Social structure of the United Kingdom

Social structure of the United Kingdom

The social structure of the United Kingdom has historically been highly influenced by the concept of social class, with the concept still affecting British society in the early-21st century.[1] Although definitions of social class in the United Kingdom vary and are highly controversial, most are influenced by factors of wealth, occupation and education. Until recently the Parliament of the United Kingdom was organised on a class basis, with the House of Lords representing the hereditary upper class and the House of Commons representing everyone else, and the British monarch is often viewed as being at the top of the social class structure.

British society has experienced significant change since the Second World War, including an expansion of higher education and home-ownership, a shift towards a services dominated economy, mass immigration, a changing role for women and a more individualistic culture, and these changes have had a considerable impact on the social landscape.[2] However, any claims that the UK has become a classless society have been met with scepticism.[3][4][5]

The biggest current study of social class in the United Kingdom is the Great British Class Survey.[6]



The perceived conservatism of the modern British social structure in part reflects the unusual fluidity of social classes which is a feature of British history in the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period. The United Kingdom has never had a sudden dispossession of the estates of the nobility, such as affected much of Europe after the French Revolution or in the early 20th century, and the nobility, in so far as it existed as a distinct social class, integrated itself with those with new wealth derived from commercial and industrial sources more comfortably than in most of Europe.

This can be seen to be a distinct feature of English society from the Middle Ages. The number of peerages in the House of Lords was very small - 45 in 1485 and still only 60 in 1660 - and titles of nobility as well as the bulk of landholdings passed only to the eldest son, or another single heir, thus effectively preventing the growth of the nobility as a distinct and clearly-defined social class, as occurred in most of Europe. From early on, successful bourgeois families bought country estates and turned themselves into landowning gentry, rather than remaining in the cities as a patrician elite, something already noted by William Caxton in the 1480s. Equally, the younger sons and grandsons of peers often turned to the law or business in a way that would have been considered a personal disgrace in most European countries. An economy that expanded rapidly for several centuries, and in the Early Modern period also offered opportunities in the growing British Empire, enabled an unusually large proportion of opportunities to those from much poorer backgrounds (those men at least) who had managed to acquire some education to rise through the class system. In the Middle Ages, a large proportion of what we would call middle-class adminstative roles that required literacy were performed by clergy who, if they had children at all, were typically not able to provide them with a social status to match their fathers'. Thus the expanding medieval requirement for administrative personnel required constant recruitment. A recent study, largely based on analysis of the surnames in various historical sources, found that there was "complete long run social mobility in medieval and early Modern England", although it was slow by modern standards, with artisan names such as "Smith" gradually achieving roughly the same proportion of Oxbridge students that they had in the general population.[7]

The very heavy cull of the English noble warrior elite during the Wars of the Roses was blamed by contemporaries for the rise of a class of "new men" in the 16th century, drawn from the gentry, merchant and lawyer classes, of which the Tudor dynasty were themselves arguably examples, descending in the male line from Owen Tudor, who married the widow of Henry V of England, having entered her household as keeper of the Queen's wardrobe. The largely new wealthy English families by the end of the century then enjoyed a period of several centuries of stability in which many were able to retain and consolidate their position. The historian David Cannadine sees the period around 1880 as the final peak of this success, after which the position of the old families declined rapidly, from a number of causes, reaching a nadir in the years after World War II, symbolized by the widespread destruction of country houses. However their wealth, if not their political power, rebounded very strongly from the 1980s, benefiting from greatly increased values of the land and art which many still owned in quantity.

Meanwhile the complex British middle-classes had also been enjoying a long period of growth and increasing prosperity, and achieving political power at the national level to a degree unusual in Europe. They avoided the strict stratification of many Continental middle-classes, and formed a large and amorphous group closely connected at their edges with both the gentry and aristocracy and the labouring classes. In particular the great financial centre of the City of London was open to outsiders to an unusual degree, and continually expanding and creating new employment.

The British working class, on the other hand, was not notable in Europe for prosperity, and Early Modern British travellers often remarked on the high standard of living of the farm-workers and artisans of the Netherlands. Living standards certainly improved greatly over the period, more so in England than other parts of the United Kingdom, but the Industrial Revolution was marked by extremely harsh working conditions and poor housing until about the middle of the 19th century.

Formal classifications


At the time of the formation of the United Kingdom in 1707, England and Scotland had similar class based social structures. Some basic categories covering most of the population of the UK around this time are as follows[citation needed]:

Class Characteristics
Cottagers and labourers Cottagers were a step below husbandmen, in that they had to work for others for wages. Lowest order of the working castes; perhaps vagabonds, drifters, criminals or other outcasts would be lower.
Husbandman (or other tradesmen) A tradesman or farmer who either rented a home or owned very little land was a husbandman. In ancient feudal times, this person likely would have been a serf, and paid a large portion of his work or produce to the land-holding lord.
Yeoman The yeoman class generally included small farmers who held a reasonable amount of land and were able to protect themselves from neighbouring lords et cetera. They played a military role as longbowmen. Sometimes Merchant citizens are placed between Yeoman and Gentry in early modern social hierarchy.
Gentry/Gentleman The gentry by definition held enough assets to live on rents without working, and so could be well educated. If they worked it was in law, as priests, in politics, or in other educated pursuits without manual labour. The term Esquire was used for landowners who were not knighted. Many gentry families were armigerous and of ancient lineage possessing great wealth and large estates.
Knight The definition of a knight depends upon the century in which the term was applied. In very early medieval times a knight was a common soldier; later as cavalry became more important the knight's role became more associated with wealth. By the seventeenth century a knight was a senior member of the gentry, and the military role would be one of sheriff of a county, or organizing a larger body of military forces, or in civil service exercising judicial authority. He was a large land owner, and his younger sons would often be lawyers, priests, or officials of some sort.
Baronet (hereditary, non peer) A baronet held a hereditary style of knighthood, giving the highest rank below a peerage.
Peer (Noble/Archbishop) The peers were generally large land holders, living solely off assets, sat in the House of Lords and either held court or played a role in court depending upon the time frame referenced.
Royal A member of the royal family, a prince, a close relative of the queen or king.

20th century

The social grade classification created by the National Readership Survey over 50 years ago achieved widespread usage during the 20th Century in marketing and government reports and statistics.

Grade Occupation
A Higher managerial, administrative or professional
B Intermediate managerial, administrative or professional
C1 Supervisory or clerical and junior managerial, administrative or professional
C2 Skilled manual workers
D Semi and unskilled manual workers
E Casual or lowest grade workers, pensioners and others who depend on the state for their income

21st century

The UK Office of National Statistics (ONS) produced a new socio-economic classification in 2001.[8] The reason was to provide a more comprehensive and detailed classification to take newer employment patterns into account.

Group Description NRS equivalent
1 Higher Professional and Managerial workers A
2 Lower Managerial and Professional workers B
3 Intermediate occupations C1 and C2
4 Small Employers and non professional self-employed C1 and C2
5 Lower Supervisory and technical C1 and C2
6 Semi Routine Occupations D
7 Routine Occupations D
8 Long term unemployed E

Informal classifications and stereotypes

Lower middle class

The lower middle class in Britain consists of people in white collar jobs living in less prosperous suburbs. Prior to 1970s expansion in higher education, members of this class often did not have a university education. They are employed in white-collar but relatively unskilled service industry jobs such as retail sales, rail ticket agents, railway guards, airline stewardesses and ticket agents, travel agents, hotel clerks, shipping clerks, and low level civil service jobs in local and regional government.

These people would speak in local accents, although relatively mild. Typical Mosaic Geodemographic types for this group would include Sprawling Subtopia or for Successful British Asians Asian Enterprise. The comedy character Hyacinth Bucket is a satirical stereotype for this social group. Votes in this area are split and minority parties will have a stronger proportion.

Middle middle class

Middle middle class in Britain often consists of people with tertiary education. They speak in accents which could range from received pronunciation, to provincial as well as Estuary English. They may have been educated in either state or private schools.[9]

Typical jobs include accountants, architects, doctors, lawyers, teachers, social workers, managers, businessmen, engineers, or civil servants. For certain of these fields, notably law and medicine, there is a considerable overlap with the Upper Middle Class. Displays of conspicuous consumption are considered vulgar by them; instead they prefer to channel excess income into investments, including and especially property.

They are highly politically and socially engaged and might be regular churchgoers, sit on local committees and governing boards or stand for political office. Education is greatly valued by the middle classes: they will make every effort to ensure their children get a university education; although they are sometimes unable to afford private schooling, they may go to great lengths to get their children into good state schools, such as moving house into the catchment area.[10]

They also value culture and make up a significant proportion of the book-buying and theatre-going public. They prefer TV documentaries and dramas over reality shows, BBC radio 4 over pop stations and broadsheet newspapers over tabloids. Typical Mosaic geodemographic types would include Provincial Privilege. The comedy character Margo Leadbetter is a satirical stereotype for this group, as is Jilly Cooper's Howard Weybridge.[11]

Upper middle class

Harrow School. The Public School is traditionally one of the key institutions of the upper-middle-class in Britain.[12]

The upper middle class in Britain consists of people who were born into families that traditionally possessed higher incomes, although this group is defined more by family background than by job or income. This stratum, in England, traditionally uses the Received Pronunciation dialect natively. The upper middle class in Britain traditionally consisted of professionals with tertiary education.

The upper middle class are traditionally educated at more prestigious private schools, called "public schools" in the United Kingdom. Public schools were predominantly founded to serve the educational needs of the upper middle class, whose children have always constituted the majority of their customers. Recently, within the last ten years, parents have begun to prefer to send their children to good day schools, rather than away to boarding school.[citation needed]

A typical Mosaic geodemographic type for this group would be cultural leadership. This is a very specific class in England and is, in many respects, peculiar to England as its characteristics do not fit easily within the social gradations of the other constituent nations of the United Kingdom. Frequently its members are members of professions (traditionally barristers, officers in the military, the clergy, academia, medicine and finance). However, being a member of a profession does not automatically elevate a person to this class, and it is quite common for an upper middle class person not to work in a traditional profession.

Many upper middle class families may have previous ancestry that often directly relates to the upper classes. Although not necessarily of the landowning classes - as a result, perhaps, of lack of a male heir - many families' titles/styles have not been inherited and therefore many families' past status became dissolved.

Although such categorisations are not precise, popular contemporary examples of upper middle class people might include Boris Johnson, Nick Clegg and David Cameron (politicians),[13] Helena Bonham Carter[14] (British actress), Matthew Pinsent (British Olympian and TV personality) and Nigella Lawson (British television personality).[15]

Nouveau riche

Nouveau riche are people and families from working class or lower middle class backgrounds who have recently made money themselves, primarily in business, the professions, or entertainment. They may retain the mannerisms of their original social group or may imitate the behaviour of the traditional upper and middles classes by, for instance, sending their children to public school or taking elocution lessons, but often in a way that is seen as gauche by the established upper class and middle classes (satirised as Mr & Mrs Nouveau Richards by Jilly Cooper).[11]

This group is characterised by displays of conspicuous consumption.[9] The term parvenu is historically applied to members of this class who possess social aspirations. Popular examples of people described as 'parvenu' include Michael Heseltine[16] and Catherine Middleton.[17][18]


A 16 floor tower block in Charlestown, Greater Manchester, United Kingdom.

The "underclass" was first identified in the 1990s, a group consisting of the long-term unemployed, elderly pensioners, economic immigrants and those dependent on state benefits, typically living in public housing or council estates.[19]

Fictional character, Frank Gallagher from the television programme, Shameless would present a vivid example of life in this strata of British society. Typical Mosaic Geodemographic types for these people are Tower Block Living or Sharing a stair case.

The identification of an 'underclass', however, has not been without controversy, as some have attributed the term more to right-wing rhetoric than reality.[20]

Upper class

Woburn Abbey, family seat of the Duke of Bedford

The stereotypical British "upper class" is now statistically very small and consists of the peerage, gentry, and hereditary landowners. These people were traditionally the wealthiest in the land having inherited money and position. The majority of aristocratic families originated in the mercantile class, and were ennobled between the 14th and 19th century.[21] Those in possession of a hereditary (as opposed, importantly, to a conferred) peerage – for example a Dukedom, a Marquessate, an Earldom, a Viscounty or a Barony (though any of these may be conferred) – will, almost invariably, be members of the upper class, though a Life Peerage is that of the rank of Baron, most Life Peers are not upper class.

Traditionally, upper class children were brought up at home by a Nanny for the first few years of life, and then schooled at home by private tutors. From the 19th century, it became increasingly popular for upper-class families to mimic the middle-classes, in sending their children to public schools, which had been predominantly founded to serve the educational needs of the upper-middle class. When children are old enough, they may attend a prep school or pre-preparatory school. Moving into secondary education, it is still commonplace for upper-class children to attend one of Britain's public schools, although it is not unheard of for certain families to send their children to grammar schools.[22] Insofar as continuing education goes, this can vary from family to family; it may, in part, be based on the educational history of the family. In the past, both the British Army and clergy have been the institutions of choice, but the same can equally apply to the Royal Navy, or work in the Diplomatic Corps. Otherwise, Oxford, Cambridge, and other "traditional" universities (such as Durham University, the University of Edinburgh, and St Andrews University) are the most popular sources of higher education for the upper class, although a high academic standard is required and social class does not as readily secure entry as it once did.

Sports — particularly those involving the outdoors — are often regarded as a popular pastime of the upper class. Traditionally, at school, rugby union is much more popular than football: indeed, the two sports are often taken to represent the two extremes of social classes 'at play', although paradoxically rugby is not played at Winchester. Other frequented sports include lawn tennis, croquet, cricket and golf. Equestrian activities are popular with both sexes and there is a long-standing tradition of the upper class having close links to horses. Men who ride will more often participate in polo. Hunting and shooting, too, are favoured pastimes. Some upper class families with large estates will run their own shoots (typically they would need 1,000 acres (4 km2), or more, though some shoots do operate on about half that), but many will know someone who keeps pheasants, or other game, and may instead shoot with them. There is also a particular affinity for dogs (especially Labradors and spaniels) amongst the upper class — and, equally, sporting pursuits that involve them.

Money and material possessions are often thought of as a less important factor for the United Kingdom's upper class than for the upper classes of other countries; although this allows for an upper class family to be impoverished, wealth is often a practical necessity for an aristocratic lifestyle and an upper class family is likely to have had wealth at some point in its history. Vast financial prosperity (only slightly dependent on how it is earned) is sometimes the subject of derision and contempt.

Skilled working class

This class of people would be in skilled blue collar jobs, traditionally in the construction and manufacturing industry, but in recent decades showing entrepreneurial development as the stereotypical white van man, or self employed contractors.[9] These people would speak in local accents and have craft apprenticeships rather than university education. Typical Mosaic types for this group include White Van Culture or Affluent Blue Collar.

Trade union membership and Labour Party support is high, but some elements, particularly those located in the South East of England and the West Midlands are slightly more likely to vote Conservative than the unskilled working class. The lifestyle they aspire to is that of nouveau-riche celebrities rather than the traditional upper and middle classes. Fictional examples of working-class entrepreneurs include Phil and Grant Mitchell in Eastenders, who are involved in a number of business enterprises, and Del Boy Trotter, for all that he is aspirational rather than successful. The Coogan's Run character Ernest Moss represents the traditional skilled workman.

Unskilled and semi-skilled working class

Terraced housing in Loughborough, built for the working classes.

Traditionally, these people would work in blue collar jobs. They would typically have left school as soon as legally permissible and not have been able to take part in higher education.[11] Many would go on to work semi-skilled and unskilled jobs on the assembly lines and machine shops of Britain's major car factories, steel mills, foundries and textile mills in the highly industrialised cities in the West Midlands and North of England.

However, since the mid-1970s de-industrialisation has shattered many of these communities, resulting in a complete deterioration in quality of life and a reversal in rising living standards for the industrial working class. Many, either dropped in status to the working poor or fell into permanent reliance on welfare dependence. Some dropped out altogether and joined the black market economy, while a limited few did manage to climb up to the lower middle class.

Some Examples of Mosaic geodemographic groups for these people would be Coronation Street or Rustbelt Resilience. Fictional stereotypes include Andy Capp and Albert Steptoe, who is not only unaspirational himself but crushes the aspirations of his son Harold. They are the mainstay of the trade unions and Labour Party vote, but there are also working class conservatives, particularly in the South East of England in the Medway towns of Kent and the east London border areas of suburban Essex, as exemplified by Alf Garnett.

It has been argued[23] that with the decline in manufacturing and increase in the service sector, lower-paid white collar jobs are effectively working class. Call centres in particular, have sprung up in former centres of industry.

Accent and language and social class

Received pronounciation

Received Pronunciation, also known as R.P. or BBC English, was a term introduced as way of defining standard English, but accent has acquired a certain prestige from being associated with the middle (and above) classes in the South East, the wealthiest part of England. Use of RP in by people from the 'regions' outside the South East can be indicative of a certain educational background, such as public school or elocution lessons.

"The Queen's English" was once a synonym for RP. However, the Queen and some other older members of the aristocracy are now perceived as speaking in a way that is both more old fashioned and higher class than "general" R.P. Phoneticians call this accent "Conservative Received Pronounciation".

BBC English was also a synonym for R.P. At one time people seeking a career in acting on broadcasting would learn R.P. as a matter of course if they did not speak it already. However, the BBC and other broadcasters are now much more willing to use regional accents.

U and non-U

U Non-U
Vegetables Greens
Scent Perfume
Graveyard Cemetery
Spectacles Glasses
False Teeth Dentures
Napkin Serviette
Sofa Settee or Couch
Lavatory or Loo Toilet
Lunch Dinner (for midday meal)
Pudding Sweet

Language and writing style have been, consistently, one of the most reliable indicators of class, although pronunciation did not become one until the later 19th century. The variations between the language employed by the upper classes and those not of the upper classes has, perhaps, been best documented by linguistic Professor Alan Ross's 1954 article on U and non-U English usage, with "U" representing Upper and upper middle class vocabulary of the time, and ""Non-U representing lower middle class vocabulary. The discussion was furthered in Noblesse Oblige - and featured contributions from, among others, Nancy Mitford. The debate was revisited in the mid-1970s, in a publication by Debrett's called 'U and Non-U revisited'. Ross contributed to this volume too, and it is remarkable to notice how little the language (amongst other factors) changed in the passing of a quarter of a century.

English regional accents

In England, the upper class or prestige accent is almost always a form of RP: however, some areas have their 'own' prestige accent, distinct from both RP and the working class accent of the region.

England has a wide variety of regional accents for a small country, mostly with working class or lower middle class connotations:-

  • Scouse - The dialect of Liverpool, especially strong in Merseyside's working-class population. Sounds similar to an Irish accent. This reflects the strong effect the Irish diaspora played in Liverpool's history.
  • Brummie - Accent and dialect of Birmingham and surrounding areas.
  • Cockney is traditionally the working class accent of East London. It also has distinct variations in grammar and vocabulary.
  • The London accent is a more broadly defined working and lower middle class accent than Cockney.
  • Estuary English -A working class and lower middle class accent from Southeast England, basically a milder closer to R.P.) form of the London accent, showing a tendency to supplant received pronunciation.
  • Mockney is a term used in popular media for a deliberate affectation of the working-class London (Cockney) accent by Middle class people to gain "street credibility". However, phoneticians regard the infusion of Estuary features into received pronunciation among younger speakers to be a natural process. They term the resulting sub-variety of R.P. "advanced received pronunciation".
  • Multicultural London English (abbreviated MLE), colloquially called Jafaican, is a dialect (and/or sociolect) of English that emerged in the late 20th century, and is used mainly by young, inner-city, working-class people in inner London. It is said to contain many elements from the languages of the Caribbean (Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago), South Asia (Indian subcontinent), and West Africa,[24][25] as well as remnants of traditional Cockney.[25] Although the street name, "Jafaican", implies that it is "fake" Jamaican, researchers indicate that it is not the language of white kids trying to "play cool" but rather that "[it is] more likely that young people have been growing up in London exposed to a mixture of second-language English and local London English and that this new variety has emerged from that mix".[26]

Heraldry and social class

Canting arms of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon.

An English citizen with arms registered in the College of Arms, or a Scotsman in the Lyon Court, can be referred to as armigerous. Any British citizen can apply for arms from their respective authority but only those of sufficient social standing would be granted arms. Arms in and of themselves are imperfectly aligned with social status, in that many of high status will have no right to arms whilst, on the other hand, those entitled to arms by descent can include branches of families which have fallen far down the social scale.

Nevertheless, a right to bear arms under the Law of Arms is, by definition, linked either to the personal acquisition of social status, inspiring application for a personal grant of arms, or to descent from a person who did so in the past. Rightly or wrongly, therefore, the use of a coat of arms is linked to social prestige.

In the early twentieth century, it was argued by heraldic writers such as Arthur Charles Fox-Davies that only those with a right to a coat of arms could correctly be described (if men) as gentlemen and of noble status; however, even at the time this argument was controversial, and it was rejected by other writers such as Oswald Barron and Horace Round. In the Order of Malta, where proof of technical nobility is a requirement of certain grades of membership, British members must still base their proof upon an ancestral right to a coat of arms.

Criticisms of the British social structure

In an interview in 1975 Helmut Schmidt, the then Chancellor of West Germany stated that:

“If one asks oneself what are the true reasons for the differentiated development of societies and economies between the British and most ones on the Continent, I think it has something to do with the fact that British society, much more than the Scandinavian, German, Austrian, and Dutch societies, is characterized by a class-struggle type of society. This is true for both sides of the upper class as well as for the working classes. I think that the way in which organized Labour on the one hand and industrial management on the other had dealt with their problems is outmoded.”

Later in the same interview, Schmidt noted that “You have to treat workers as equal members of society. You have to give them the self—esteem which they can only have if they acquire responsibility. Then you will be able to ask the trade unions to behave and to abstain from those idiotic policies. Then they will accept some guidance from outsiders – from the government or the party or whatever it is. But as long as you maintain the damned class-ridden society of yours you will never get out of your mess.”[27]

See also

UK social stereotypes


  1. ^ Harriet Harman: Social class is still most important divide in Britain., 9 September 2008
  2. ^ "Changing Social Class Identities in Post-War Britain: Perspectives from Mass-Observation by Mike Savage". Sociological Research Online. Retrieved 19 October 2011. 
  3. ^ Independent on Classless Britain
  4. ^ Fabian Society on Cash and the Classless society
  5. ^ Guardian Classless society is a myth
  6. ^ Great British Class Survey
  7. ^ Clark, 16(quoted)-18
  8. ^ Office of National Statistics
  9. ^ a b c Kate Fox, Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. Nicholas Brealey Pub.. Retrieved 2009-10-04. 
  10. ^ Rise in families caught cheating for school places
  11. ^ a b c Jilly Cooper Class: a view from middle England. Eyre Methuen.,+A+view+from+Middle+England&dq=Class,+A+view+from+Middle+England&client=firefox-a. Retrieved 2009-10-04. 
  12. ^ The Cambridge Urban History of Britain: 1840-1950, (Cambridge 2000), By David Michael Palliser, Peter Clark, Martin J. Daunton, page 679
  13. ^ New Mayor Boris Johnson opens next chapter Camden New Journal, 17 July 2008, Illtyd Harrington
  14. ^ Boxing Helena, Richard Johnson, (Los Angeles Magazine), Monday, November 22, 1999
  15. ^ Upper middle-class From Times Online March 27, 2007, BEN MACINTYRE
  16. ^ Kate Fox Watching the English, Nicholas Brealey Pub., 2004, ISBN 1-85788-508-2
  17. ^ The triumph of Kate Middleton: She tightens her grip on Prince William as she searches for their first home Daily Mail, By REBECCA ENGLISH and VICTORIA MOORE Last updated at 00:26 06 January 2008
  18. ^ Prince William to Wed Commoner Kate Middleton The Atlantic Wire, By Elspeth Reeve Nov 16, 2010
  19. ^ The Emergence of the Underclass
  20. ^ [1]
  21. ^ A Study of History: Abridgement of Vols I-X in one volume, A.J Toynbee(Oxford Univ. Press 1960)
  22. ^ Douglas Sutherland, "The English Gentleman"
  23. ^ The Shape of the Working Class
  24. ^ Paul Kerswill (3 July 2010). "The English slanguage". The Sun (London). Retrieved 2011-04-05. 
  25. ^ a b Harry Mount (1 Jul 2010). "Word on the street in London". Evening Standard. Retrieved 2011-04-05. 
  26. ^ Clark, Laura (2006-04-12). "'Jafaican' is wiping out inner-city English accents". Daily Mail (London). Retrieved 2008-02-02. 
  27. ^ Foe into friend: The Makers of the New Germany from Konrad Adenauer to Helmut Schmidt by Marion Dönhoff


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