically exclude housewives (and other such adults subsisting on someone else's income for whatever reason), family caregivers, the handicapped, and such people whom society have deemed acceptable not to engage in paid work.
  • Working class — Anyone who performs physical labour as part of the job. Used to be the largest group in the country. Although this mostly includes farm labourers in the countryside as well as factory workers and workplace cleaners in the cities, all fairly low-paid jobs, it also includes professional footballers, some of whom earn more in a week than the Prime Minister does in a year. A good rule of thumb is "if you work standing up, you're working-class".
  • Middle class — Divided into three:
    • Lower-middle class: One step up from working class. Traditionally a factory foreman or a skilled tradesman (builder, plumber, roofer, etc.). Alternatively, someone in a working-class job, but self-employed. Today, however, it's increasingly low-grade office and clerical workers, such as call centre staff or simple data-entering jobs, people who occupy a similar place on the economic ladder to the old upper end of the working class but the nature of their job means they're middle-class. Above them are:
    • Middle-middle class: Office workers, particularly at clerical and middle-management grades, and other skilled workers such as teachers. Also most of the remaining small business community, including shop owners and such.
    • Upper-middle class: Comprises senior management, professionals such as doctors, solicitors, university lecturers and the like (i.e., the "Working Rich"), and every rich person who doesn't come from a titled family. So billionaire Sir Richard Branson (not a baronetcy) and former Prime Minister David Cameron are considered upper-middle-class (although the latter does have some Blue Blood).

These can be further subdivided, for example, into confident established upper-middles or aspiring middle-middles.

  • Upper class — If the other classes are defined by what you do for a living, upper-class people traditionally don't (i.e., the "Idle Rich"). Historically this class was made up of the landed gentry and aristocracy who lived on the rents of the land they owned and their family's Old Money. The Second World War and modern taxes ended this lifestyle for almost everyone so most of the modern generation of lords and ladies actually have to work, though they tend to be more prevalent in advertising, the law, and media rather than 'trade', though many still keep up their family estates—albeit nowadays as tourist attractions. Furthermore, it became rather unseemly for the idle rich to act too ostentatiously idle, so many would take a day job just to be able to say they had one. For example, the infamous Lord Lucan was technically a merchant banker with an annual salary of £500 (a princely sum for a commoner back in 1954), but he'd lose much more money than that daily at the gambling tables. The source of your money matters far more than the amount; all else being equal, an Army colonel on £80,000 a year (usually upper-middle/professional-class wages) would be generally regarded as slightly more upper-class than his twin brother businessman earning £160,000. Even investment banking and City trading, where the more fiscally adventurous younger scions of aristocracy had a firm place, was seen as slightly gauche.

Historically, it was common for members of this class to become military officers, Church of England clergy, and politicians if they wanted to and that cachet still persists. Additionally, at certain times the careers listed above as 'professionals' were also open to younger sons without losing too much status; becoming a barrister (but not a solicitor) was particularly acceptable, as it was more or less necessary in order to be appointed a judge and gave you the public speaking practice and understanding of law that came in handy when kickstarting a career in politics. After the Industrial Revolution, however, these lower-ranking gentlemen were fused with upwardly mobile businessmen to form the middle class. The novels of Jane Austen are a great snapshot of this shift as it happened. More cerebral types may sometimes go into academia or science, but only if it clearly understood by all that it's done as a hobby rather than a salaried career.

The upper and working classes have at least one feature in common with each other: being at the top and bottom of the scale respectively, they tend not to notice the many nuances found in the middle class, and instead have a more binary 'us and them' perspective. Kate Fox's book Watching the English has an extensive discussion.

Many commentators refer to these by a 'grading system'. AB is upper class, the three middles are C1, C2, C3, etc. Even the 'underclass' are only E, so there is no failing grade for F.

A person's accent is a good clue as to their social class, with upper-class people sounding more formal.

Some people have a thing for posh young ladies. Conversely, posh young ladies are traditionally expected to favour 'a bit of rough'. That applies Down Under, too.


Race in Britain

DCI Dick Catherwood (White guy): Get in there, get into the community and find out what they know.
DI Moses Jones (second-generation Afro-Caribbean guy): You want me to go around asking local Africans about ritual killing?
DCI Dick Catherwood: Well, it's better coming from you, Moses. They're your people.
DI Moses Jones: My people, and who am I, Bishop Tutu?
DCI Dick Catherwood: If only.
DI Moses Jones: I am from Shepherds Bush.note 
Moses Jones (2009 Mini Series)

An important note to begin with. When Britons call themselves or other people "Asian", they are usually referring to someone from South Asia, not East Asia as is the American default assumption. For many years ethnicity monitoring questions on government forms actually gave "Asian" and "Chinese" as different options!note  Partly this is simply because most ethnically Asian people in Britain are of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, or Sri Lankan origin, but it's also because people from the latter three countries get upset for good reason if they're described as "Indian". Another thing to note in rare informal context West Asians (Middle Easterners) also get called Asian in the UK. Also, there's some sensitivity about referring to people as "Pakistani" because of the common British use of the abbreviation "Paki" as a racist insult as extreme and explosive as the word "Nigger" is in the USA. In fact, while Paki is derivative of Pakistan, it is used as a generic racist slur towards brown-skinned Muslims, but also other South Asians, West Asians and North Africans. Famous people who have been victims of this include Zayn Malik (former Muslim, half Pakistani), Jade Thirwall (non-Muslim with Egyptian and Yemeni heritage, though she speaks fondly of her Yemeni Muslim grandfather) and Freddie Mercury (a British Indian Zoroastrian of Parsi ethnicity, born Farroukh Bulsara). Finally, whatever you do, don't refer to British Black people as African-American, as all and sundry will mock you mercilessly. Also, the Black community in the UK is mostly split between Black Africans and Black Caribbeans. So a British Black person being asked if they (or their ancestors) are from the Caribbean or Africa is normal.

Many ethnic groups have colonised Britain over the ages (including failed colonisations between Ice Ages), with identifiable Late Stone and Bronze Age individuals found to be from France, Germany, Switzerland, and further east such as Hungary and Poland. Much evidence was lost when the North Sea Plain flooded in more recent ages. Cheddar Man (found in the nineteenth century in a cave in Cheddar Gorge) was Old Stone Age.

Britain is still a mostly White country (particularly outside the cities), with 80.5% of the population being White British, 1% White Irish and 4.4% White (Other) according to the 2011 census.note  This is a pretty rapid and recent change; the 1991 census listed 94.1% of the population as White British.

Unsurprisingly, the proportion varies greatly around the country: under 2 per cent of Northern Ireland's people are non-White (in Northern Ireland, the census doesn't differentiate between White Irish and White British, for obvious reasons). The Irish have migrated in large numbers to Britain for centuries; when the Irish economy was strong in the late 1990s (referred to as 'The Celtic Tiger', in reference to the contemporaneous 'Asian Tigers'), this tailed off, but after the Irish economy went down the drain, young Irish have been moving to Britain in quantity again (and, when they find that Britain isn't doing much better, a lot of them end up going to the US — most commonly the East Coast, particularly New York City and Boston, although Chicago is also popular).

The non-White ethnic minorities (14.1%) of the UK are mostly found in London. Significant minority populations (in percentage of the local population terms) also exist in Leicester, Birmingham, Slough and Luton, as well as the ghettos with large South Asian Muslim populations that exist in Lancashire and Yorkshire. Minorities are more common in cities and it is rarer (although far from unusual) to come across them in rural areas.

The main ethnic minority groups are:

  • Afro/Caribbean Blacks: At least 3% of the population — split fairly evenly (11:18) between Caribbean (from the British West Indies) and African (from the African nations that used to be in The British Empire) respectively. In the last 10 years the number of Black African people in Britain has overtaken the number from the Caribbean. Although present in miniscule numbers since at least the 17th and 18th century, if not Roman times. The Caribbean variety first arrived in the 1950s and are entering third-generation status whilst the African ones tend to be more recent immigrants. Interracial relationships amongst Afro-Caribbeans and Whites are now so common that people of Afro-Caribbean descent are expected to dwindle to almost none as a distinct group.
  • South Asian: At least 5% of the population — those from the former British India, split between Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis (as in, native to those countries), and those of such descent who fled from Idi Amin's Uganda and stayed. Most of these people largely arrived in the 1970s, although communities had already been established in Victorian times. The second and third are mostly Muslim. This has led to some tensions in British society, with homegrown terrorism, most notably the 7/7 and London Bridge/Borough Market terrorist attacks, carried out by British-born Muslims.
    • Britain does have the Asian Store-Owner stereotype, in that you are likely to see South Asians running newsagents in fiction (also extending to an Asian Taxi Driver stereotype sometimes).
  • Central and Eastern Europeans: Not actually that new. A large number of Jews arrived in Britain around 1900 from the Russian Empire,note  followed by considerable Polish, Greek, and Italian immigration after the Second World War. However, since the admission of several new states into The European Union in 2004, quite a lot have arrived, taking mostly factory, building and service jobs. The credit crunch has seen many head back home, particularly the Poles (as Poland weathered the crisis rather better than Britain).

Many from these groups are now third-generation immigrants, although there are still many more recent newcomers, some from elsewhere in the world. For instance, South London has a rapidly growing Latino community, two-thirds of which is composed of migrants who arrived after 2000, and which now outnumbers the longer-established Chinese community.

Of course, although their absolute numbers were far lower than today, there were non-White people in Britain before the twentieth century. The remains of ethnically African people have been discovered in graves dating from the era of The Roman Empire, there was already considerable immigration from South Asia and China in the eighteenth and nineteenth century,note  and Black Africans were brought into Britain as slaves during the same period.note )

    Race Relations 

Racial Issues in the UK

One could write a rather interesting comparative history of racism in the US and UK. The UK never had the system of legalised segregation that the US had in its southern states, but there was informal discrimination to significant and sizeable degrees. Originally, the British Empire was one of the largest sources of slave traders, but they also banned slavery much earlier than the United States did and via the West Africa Squadron (which at one point included approximately a quarter of the Royal Navy), spent much of the 19th century taking a very hardline approach against traders who persisted... even non-British traders, who were not bound by British law. This is rightly lauded as one of the great humanitarian triumphs of the Royal Navy, though we should also note that the motives weren't entirely altruistic. For one thing, the law gave the Navy an excuse to poke around any ship they wanted to and enforce de facto British control of the Atlantic. For another, it gave Britain a leg up on slavery-based economic rivals by cutting off their labour supply.

Interestingly, "blacking up" lasted about 20 years longer on UK media than in the United States, since it took a while for the negative associations (hatred of African people, refusal to let Africans be television actors) to cross the pond.

There is still a fair amount of racism in the UK. The far right have had a worrying level of support, although it's actually much less than in most other European nations. The British National Party (regularly and reasonably nicknamed the British Nazi Party) briefly had seats in the European Parliament. However, the waters have been significantly muddied by the 2016 Brexit referendum, which led to a significant resurgence in the far right, including the first political assassination in the UK since the end of the Troubles: of Labour MP Jo Cox by Thomas Mair, a neo-Nazi White supremacist.

This resurgence grew — to an extent (like all things involving Brexit, it is and was hideously complicated) — the longer the Brexit process has been drawn out, with the rise of the single-issue 'Brexit Party', which sought to ensure Brexit and otherwise had no discernible policies, with the traditionally centre-right Conservative Party tacking hard to the Islamophobic right to try to avoid haemorrhaging more votes. (After Brexit took place, the Brexit Party rebranded as Reform UK, which switched its focus to proclaiming 'Political Correctness Is Evil' and opposing lockdowns associated with the COVID-19 Pandemic.) The former Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister Boris Johnson did not help matters, given his long-standing personal history of racism and other forms of bigotry, making comments like "watermelon smiles" in reference to people from sub-Saharan Africa, claiming women in burkhas look like letterboxes or bank robbers, and (while an opposition MP) even writing a novel, Seventy-Two Virgins, which referred to people of Jewish descent fiddling election results.

However, not only did opposition to Brexit rise sharply, particularly among younger voters, leading to a partial renaissance of the Liberal Democrats and of the pro-EU left, there was also Brexit support on the far left (which hates the EU less for letting in foreigners, but for being a multinational capitalistic institution — though, again, there's overlap there with the far right), which also has an unfortunate history of antisemitism.note 

Contrary to popular belief, the far right would likely do worse if voting took place based on proportional representation rather than the present regime of single-member plurality (or first-past-the-post) since (A) the most likely forms involve ranked voting and they are many people's absolute last choice and (B) electoral reformers claim proportional representation will greatly increase turnout, swamping the committed nutters with less committed moderates. Probably. Again, Brexit confuses things.

Or, to put it more simply: heartfelt belief that non-White people are inferior is lower than on the continent, but may be on par with the USA. In casual conversation race is also less taboo in Britain than the USA, if only because the whole 'slavery' thing was so much more abstract in the UK, even though the nation was in control of the slave trade for a long time. The median Brit might be more likely than the median American to find racial stereotype funny, whereas said American might well feel moral indignation at the stereotyping. If the American pointed out to the Brit, "That's actually kind of racist," they are more likely to say, "Yes, so what? I'm not racist."

As of 2020, however, the issue of race in the UK and particular issues with racism in the police, has come up again thanks to the international Black Lives Matter Movement. The gist is pointing out both that the UK has historically skated over the less pleasant aspects of its imperial past, and that British police forces haven't changed significantly or greatly from the late 1990s, when London's Metropolitan Police was infamously described as "institutionally racist" by the Macpherson Report that came about in light of the racially motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993. While the unarmed nature of the majority of British police (and the associated training in de-escalation) mean that shootings are far less common, the police have a reputation for picking on minorities and brutality, including deaths in custody. Like in the US, this has also found its way out through sports, with a lot of former and current Association Football players coming forward with stories of racism that they have experienced. Since football is arguably the closest thing to a real national religion that the UK has, and football clubs are often deeply integrated into the local community, this is taken more seriously than it might otherwise be.

Some commentators have argued that this lack of reckoning with those parts of British history led to a degree of rose-tinged imperial nostalgia, overlooking issues with race in the UK (and issues with the Empire outside it among former colonies that don't remember it quite so fondly), and a very specifically English brand of Exceptionalism that drove support for Brexit.

This is the subject of heated debate, of course. Like in the US, though, statues of figures are being toppled (such as one of 17th-century slave trader and philanthropist Edward Colston, which was dumped in Bristol Harbour) and defaced (such as one of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square — Churchill was very pro-Empire and since 2020 has been more heavily criticised for his at best apathetic response to the Bengal Famine of 1943, credible estimates of whose death toll amount to about three million Indians).


Religion in the UK

Cold is God's way of telling us to burn more Catholics.
Blackadder's Puritan Auntie, Black Adder II, "Beer".

Britain has not had the mass persecution of some other countries, but it has been there — especially against Roman Catholics.

The Reformation and Catholicism

After the Reformation, the monasteries were "dissolved" and the assets seized by Henry VIII, on the specious grounds of debauchery by the monks. Contrary to common understanding, while he legalised the Church of England, Henry didn't fully convert the country to Protestantism — that was actually left to his very young heir, Edward VI (who, being crowned at only 9, was subject to heavy influence by royal advisors).

Catholics were subjected to organised discrimination, such as the Disenfranchising Act 1727 in Ireland, barring all of them from voting. This also applied to other "non-conformists", such as the "Clarendon Code" (though Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon and chief minister, didn't write them or fully approve of them). These effectively barred them from holding public offices.

Henry's daughter and Edward's half-sister, Mary I (who inherited when Edward died unmarried aged 15), converted the country back to Catholicism, and executed numerous Protestants, hence being known as Bloody Mary. However, she was childless and died only a few years after taking the throne, so her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth I, converted it back to Protestantism. However, the ever-pragmatic Elizabeth made at least a token effort not to offend Catholic Europe in her reconversion, retaining a lot of Catholic structure, ritual, and doctrine. This plus the whole being on an island thing helped keep England largely out of the Continental Wars of Religion.note 

During the reign of the Stuarts, there was a kind of Red Scare against Catholics, thanks to the scaremongering tactics of Titus Oates and others — people believed that there was a widespread conspiracy to overthrow the British monarchy and forcibly convert all Britons to Catholicism. It got so bad that people were afraid to go out to the theatre in case the Catholics got them. Laws were put in place to make sure Catholics could never have power in Britain again.

Ironically, the last Stuart king (James II and VII) was a Catholic, which is why they got rid of him and replaced him with his very Protestant daughter, Mary II. Despite this, there remained certain pockets of Catholicism in Britain; leaving out Ireland, there was also the Scottish Highlands, as well as some parts of the North. Additionally, certain aristocratic families became firmly associated with Catholicism over the centuries, to the point where all of society expected them to be "recusant" (the legal term for English Catholics back then). Particularly notable are the Howard family, the main line of which, being the Dukes of Norfolk, were the seniormost non-royal aristocrats in the country and held certain hereditary roles in the government which they never lostnote  despite being Catholic. At a certain point, it became virtually unthinkable for the Duke of Norfolk not to be Catholic (it sort of became one of those utterly incomprehensible institutions of which the British are so fond).note  (Interestingly, as one of the Duke of Norfolk's honorific titles is "Earl Marshal", a post whose chief responsibilities include organising the coronation of the monarch, this means that a Catholic has been responsible for organising the distinctly Protestant coronation ceremonynote  for over 300 years.)

Most of the anti-Catholic laws were repealed in the early 19th century, but there is one notable exception — if a member of the Royal Family were to become a Catholic or (until 2013) marry one, they are barred from ascending to the throne. In the 19th century, there was a secret society called the Kit-Kat Club dedicated to ensuring the future heirs to the kingdom were all Protestant. (It either no longer exists, or is having a break.) Lingering anti-Catholic feeling may have contributed to Tony Blair not formally converting to Catholicism until he had stood down as PM in 2007, although it was more likely simply his not wishing to make a big deal over his level of religious belief, as profession of and the influence of such tends to be more subdued than in the US even with pious politicians. As Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell, inspiration for Malcolm Tucker, said when Blair was questioned on his faith, "we don't do God." For instance, when Boris Johnson may have technically converted to Catholicism to marry his latest wife, Carrie Johnson, in 2021, absolutely no one cared — though that might have been down to the probably correct suspicion that religion meant even less to the famously irreverent and opportunistic Johnson (who was baptised a Catholic) than marriage vows.

This was far worse in Ireland and continues to have an impact in Northern Ireland, and to a lesser extent in Glasgow, where there is a large population of Irish descent.

Church of England today

Because the Church of England's split from Rome was because of the King's sex life rather than popular demand, the Anglican Church has always had a rather wider range of internal doctrinal difference than most Christian denominations. The traditional split, to simplify things considerably, has been between the Anglo-Catholics, or "High Church", who think that just because you reject the authority of the Pope doesn't mean you can't continue to substantially accept Catholic doctrines and practices, and the Evangelicals, or "Low Church", who are fully Protestant in their doctrines and practices. The English Civil War was partly a religious conflict, with the High Church siding predominantly with the King and the Low Church with Parliament. Between these there has historically been a third "Broad Church" position (also called "Latitudinarian" among people overly fond of fancy-sounding words) which doesn't see what the fuss is about and mixes and matches between High and Low Church based on what they find resonant or convenient. Since the nineteenth century another element has been added in the shape of the Modernist/Liberal wing. These, stereotypically, are the kind of people who hold yoga sessions in the church hall, publicly doubt the bodily Resurrection, and want to be able to hold same-sex marriages in church. (Hardly anybody cares about civil same-sex marriage since it was legalised in England and Wales in 2014, but whether the Church of England should perform them is still a hot topic.)

Note that the political associations of the High and Low Churches have to some extent dissipated and even reversed. Most notably, the ultra-High-Church Oxford Movement of the 19th century was devoted to making Anglicanism as much like Catholicism as possible, with the hope of an eventual reconciliation or at least rapprochement with Rome; those in the movement were often the period equivalent of champagne socialists and tended to have conciliatory/'pro-Irish' views on The Irish Question (historically characteristic of the left) and as a result, many High Church members are today associated with the Christian left (Tony Blair, an Anglo-Catholic prior to his conversion to Catholicism, is probably the most prominent contemporary example). In the meantime, many Low Church members became the sort of business-oriented, religiously conservative small shopkeepers who back the Conservatives.

Note that the link between class and church orientation has been weakened as well, with aristocrats as likely today to be Low Church as High. Indeed, Elizabeth II herself was noted to have a "serious Low Church piety," possibly through the influence of her Scottish Presbyterian mother. That said, frankly, the Royal Family is a prime example of this shift, and has had distinctly Low Church leanings since the reign of Queen Victoria, who was thoroughly Protestant in her upbringing and surroundings (not only was she brought up by her German Lutheran mother and educated by the German Lutheran Baroness Lehzen and Baron Stockmar, she ended up marrying a German Lutheran, Prince Albert). Victoria went so far as to prefer the Church of Scotland over the Church of England in her personal religiosity. The main exception to this rule was Edward VII, who favoured the High Church and who was also the most liberal—relative to his time—of any of the Windsors.

Other English Protestants (and the Scots)

Beyond the Low Church wing of Anglicanism, there are a variety of even more Protestant denominations who reject the Anglican system as too centralised and/or too much of a compromise with Catholicism, including Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Baptists, Methodists,note  and a host of other smaller and sometimes short-lived movements. These are collectively known as Nonconformists (as in refusing to "conform" to Anglicanism) or Dissenters, and were persecuted and restricted at times in the past. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Dissenters were, like Catholics, generally prohibited from holding public office, attending university, or even having churches in the cities. As time went on, these restrictions were lifted, but not before they built an elaborate network of academies that, unlike their Church of England counterparts, taught practical subjects like applied mathematics, science, (living) foreign languages, engineering, and business methods.

Oh yes, business methods: Since the Dissenters were not prohibited from becoming craftsmen, and their religions tended not to frown upon and often even encouraged the pursuit of material success, they developed their crafts into industry—a field that Anglicans (particularly High Church Tories) were often too high-and-mighty to touch. Incidentally, these academies, especially the Quaker ones, are very often to this day among the most prestigious secondary schools in Britain outside of the traditional public schools.note 

The Treaty of Union (1707) which combined England with Scotland included protection of Scotland's own established church, the Church of Scotland (known in Scots and informal English as "the Kirk"), which is Presbyterian (the Scottish Anglican minority is known as the Scottish Episcopal Church). It has had several acrimonious splits over its history. The stereotype of these folks, in sharp contrast to the Anglicans, is grey-haired, grizzled ministers with hard boots preaching the coming Doom of the world and railing against sinful fun. This is seldom true, and the few instances will be found in the Western Isles or rural areas of the Highlands. Most of these will be part of one of the smaller splinter churches from the Kirk known as the Wee Frees (the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the Association of Free Churches, the Free Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) and so-on), some of which are unrelated and some of which result from the traditional and ongoing habit of schisming (the most recent was in 2000).

As a consequence, the Dissenters — along with some Scots (the hardworking, business-minded Lowlanders who made up the core of the Kirk's membership found the English Dissenters most congenial as brothers in faith and as business partners) — were absolutely critical in making Britain what it became. As the craftsmen Dissenters and Scots quickly discovered, the basic tools of industrialisation were lying all around them, with many key inventions dating back to the Middle Ages: things like techniques for running heavy machinery on power (usually water power, which sent a lot of Dissenters to the hills, where fast-running streams were in ample supply) and processes for making glass that, it turns out, translated easily to metallurgy.

With no way to get ahead except starting a business and turning a huge profit, these Dissenters (and their Scottish brethren) started to put old technologies together in ways that changed the world — all with an eye to making a fast shilling from the rich Anglican snobs who disdained them but also seemed collectively to have more money than sense. The origin of the Industrial Revolution is thus peppered with the names of the Dissenters and Scottish Presbyterians who put these pieces together. Significant names in this lot include:

  • Abraham Darby: A Quaker from Bristol who developed a cheap way of making high-quality cast iron using coke (purified coal), based on old glassmaking technology dating back to Elizabethan times.
  • Thomas Newcomen: A Baptist lay preacher from Devon who made certain critical improvements to the steam engine, increasing its efficiency at doing what it did back then — pulling water out of flooded mines, and thus making coal and metals cheaper.
  • James Watt: A Scottish Presbyterian who made critical changes making the Newcomen engine useful for anything other than pumping water out of coal mines; it could now turn any machinery relying on rotary power. Since the Dissenter-run industries ran on waterwheels, which were only really useful in fast-running streams far from urban centers, Watt's engine was basically an offer to any industrialist to liberate himself from water power and put his factory in the city, close to the demand for his products and his best supply of labour.
  • Josiah Wedgwood: A Unitarian from Staffordshire who was one of the first to take Watt up on his offer, building the first ever steam-powered factory to make his famous pottery. In the process, Wedgwood all but invented modern mass consumer culture by manufacturing new styles constantly, providing them to the Royal Family, and selling them at an affordable price so the growing middle class could say "I eat on the same plates as the Queen." (He was also related to Charles Darwin, but that's yet another story.)
  • John Wilkinson: A Presbyterian from Staffordshire who developed a way to make high-quality, precisely-bored steam engine cylinders — and cannons — from a solid piece of Darby's cast iron, making the Watt engine able to work to its full capacity (earlier cylinders fitted too loosely around their pistons, negating the efficiency advantages Watt's design had over Newcomen's), and a whole lot of other things besides.
  • William Murdoch: Another Scottish Presbyterian and assistant to Watt — later a partner in his firm — who capitalised on an observation by a long-forgotten Scottish earlnote  and developed the first practical technique for using coal gas as a light source, allowing factories to be fully lit through the night at low cost, meaning that he's responsible for the 24-hour factory, and thus the night shift, and therefore shift work—in other words, working by the clock, rather than the Sun or your own sleep cycle. If you work a job where you come in at a certain time and leave at a certain time, you more or less have Murdoch to thank—or curse. In fairness, gas light meant that the streets were soon fully lit and safe to walk by night.

A large proportion of the basic science on which the industrial techniques were founded were also the product of Dissenters (and their Church of Scotland brethren); the most consequential are probably Joseph Priestley (John Wilkinson's brother-in-law, a Congregationalist-turned-Unitarian minister, and a bad preachernote  but a great chemist—he discovered carbon dioxide and oxygen) and Joseph Black (a professor at the University of Glasgow who discovered latent heat,note  a concept critical to the development of efficient steam engines), but really, the whole scientific side of the Scottish Enlightenment (in full swing at the time) counts. And they financed much of this themselves, too: both Lloyds Bank and Barclays, the first banks to provide capital to the provincial cities where this business was happening, were founded by Quakers—largely because the Anglican financiers of London didn't think banking had a future outside the capital.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the Dissenters (and the Scots) had turned Britain into an industrial powerhouse, creating the middle bits of the aforementioned class structure (by creating the non-agricultural working class outright and by expanding the middle classes through various direct and indirect means), and establishing themselves as industrialists—in part because their ancestors had had their other opportunities severely limited (and to a lesser degree, because the Anglican upper crust laughed at them). So, thank you, C of E, we guess?note 

Since the 1990s or so there has been a further shift in British Christianity, with the appearance of many small Pentecostal and Charismatic churches. The most visible of these have strong US and African influences, which largely appeal to people of African and Afro-Caribbean ethnic background, but there are plenty of White-majority and homegrown ones as well. These are one of the fastest-growing elements of the British Christian scene, but have sometimes come into conflict with the authorities over claims of miraculous healing, and more darkly cases of exorcism of allegedly demon-possessed people, which have occasionally tipped over into child abuse.

Other religions

Jews have a long but sometimes unhappy history in Britain, with discrimination against them being common during the Middle Ages, including occasional bloody pogroms. There was ultimately the Edict of Expulsion of 1290, where all the Jews in England were expelled — this was not formally overturned until 1656 by Oliver Cromwell, who it turns out wasn't as harsh a Puritan as people sometimes think. (Though in fairness letting the Jews back in was inspired by millenarianism. Why? Ask an eschatologist.)note  By 1874, Britain had an ethnically Jewish prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli. (Religiously he was Christian — in fact he'd become an MP many years before it became legal for observant Jews to hold public office — but this was still a big deal, and he was proud of it.) Several Jewish Britons participated in the aforementioned Industrial Revolutionary intellectual ferment, chief among them David Ricardo—a descendant of Portuguese Jews who made great contributions to the science of economics, building on what Adam Smith (a Scot who called himself a "North Briton") had started.

There are now quite a lot of Muslims in Britain (2.7 million at the 2011 Census), mostly (South) Asians. There have been small populations of Asian Muslims for quite some time, but their numbers didn't really take off until The '60s and The '70s, when Asians in general started migrating. Discrimination against Muslims has generally been ethnic rather than religious (i.e., Asian Muslims and Asian Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Buddhists, etc., generally all faced the same treatment), but recent events have led Baroness Warsi, co-chair of the Conservative Party and a Punjabi Muslim herself, to claim that Islamophobia is the last socially acceptable form of racism in Britain. This created a small stir in some circles, but was probably justified given frequent rejigged Political Correctness Is Evil smear pieces in the right-wing tabloids about Muslims allegedly trying to impose their faith on others, of the "Muslims want The Three Little Pigs BANNED!" type, and the foundation of a new street-level far-right-wing group called the English Defence League, which claimed (very unconvincingly) to be non-racist and opposed to Islam.

There are also a considerable numbers of Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists in Britain. The first two of these outnumber Jews in Britain and the last one has approximately the same number of adherents. Hindus and Sikhs are mostly concentrated in the South East and Leicester whilst Buddhists are present in small numbers all over the country. The most Buddhist town in the UK is the military town of Aldershot, in Hampshire, mainly due to being home to large numbers of Buddhist Gurkhas who were allowed to settle in England and chose to do so near where they had been based whilst in the army. The oldest Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in Europe is also in the UK: Samyé Ling at Eskdale in the Scottish Borders. Leonard Cohen and David Bowie studied Buddhism there in the late 1960s; Bowie almost became a monk at Samyé Ling, but ultimately decided to pursue pop music rather than celibacy.

    The North–South Divide 

Northern versus Southern England

One clear division that can be seen in the UK is the divide between the "North" of England and the "South". The precise divide is debated (common ones are the Watford Gap Service Station in Northamptonshire,note  the most northerly point where one can buy the Evening Standard (Oxford), and anywhere outside the M25), but the 1983 general election, where Labour won only three seats south of Birmingham outside of Greater London, gives you a good hint.

Note that the North–South Divide refers to the north and south of England, not England/Scotland rivalry. Care must be taken when referring to a place as The North, as this can mean northern England ("Oop North"), Northern Ireland ("Da North"), or northern Scotland. A not too uncommon conversation (here between an English and a Scottish person) might go:

English person: I'm from the North.
Scottish person: Oh, like Inverness?
English person: No, Newcastle.
Scottish person: So, the South.
English person: Um, yes. But ... no.

It is also important to note that the line of the north–south divide does not run east to west, but rather north-east to south-west: somewhere around Bristol Channel–The Wash is one (not too controversial) common location.

Another definition of the North is where people stop pronouncing "bath" as "baaahth". Strange to some, this has its problems as many in The West Country also use the "Northern" pronunciation. This confusion and debate might be due to most political, business and media events largely happening in London; though one of the others may have hit upon something in the North-East and South-West divide, nothing seems to happen in the East either, so the BBC don't often call round to check up on the North-East. Another reason is that a lot of Southerners claim to be Northern because of the stereotype that Northerners are working-class miners from kitchen-sink dramas (which basically makes you sound both really hard and a victim of domestic abuse, the Top Trump of "My Upbringing Was More Difficult Than Yours"), so if their dad's from Nottingham they'll say they're Northern, even if they only go at the Easter holidays.

The division also depends on where you stand. For people in London, most of England may belong to "the North" (or "Mordor"), but the people of Yorkshire or Lancashire might refer to inhabitants of Birmingham, Nottingham or Derby as being in the West and East Midlands. And most people in the East and West Midlands would think of themselves as Midlanders, rather than Northerners or Southerners.

  • Note that some of the traditional divisions of England go back centuries. For instance, for linguists, the line between Midland and Northern dialects reflects the Danish conquest of the Early Middle Ages.
  • Note also that some areas that are generally considered part of the South — most notably The West Country (Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset) and to a lesser extent East Anglia (Norfolk, Suffolk) are stereotypically seen as populated by rural yokels and seadogs. The stereotypical "pirate accent" is a variation of a West Country one.note 

Historically, the mapping of region and accent could go back to the map of the Anglo-Saxon–Viking divide when the two groups came to an accord and ultimately settled England over the period between the withdrawal of the Roman Empire and the unification of England in the 10th century. The name 'Mercia' is still occasionally used as a romantic alternative to 'The Midlands', as is Wessex occasionally invoked for The West Country excluding Cornwall, possibly after being resurrected as an idea by Thomas Hardy (and Prince Edward is earl of it, despite it no longer existing in any meaningful sense).note  These borders were never precisely mapped, though (and they just ignore parts like some of the Pennines, which had land not worth the trouble of claiming) — the best guess is the etymological origin of the names of landmarks (though border shifts could also result in the old name — sometimes just the plain noun — having the new noun tagged onto it, such as Torpenhow Hill in Cumbria: Hillhillhill Hill).

See also British Accents for more accented information, and Britain Is Only London (Real Life) for more information on how the North–South divide has played out in real life.