The Making of the English Middle Class

Under Margaret Thatcher and now under Tony Blair, Britain has become markedly less class-bound. How did this happen?


LAST Christmas wasn't very merry for Tony Blair. On the day before Christmas Eve two members of his government resigned in the wake of a minor financial scandal; one of them was Peter Mandelson, his most trusted sidekick in what has been at once pompously and mysteriously called the "Blair project." After this turmoil, we were told, the Prime Minister thought that his endangered project needed what some called a "relaunch." (Yes, people do use the language of glossy-magazine promotion, and yes, it does say something about modern politics.) And so in January, at a seminar in London to examine center-left political positions for the coming century, Blair began this vaunted relaunch with a keynote speech. Lincoln spoke of government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Churchill spoke of blood, toil, tears, and sweat. Roosevelt talked of four freedoms. Tony Blair chose to talk about social class.
"Slowly but surely the old establishment is being replaced by a new, larger, more meritocratic middle class,"he said. "A middle class characterized by greater tolerance of difference, greater ambition to succeed, greater opportunities to earn a decent living. A middle class that will include millions of people who traditionally may see themselves as working-class, but whose ambitions are far broader than those of their parents and grandparents." Although this was a prime specimen of Blair's rhetorical style (whose distinguishing mark is the adman's verb-starved sentence), he wasn't the first British Prime Minister to dilate on the subject. When his predecessor, John Major, succeeded Margaret Thatcher, in 1990, he announced as his goal "a classless society," by which he meant a society in which "we remove the artificial barriers to choice and achievement." And Thatcher herself had touched on the topic, albeit to claim, "Class is a communist concept. It groups people as bundles and sets them against one another" (and also, more famously, to insist that "there is no such thing as society").

All political leaders in advanced democracies are concerned with prosperity, economic opportunity, social mobility. But is there any other country where leaders talk quite like this, about what class means (or doesn't mean), and what class the voters belong to, or should belong to? In 1940 George Orwell claimed that England "is the most class-ridden country under the sun"; in an oblique way those politicians' reflections might seem to confirm this, or at least to show that we English are more absorbed by the subject than others.

Almost sixty years after Orwell, David Cannadine begins his fascinating and deeply enjoyable new book by addressing this view: that the British are "obsessed with class in the way that other nations are obsessed with food or race or sex or drugs or alcohol." Cannadine is an eminent English historian, now in his late forties, who spent ten years as a professor at Columbia University before recently returning home. He has made a specialty of the subject of class -- or, rather, of "the classes," as they used to be called (in contrast to "the masses"): one of his best-known books is The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (1990). His perspective on the matter is distinctive. Despite the title of his new book, he knows very well that class can't rise or fall in a concrete sense. Despite John Major, there never has been and never will be such a thing as a classless society anywhere. Cannadine acknowledges that "classes will always be with us, as long as there remain inequalities in income, differences in occupation, and variations in wealth that can be objectively observed" -- which is to say in any imaginable human grouping, past, present, or future.

As Cannadine says, the class-based interpretation of history that once held such sway among Marxist historians -- and even those who weren't formally Marxist -- is now endorsed by "almost no one among a younger generation of British historians," because it has become clear that the pattern of economic development that provided "the materialist motor for the Marxist model was neither as neat nor as simple as was once claimed." Master narratives are no longer fashionable, because they no longer seem credible, even to old believers. Thirty-five years ago the venerable Marxist historian E. P. Thompson wrote one of the most influential books of its time, The Making of the English Working Class (1964). If he of all people could write later, toward the end of his life, "'Class' was perhaps overworked in the 1960s and 1970s, and it had become merely boring. It is a concept long past its sell-by date," then the game was up.

What concerns historians now is not that materialist model but perception, consciousness, "mentalities," the "linguistic turn" -- how we are to be understood by how we talk and write about ourselves -- and cultures. An excellent example of this new history is the Oxford historian Ross McKibbin's splendid book Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951 (1998), whose approach is doubly interesting. In telling the story of a great nation in an extraordinary historical period it pays almost no attention to national politics or international affairs; and it examines how people lived quite as much in terms of the cultures of its title as of the classes, looking less at getting and spending and the means of production and more at the music people listened to, the movies they watched, and the sports they played.

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