Gail Walker: Why even a class act like Kate will struggle in the face of prejudice
It's the pastime sweeping the nation: what class is Kate Middleton?
it's been an official shibboleth for years that our class system is dying out, but one Royal engagement shows we're all as obsessed about it as ever.
Even the poor girl's name highlights the division. Posho Catherine or plebian Kate?
Pre-engagement there'd been some sniping about the Middletons but that went into overdrive as soon as Prince William popped the question. Since then we've endured a strangely doubled-edged edition of Who Do You Think You Are? as the Press digs into Kate's ancestry with all the vigour of her mining ancestors.
She's now "the princess from the pits'. We're told other forebears were labourers, domestics, clerks and drapers, and reminded that her parents made their millions from an internet party supplies business (how droll!). Previously both worked for an airline. I know! Working for a living!
The way William's Hooray friends liked to bray "doors to manual" in a mocking reference to Kate's mother has been gleefully recalled. And the editor of Burke's Peerage is apparently dismayed at someone not "in the book" getting engaged to a royal.
For the middle classes, Kate is now officially "one of them" and represents the Windsors getting in touch with solid Middle England values (whatever they are) while for some of the upper classes, she is a nouveau riche threat - how did someone who probably shops at Boden bag a prince?
Feverish gossip surrounds Kate's mother, who is portrayed like an upstart matriarch from a Jane Austen novel out for an advantageous match for her daughter, even sending Kate to St Andrew's University because William was there. What we're really seeing is the struggle between new money and old standards - as if Kate wouldn't know her fish knife from her sugar tongs.
Of course, due to the rosy glow of the engagement, these "facts" about Kate's ancestry are being presented in a positive light - the romance of it all! - but rest assured, if Kate makes even the tiniest slip there'll be a deluge of comment about her "narrow, middle class" taste and upbringing. Even her "conservative" (for which read "middle-class") fashion sense has drawn sneers.
Kate Middleton will either be the Saviour of Monarchy or Superchav, depending on the fickle finger of fate.
And yet the reality is that while Kate is certainly not a true blue aristo, neither can she be called middle class.
The daughter of a self-made millionaire, educated at public school, who can afford to spend years doing nothing very much is not an ordinary middle class woman. But then, given her lowly roots she's not "one of them" either. Hence, the unedifying determination to put Kate in her correct box. Or, gently, in her place.
Still, why should we be surprised? Britain is still obsessed with the minutiae of class. It's always our first reflex when we want to bring someone down.
Even on something as trivial as X Factor, Wagner took a pop at Cheryl by downing her as someone from a council estate who got lucky. Days before, designer Julian Macdonald also branded Cheryl a "chav".
In the US, they've the American Dream, where anyone from anywhere can be anything, and be lauded for it. Indeed, no one will even refer to it.
But there is no such thing as the British Dream. That's what class means here. Cheryl may be the nation's sweetheart, but she'll never leave behind her working class roots.
The only saving grace of the British class system is that those who truly have "class" will never refer to it. It takes those with a pedigree closer to a St Bernard - like Wagner - to be able to slap down someone whose social origins are probably lower even than his.
You see, you can be successful, rich and engaged to a prince, but you can't buy that indefinable something called "class".
Will Princess Catherine ever get above herself? Chance would be a fine thing.