The Duke of Devonshire, one of the poshest dukes around still living in the ancient family estate (the gorgeous – and ginormous – Chatsworth) has declared: "The aristocracy is not dying. It is dead. Coffin's nailed down, it's in the ground. It doesn't exist."
This was made in response to Labour's plans to axe the remaining 90 hereditary peers before the General Election. If they manage to do this in the next few weeks, the Duke has pledged to drop his title. "Because then it would be clear-cut what the people wanted, and it would be confusing to maintain hereditary titles. So, finish that, go back to being called Cavendish."
Of course, this remark shows just how out of touch the Duke is - it's been a long time since any of Labour's plans represented "what the people wanted". But I do see his point. From the Duke's point of view, the 'aristocracy' means - or meant - power, prestige, wealth. All of these things have long since vanished from any association with titles and once you strip away the very last element of an aristocrat's ability to run the country - then yes, of course, you may as well drop the whole thing. Dropping the title would also get rid of the general view that aristocratic means titled and eliminate any presumptions on any side that being a Duke entitles one to privileges.
But of course, even locking out all the hereditary peers, scratching out all the titles and burning the Debrett's Guide to Etiquette and Burke's Peerage on the pyre would not signal the end of class. Each individual British psyche is too deeply ingrained with a sense of natural pride/injustice (delete as appropriate) in its own class to be able to simply forget it.
This has reminded me of a holiday I took in France when I was 17 years old. It was a week with a family, to brush up on my French before taking my A'levels. They were an old family and before the Revolution had titles and land. All this had now gone but their society still mimicked the rules of Les Liasons Dangereuses, only with slightly fewer curtains worn as dresses. The daughter of the family was permitted to mix only with other boys and girls of her class. I joined them halfway through their debutante season. Each night there would be a party in a different house - the parents would sit upstairs, hoping their watered down punch didn't cause any riots. Meanwhile, in a cold, large room, the girls would stand on one side, the boys on the other and to the rhythm of terrible pop songs (Sinitta's "Boys, Boys, Boys" was a hit that year) we would dance formal waltzes. I tried to break out once, dancing on my own in red crushed velvet trousers and three girls looked as if they might faint. Three hundred years of republicanism - you call that progress?