No such thing as society?

A CLASS ACT: The Myth of Britain's Classless Society by Andrew Adonis & Stephen Pollard Hamish Hamilton pounds 17.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
When John Major declared that he wanted to turn Britain into "a genuinely classless society", he talked himself into the Prime Ministership in 1990 and popularised a phrase which has resonated down the decade. He was not the first person to hold out such a prospect: nearly a century and a half before, Karl Marx had insisted that history was moving inexorably in that direction. Marx got it wrong: the classless utopia brought about by socialist revolution has never yet been realised. The authors of this book set out to show that Major got it wrong as well. During the 1990s, Britain has not come closer to classlessness. On the contrary, it remains as George Orwell described it more than 50 years ago: "the most class- ridden society under the sun".

Adonis and Pollard provide abundant evidence that Britain is still a deeply divided society, obsessed with class distinctions. The most telling indication of this, they insist, is the system of secondary education, rigidly separated into a flourishing, lavishly-funded private sector, and a demoralised, under-financed public sector. Those who benefit from private education are almost invariably from privileged backgrounds: the fact that they attend the best schools in the country merely entrenches their privileges and enhances their prospects still further. Thirty years ago, when the grammar schools were flourishing, it was possible for bright children from less well-off families to get a good education: now, those opportunities are very few and far between.

To the extent that Britain today is a meritocracy - and this, the authors make plain, is a very suspect synonym for "classlessness" - it is those from privileged backgrounds who are most likely to win out. Consider, in this regard, the membership of the House of Commons. Not since the mid-19th century has it been as socially homogeneous as it is now. It may be more visibly divided between men and women than ever before, but most of them are from middle-class, professional backgrounds. The only real distinction is that those on the left are more likely to come from the public sector, those on the right from business, finance, or the law. But authentic Tory grandees are now a rarity, as are real Labour working- class heroes. From this perspective, today's House of Commons is worryingly unrepresentative of the social fabric of the nation as a whole.

So, of course, is the monarchy, where a small knot of patrician families continue to keep the queen cocooned in a late-Victorian, timewarped world. So too is the House of Lords, where traditional aristocrats mingle with life peers in a Gilbert-and-Sullivan pantomime that should have been closed down long ago. And so, too, is the new super-class of lawyers, accountants and City employees - the Nicola Horlicks of this world - most of whom have been to private school and Oxbridge, and who command astronomically high salaries. Add to this, the authors remind us, the growing and impoverished inner-city underclass, and it is easy to see why there are anxieties that our society is falling apart, as the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the gulf between them grows by the day.

Inequality, Adonis and Pollard insist, thus remains deeply rooted in British society. The National Health Service may be admired as one of the great institutions of the realm, but it is riddled with hierarchy (from consultants to cleaners), and those patients towards the top of the social pyramid get better treatment (and live longer, on average) than those at the bottom. Virtually everything we do - the houses we live in, the clothes we wear, the television programmes we watch, the holidays we take - proclaims our class identity. Even the National Lottery is shot through with class: the punters who pay come overwhelmingly from the bottom end of the social spectrum, while the cultural projects their money funds tend to appeal to those at the top: the Royal Opera House and the like.

This is a bracing, provocative, opinionated indictment of Britain's contemporary social structure and social scene, which deserves to be widely read. It is not clear which annoys the authors more: the classbound society they see before them, or the politicians who blithely assume that the classless society is just round the corner. Class, they seem to be implying, is here to stay. But what exactly is class? About this, the authors are less sure. They write of class in terms of social hierarchies, in terms of the threefold division of upper, middle and lower classes, and in terms of a great divide between us and them. All of these are, indeed, standard ways in which British society has been described and is still being described. But they are also ambiguous and contradictory, and the ambiguities and contradictions go unexplored here.

The authors also tend to conflate (and to confuse?) class and inequality. Much that they discuss - the differentials in health and life expectancy, in housing, in leisure, or even in education - is the consequence of inequality, and these are differentials which are not unique to class-bound Britain. They can be observed in virtually all developed countries in the western world, especially in those like the United States, where inequality is greater than it is here. What is unique to Britain - or what, following Orwell, is believed to be unique to Britain - is that we think and talk about these things constantly. From this perspective, class is not the same as inequality: rather, class is the way (or the ways) in which we envisage and discuss inequality.

This brings us back to John Major. When he said he wanted to make Britain a "classless society", he did not mean that he intended to remove social inequalities, but that he wanted people to stop talking about these inequalities in terms of class - especially in the snobbish, condescending way of which he himself had often been the victim. To some extent, this ambition has been achieved: politicians talk less about class in the 1990s than they did in the 1960s or 1970s. But this is not because inequalities have lessened, or because the majority of Britons have ceased to think and talk about class, or because of anything Major did or said. It is because during the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher had already banished class from the conventional vocabulary of political discussion. Why and how she did that is another story.

! David Cannadine's next book, 'The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain', will be published next year.