The Middle Class: a History, by Lawrence James

Windfalls to wind farms
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Who are the middle classes?" asked Harold Macmillan. "What do they want?" Even for the Old Entertainer, these were marvellously disingenuous questions. All his life, Macmillan, who married the daughter of the Duke of Devonshire, developed the air of a world-weary patrician. But this was an elaborate charade. The Macmillans were in trade as publishers and Harold's tastes were by no means aristocratic - he extolled the merits of over-ripe grouse while preferring cold chicken. The Cavendishes undoubtedly considered him, as the Cecils considered their cousin Arthur Balfour, a "Middle-Class Monster".

The discussion of social class in Britain is fraught with humbug and the term "middle class" defies definition. We all, even supposedly detached historians and sociologists, have a vested interest, which warps our judgement. Even if objective appraisal were possible, how can one give a coherent account of something as amorphous as the middle class? As Bulwer Lytton said, it "cannot be called a class because it comprises all classes, from the educated gentleman to the skilled artisan".

Marx, who notoriously ducked writing his chapter on "Classes", was even more comprehensive. He included as members of the bourgeoisie everyone from Bob Cratchit to the Duke of Omnium. Others gave contradictory descriptions of the middle class. James Mill called it the most moral and intellectual part of the community. Engels deemed it exploitative and hypocritical. Matthew Arnold reckoned it vulgar and Philistine. In this new history, Lawrence James suggests that the middle class represents "the enterprise and genius of the nation". It has given the country "order, direction and momentum" for more than 500 years and constructed Britain in its own image. Thanks to numerical growth and increasing prosperity, its current position and future prospects are excellent.

James is a well-informed guide to that past, conducting us on a tour from Chaucer to Thatcher and focusing mainly on the 19th and 20th centuries. He has a sharp eye for detail, noting a Tudor herald's insistence that, thanks to the Saviour's ancestral connection with King David, Jesus was a gentleman. James also appreciates the complexity of his subject. He states that middle-class stereotypes dissolve on close inspection. He warns about the risk of "piling generalisation on generalisation". Moreover, he shows how his middle class, which extends from merchant prince to chimney sweep, lacked consistent opinions.

Some members revered the aristocracy with what Cobden called the "insatiable love of caste that in England, as in Hindustan, devours all hearts". Others despised bluebloods as corrupt, greedy drones, averring that gentility was nothing but ancient riches. Some were puritans; others patronised the music hall. Some embodied respectability, others became bohemians. Some paid close attention to correct dress and manners; others dismissed such things as suburban snobbery. Some clung to self-help; others embraced the welfare state. Some voted New Labour; others stuck to the Conservatives. Even the minority who support Green policies have fervent disagreements over wind farms.

Yet, while recognising this diversity, James refers to the middle class as though it was, and is, a discrete and identifiable entity. "The middle class wanted..."; "The middle class believed..." He uses "middle class" and "middle classes" indiscriminately. He even refers to the 18th-century "chattering classes", which presumably included figures such as Johnson and Reynolds.

Other solecisms abound. James's study lacks intellectual incisiveness and academic rigour. His style is pedestrian and pedagogical. His jokes are ponderous: having told us that school library services have been encouraged to include books with "positive images" of disabled people, he adds, "Whether this includes Treasure Island is not known." His dissertation on the current social system, which conjures with newspaper cartoon characters, reads like a magazine article. His book is like the middle class - vast, sprawling and inchoate.

It might have been improved by reference to PN Furbank's brilliant Unholy Pleasure, which argues that "middle class" is not a thing but a concept - like "the True Church" or "pure English". As such, it has obsessed Britons ever since the term came into common usage around the beginning of the 19th century. Orwell said that England was "the most class-ridden country under the sun".

Thus class structure cannot be properly analysed. As Denis Brogan said, new castes and sub-castes are being forever discovered. The way to study class is to examine it through contemporary eyes, to see how Lord Beauchamp thought it middle class not to decant champagne, how Cobbett used "linen-draper" as a term of abuse. What we perceive is an intricate mythology in which social position is determined by myriad crit- eria - income, education, occupation, appearance, residence, leisure, the dropped aitch, the Non-U and the napkin ring. The last appears as the talisman of the bourgeoisie, since aristocrats had clean linen and proletarians had none.

Piers Brendon's 'The Dark Valley' is published by Pimlico