Monday Book: Class: the British obsession

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THE BRITISH are notoriously obsessed with "class". This short but imposing study investigates what the word has really signified for us. David Cannadine notes that his argument "could have been made at much briefer length or, alternatively, it could have been extended to several volumes. I have tried to combine the virtues of both approaches (brevity and detail) rather than their shortcomings (superficiality and overkill.)"

He at once concedes that he has not specifically addressed the question of what British women have thought about class, and this is a great pity. Surely, the influence of domestic service in houses great and small on women who married into the wider world has been an important influence on attitudes at large until quite recently? Or am I cozened by a myth of the kind which he demolishes so ably?

More detail might have produced more nuance. Cannadine does refer to Lady Catherine de Burgh's remark in Pride and Prejudice that she likes to have "the distinctions of rank preserved". He suggests that she speaks "for the majority of Britons during the first three-quarters of the 19th century". Yet he does not add that she is portrayed in the novel as a peculiarly snobbish and silly woman.

Jane Austen herself ultimately endorsed the "hierarchical" view of class that was prevalent, as Cannnadine can show, from the Middle Ages to Margaret Thatcher. But her novel takes the mickey out of it.

Cannadine's idea is to sketch out a history of "ways of looking at society" rather than of "changes (or lack of change) in society itself". For much of this century, Liberal, Whiggish, Marxist (and even Tory) historians assumed that the rise and fall of classes provided the momentum of British history. The 17th-century British revolutions and the "Industrial Revolution" were both attributed to "the rise of the middle class" - and it is of course odd to think of the same class "rising" twice, with a long, intervening phase of aristocratic dominance.

Cannadine shows how such views have broken down. He also counters, however, the merchants of post-modernist theory who suggest that class exists only in the language with which we construct our social identities. Mental models, he argues, exist independently of rhetoric.

"How," he asks, "can we recover the ways in which Britons saw and understood the manifestly unequal society in which they lived?" He turns for answer to a citizen of Montpellier, in France, who tried, in 1768, to describe the social structure of his town, and offered three very different but equally plausible models.

First, the town was defined by its processions: "a hierarchy on parade, a carefully graded order of rank and dignity, in which each layer melded and merged almost imperceptibly into the next." (Margaret Thatcher described such processions in wartime Grantham.) Montpellier was also a three-class town: nobility, bourgeoisie and common people. But it could be seen as divided in two, between patricians and plebeians, "Them" and "Us" - Edmund Burke's friends, as it were, against Tom Paine's.

Cannadine is able to show how these three models - the order of rank, the three-way division, and Us against Them - have been applied by British writers and speechmakers over three centuries to structure people's sense of who they are and, perhaps to propel them in a certain direction: national harmony, political contestation, or violently adversarial action.

Adam Smith's "triad" of classes suggested a basic relationship between "class" and the means of production, which was later developed by Marx and the Labour Party. But Cannadine is particularly interesting on the period from 1815 to 1846. Then the "middle class", impressed by Smith, was presumed by friends and deprecators alike to have triumphed over the aristocracy, with parliamentary and municipal reform and the abolition of the Corn Laws. Manifestly, as we see now, it did not.

The failure of Britain to have "revolutions", which has so worried left- wing historians, can - following Cannadine - be explained very simply. The "middle classes" were as variegated as their plural form suggests, and "workers" would never decisively unite across occupational divides. Meanwhile, most people, both Upstairs and Downstairs, were susceptible to the appeal of a "processional" view in which high and low were united in their gradations; whether at Nelson's state funeral or at the coronation of Elizabeth II, whether mildly cajoled by Baldwin or fiercely uplifted by Churchill.

Cannadine ranges through the English-speaking world. After sensibly emphasising that the Founding Fathers of the US did away with hierarchy by prohibiting titles, and prepared the way for a society now perceived as "classless" by most citizens, he shows how the Indian Raj related to and enhanced the preservation of hierarchy in Britain itself. His remarks about Scotland do not seem to me to score points, and I am surprised that he ignores white settlerdom in Africa. But his 188 pages are packed with stimulating ideas.

Angus Calder