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.