Last night’s episode of Downton Abbey, the Season 5 premiere, was full of class references. It’s 1924, a working-class man of the Labour Party has just been elected as prime minister, and the village want Mr. Carson to head a committee instead of Lord Grantham. Britain’s elite are gradually becoming less wealthy and relevant. “I feel a shaking of the very ground I stand on,” Carson says at one point.
As Matt Phillips at Quartz points out, the class-ridden society of early 20th Century Britain may be capturing American imaginations for a reason. Though the trends were headed in the other direction, the wealth distribution of Lord Grantham’s Britain is remarkably similar to what we are seeing in the U.S. today.
The income share held by the wealthiest Americans and Britons fell in the mid-20th Century, due to the destruction of property during the wars and the Great Depression, as well as high tax and inflation rates that gradually eroded their wealth. But today they have crept back up to what they were in the 1920s.
The graph above draws on data from Thomas Piketty's World Top Incomes Database. The historical data on the U.K. is sparse for most of the century, but values for Britain’s top 1 percent, 5 percent and 10 percent appear on the left-hand side of the graph for 1918 and 1919. These values are similar to or even less than the share of wealth held by America’s top 1, 5 and 10 percent today, respectively.