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.

THE English have been thinking and writing about class, and trying to understand it, for many centuries. Looking back over the period from the seventeenth century to this one, Cannadine sees three basic concepts of social division: hierarchical, triadic, and dichotomous. In the first we are all part of "the great chain of being" stretching from highest to lowest, with every man in his place and (it was to be hoped) every man knowing his place. In 1688 Gregory King divided English society with pedantic nicety into twenty-six ranks and degrees. Several centuries later Evelyn Waugh put it differently: simple class categories did not apply in a country whose hierarchy was defined by "a single wholly imaginary line (a Platonic idea) extending from Windsor to Wormwood Scrubs," a line "of whose existence every Englishman is sharply aware," and that, Waugh thought, spiced life "very pleasantly." In the triadic version there are three classes: upper, middle, and lower, or gentry, burghers, and toilers. And the dichotomous version sees just rich and poor, high and low, few and many, haves and have-nots, "us" and "them." Although Marx distinguished aristocracy from bourgeoisie, seeing the latter as supplanting the former, his underlying view was dichotomous: society was ultimately divided between those who controlled the means of production and those -- the proletarian masses -- who did not.

Apart from its questionable analytical value, the traditional class-based view of history is undermined by something that Cannadine thoughtfully discusses. Marx's assertion that the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle is famous, and false. History has been marked by class cooperation as often as by class conflict. Some polemicists, and some historians, thought that rich and poor should have come to blows, and have been puzzled by why this did not happen. Even a Tory could be struck by the fact that society functioned because most people accepted it, economic injustices and all. Samuel Johnson observed, "If the poor should reason, 'We'll be the poor no longer, we'll make the rich take their turn,' they could easily do it." But they didn't, and the truth is that most people in eighteenth-century England (Orwell made the same observation about the country 200 years later) seemed to have acquiesced in the existing order of things. Where there was physical rebellion, in America in 1776 and Ireland in 1798, its causes were more patriotic than economic. The poor of America and Ireland might have accepted that the rich were richer if the rich had been American or Irish, as indeed they subsequently did accept it.

According to Evelyn Waugh, "Generations of English have used the epithets 'common' and 'middle-class' as general pejoratives to describe anything which gets on their nerves." And yet, as Cannadine says, those who embraced the triadic model of English society almost always themselves came from the middle part; it could equally be said that generations of English have celebrated their country as a nation of burghers and tradesmen. Daniel Defoe was eloquent on the subject, and Oliver Goldsmith thought that "in this middle order of mankind are generally to be found all the arts, wisdom and virtues of society" -- words that Tony Blair might like to borrow.

What has long been considered the critical moment for the study of class in England is the period 1780 to 1840, which saw the Industrial Revolution and the making of the English working class, as we were once taught by Thompson. With his suspicion of overarching explanations, Cannadine is skeptical about all of this. But I am sure that the period really was decisive in terms of class in England, though perhaps not in the way that Thompson thought.

LOOK back a century before Victoria came to the throne, or two centuries before Orwell wrote. Could anyone have said that England was "the most class-ridden country under the sun" in 1740? Not even the Communist Historians' Group, of the fifties, could have argued that the poor were at that time more harshly oppressed in England than in other countries. And something crucial did happen in 1780-1840. The advent of industrialization saw the transformation of a society based on rank or hierarchy into one based on class. Without doubt this affected that growth of working-class consciousness which so exercised the historians of a previous generation. But it also meant something else quite as interesting, which might be called the making of the English upper-middle class.

The great Reform Bill of 1832 changed the House of Commons by doing away with rotten boroughs, rationalizing constituencies, and, rather slightly, enlarging the franchise. This was seen by some, then and since, as a defeat for aristocratic power. Even Marx and Engels were for a time convinced that the struggles of the 1830s and 1840s -- with parliamentary reform followed by the repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws favoring the landed interests -- had seen the patricians at last defeated. But the radical Poor Man's Guardian wrote perceptively at the time that reform might rather have been an attempt not "to subvert, or even re-model, our aristocratic institutions, but to consolidate them by a reinforcement of sub-aristocracy from the middle classes." As another contemporary put it, "a large portion of the middle ranks" had been detached from the working class -- a game that intelligent conservative politicians have been playing ever since, and not just in England.

Late Georgian society was acutely rank-conscious, as Jane Austen's novels testify, and consciousness of rank persisted throughout the next century and beyond. But there was also an increasing sense of solidarity among "educated" people of widely different economic standing. It was fostered by the rapidly expanding "public" schools, and by universities that also expanded as their role as clerical seminaries diminished. Cannadine says that by the middle of the nineteenth century "virtually anyone with a public-school education might be described as a gentleman, regardless of his parents' social background." It has been put more wittily, and almost more accurately, by another writer: In the Georgian age Eton and Winchester were for the sons of gentlemen; by the Victorian age the public schools were for the fathers of gentlemen.

What I mean by the making of the upper-middle class is associated with a new concept of "the gentleman." And it is illustrated in no better way than by something that has obsessed or depressed the English to this day: accent, or pronunciation. Until some time under the Georges an Englishman of any class, squire as well as yokel, was likely to speak with the accent of "his country," meaning Somerset, Yorkshire, or Norfolk. People of all classes elsewhere -- Italians, Germans, and Americans -- still do. Uniquely in England there shortly came into being a more or less universal accent for everyone above a certain social status from one end of the country to the other: the "received," or "Oxford," accent. Orwell rather accurately called it the accent that is disliked by those in England who don't speak with it, and not much liked by those who do. And its significance is related to something else Orwell said: "The peculiarity of English class distinctions is not that they are unjust -- for after all, wealth and poverty exist side by side in almost all countries -- but that they are anachronistic," in that they don't exactly correspond to economic distinctions. What Orwell's "anachronistic" meant, and what the cult of the gentleman demonstrates, is that English class consciousness was out of kilter with Marxian concepts of class.

Take two specimens, Bert Brass and Simon Simper. Bert is a self-made millionaire. In Engels's time his fortune would have come from cotton mills; today it more likely comes from car dealerships or asset-stripping fringe banks. In any case, he has little education, speaks with a broad accent, and has uncultivated ( though not necessarily cheap ) tastes. For his part, Simon is the son of a clergyman and was educated at Winchester and Oxford. He likes to travel abroad, to go to the opera, and to lunch at his London club, though affording all this isn't easy, because he is a "briefless barrister," barely able to make ends meet. Bert is very rich, owns the means of production, and in Marxian terms belongs to the haute bourgeoisie. Simon is penniless, owns nothing except his sense of caste, and is "petty bourgeois." And yet to anyone English -- at least anyone from Simon's background -- their status is the other way round: Simon is upper-middle-class and a gentleman; Bert is lower-middle-class and "common."

This distinction has colored, but also occluded, social and political life. One of Cannadine's sections is called "The 'Politics of Class' Denied": it discusses the difficulties of understanding English society and politics in the nineteenth century in simple terms of class, when both the dichotomous and triadic models of society oversimplified reality, and when both offered limited help in understanding political developments. That is, Lord Palmerston would never have spoken of a classless society. In his famous "Don Pacifico" speech of 1850 he told the House of Commons, in words no politician today would lightly utter, "We have shown the example of a nation, in which every class of society accepts with cheerfulness the lot which Providence has assigned to it." And yet he went on to say something that Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair could easily echo: "At the same time every individual of each class is constantly striving to raise himself in the social scale."

This very long-running theme of social aspiration and mobility is the nub of Cannadine's "fall of class." The phrase can refer to the change in historical fashion already discussed. It can mean something that Orwell perceived almost sixty years ago, and that is highly germane to both Cannadine's analysis and Blair's project -- the embourgoisement of society, the spread of the middle class upward and downward at the same time, and the associated emergence of what Orwell called a quite new breed of English people of indeterminate social class. This leads in turn to a "fall" that Cannadine barely discusses, though it is very important: the unmaking of the upper-middle class, in terms of the hegemonic thrall it once exercised but no longer does. And all these relate to one last "fall," which is to say the decline of class politics. This may yet come to be seen as the great theme of English history in the past generation, since Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979.

Like most English academics, Cannadine can barely govern his distaste for Thatcher. He does his best to address her importance, but revealingly refers to "the more bracing advent of New Labour" and doesn't give Thatcher anything like enough credit for her own bracing impact as a social revolutionary. Forty years ago the Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan announced that the class war was over and "we have won it" -- a barb that the Tory journalist Sir Peregrine Worsthorne repeated thirty years later. It was also Worsthorne who coined the memorable phrase "bourgeois triumphalism" to describe Thatcher's years of power; this was cherished on the left as much as on the right, but was double-edged for the left when they quoted it with such relish. Bourgeois triumphalism meant also social revolution -- even, arguably, the final defeat of the "toffs" Marx and Engels thought they had seen in the 1840s.

Under Thatcher the Tories finally became a meritocratic and populist party, for better or worse. And the purging of the toffs from politics has since continued apace. In the nineteenth century the House of Commons was full of MPs with titles -- the elder sons of peers, like Lord Hartington, or Irish peers, like Lord Palmerston, baronets called Sir John This, younger sons of dukes called Lord James That. By the 1990s there were just two lords left in the Commons, and, significantly enough, neither used his title. The Earl of Ancram, son of the Marquess of Lothian, likes to be called Mr. Ancram (which he isn't); and the Earl of Kilmorey, an Irish peer, calls himself Richard Needham. Even in the Tory party it's now somehow discreditable to be an aristocrat.

Or a public-school man. In the 1920s Stanley Baldwin said only half jocosely that on becoming Prime Minister, he had endeavored to form a Cabinet that Harrow could be proud of. Twenty years later another Old Harrovian Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, told the boys of Harrow that in the future "the advantages and privileges which have hitherto been enjoyed by the few shall be far more widely shared by the many." The 1997 general election returned the first House of Commons in nearly 300 years that contained not one MP educated at Harrow. The Conservatives haven't been led by a public-school man since Sir Alec Douglas-Home departed, in 1965, though funnily enough -- and it is funny -- Labour is now led by the public-school-educated Tony Blair. The Tories are in favor of meritocracy, upward mobility, and wealth creation -- quite as much so as Blair.

So Cannadine's "fall" might allude to the class-based interpretations of history now so much out of fashion, but plainly doesn't describe the end of an economic class society with inequalities of wealth. Debates about the persistence of class continue. In A Class Act (1997), Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard have challenged the idea of "Britain's classless society," but the England that they describe turns out on examination to be very different from the class-ridden England of Orwell's time. There are still a monarchy and a peerage, though the peers are soon to be deprived of their last legislative rights; there is still an upper class; the rich are still richer than the poor. On the other side, Lord Bauer has written a denunciatory pamphlet, Class on the Brain:The Cost of a British Obsession (1997), which claims that "for about eight centuries Britain has not been a closed society, much less a caste society," that there have been few class barriers to wealth in England, and that to the extent that our society became less open and flexible in the postwar years, "it needed the reforms of Mrs Thatcher's governments to re-open the road of opportunity."

Professor Peter Bauer (as he was until Thatcher elevated him to the peerage) is a distinguished free-market economist, of Hungarian descent, who writes with the zeal of a convert to English life, and makes some valid points. But the debate between him and Adonis and Pollard is largely a matter of nuance. Adonis and Pollard concede that there is now much more social mobility in England than there was even within living memory. The "super class" to which they devote an acidic chapter is very far from the old upper class of birth and rank, but is a "new elite of top professionals and managers, at once meritocratic yet exclusive, very highly paid yet powerfully convinced of the justice of its rewards, and increasingly divorced from the rest of society by wealth, education, values, residence and lifestyle."They deplore this on egalitarian grounds, but that description plainly doesn't distinguish this British super class from its counterparts elsewhere, notably in the United States. And in any case, isn't this "career open to the talents" just what the foes of the old aristocracy always wanted? What these authors do miss, and Cannadine too, is the gradual but truly fascinating disappearance of a "hegemonic"class society, in which the values of the upper or upper-middle class once exercised an extraordinary thrall but no longer do.

MY Evelyn Waugh quotations come from an essay Waugh wrote in 1955 during the "U and Non-U" fad, about which language was "U," or upper-class, and which not. As might be expected, Waugh's essay is painfully snobbish; as might also be expected, it is very acute. And it is now a relic. Twenty years or so after it was written, some excruciating book or other was published on "how to be upper-class," or suchlike nonsense, and was reviewed by Waugh's son. Auberon Waugh observed that books of this sort had become quite pointless, since they gave the rules to a game that no longer had any prizes: "No one wants to be thought a gentleman any longer except for pansies, foreigners and shady businessmen." What was true then is truer still another twenty years later. The gossip columns of London newspapers are still full of the doings of our titled classes, but there is an unmistakable artificiality about this. Someone once defined journalism as saying "Lord Fitzbuggherie is dead" to a readership that didn't even know he was alive, but one wonders for how much longer newspapers will pretend that their readers are interested in him alive or dead.

For years past the sharpest indication of what Waugh fils meant when he said that no one wanted to be thought a gentleman anymore has been that matter of accent. A universal upper- to upper-middle-class accent arrived sometime in the eighteenth century, and it is now departing. More and more well-born people speak "Mockney,"or sham Cockney. That goes for at least one heir to a dukedom I can think of, and it certainly goes for Tony Blair, whose own jes' folks act includes audibly "lowering" his voice whenever he goes on a television chat show. Centuries of agonizing about correct accent, of striving English men and women who marked their upward mobility by "raising" their voices, has petered out in the marshes of "Estuary English," an amorphous, vaguely southeastern, vaguely plebeian accent now spoken by people under thirty, rich and poor alike. Books are still written about the toffs. Charles Jennings's People Like Us:A Season Among the Upper Classes (1997) describes with ogling and sniggering fascination the doings of those who go to Ascot or the Henley regatta or deb dances. But for all his amused contempt, Jennings must know that he is a naturalist observing an endangered species. When I stray into the Turf Club tent at Cheltenham racecourse during the National Hunt meeting in March, I am conscious of visiting a tribe on a reservation.

Not only are upper-class values at a discount but the aristocracy has deserted its traditional avocations. The Church of England is the most striking case in point: a century ago it was a largely patrician body, today it is almost purely plebeian. And having left -- or been driven out of -- politics and diplomacy, the upper classes are now deserting the army as well. The younger son of a duke, who might once have served in the Grenadiers or as a clergyman, is now more likely to work as a photographer or in rock music.

In some ways all of this makes life easier for Tony Blair. Until the late nineteenth century English politics wasn't divided on class lines: Gladstone numbered dukes as well as laborers among his supporters. Then the Home Rule schism drove the upper classes into the Tory ranks. But just as important, as the Liberal politician Sir William Harcourt observed in 1894, "The horizontal division of parties was certain to come as a consequence of household suffrage": classless politics was incompatible with democracy.

Which is what Tony Blair wants to reverse. A sympathetic commentator has said that Blair's greatest ambition is "to take the class out of politics," undoing that horizontal division and leading a party with as wide a social support as Gladstone's. When the new middle class, with its greater ambition and opportunities, embraces most of the British people, then class will have fallen at last, Blair's project will be complete, and, like Mr. Gladstone, Blair can govern us until his eighties.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is an English journalist and author. His most recent book, (1996), won a National Jewish Book Award.

Illustration by Jonny Mendelsson.

The Atlantic Monthly; June 1999; The Making of the English Middle Class - 99.06; Volume 283, No. 6; page 128-134.