The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain

The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain

The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain

The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain


Although it is widely believed that the British are obsessed with class to a degree unrivaled by any other nation, politicians in Britain are now calling for a "classless society," and scholars are concluding that class does not matter any more. But has class -- once considered the master narrative of British history -- fallen, failed, and been dismissed? In this wholly original and brilliantly argued book, David Cannadine shows that Britons have indeed been preoccupied with class, but in ways that are invariably ignorant and confused. Cannadine sets out to expose this ignorance and banish this confusion by imaginatively examining class itself, not so much as the history of society but as the history of the different ways in which Britons have thought about their society.

Cannadine proposes that "class" may best be understood as a shorthand term for three distinct but abiding ways in which the British have visualized their social worlds and identities: class as "us" versus "them;" class as "upper," "middle," and "lower"; and class as a seamless hierarchy of individual social relations. From the eighteenth through the twentieth century, he traces the ebb and flow of these three ways of viewing British society, unveiling the different purposes each model has served.

Encompassing social, intellectual, and political history, Cannadine uncovers the meanings of class from Adam Smith to Karl Marx to Margaret Thatcher, showing the key moments in which thinking about class shifted, such as the aftermath of the French Revolution and the rise the Labor Party in the early twentieth century. He cogently argues that Marxist attempts to view history in terms of class struggle are often as oversimplified as conservative approaches that deny the central place of class in British life. In conclusion, Cannadine considers whether it is possible or desirable to create a "classless society," a pledge made by John Major that has continued to resonate even after the conservative defeat. Until we know what class really means-and has meant-to the British, we cannot seriously address these questions.

Creative, erudite, and accessible, The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain offers a fresh and engaging perspective on both British history and the crucial topic of class.


It is widely believed, both in Britain and abroad, 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. According to John Betjeman, it is “that topic all-absorbing, as it was, is now and ever shall be, to us—CLASS” It is impossible to tell whether the British are more preoccupied with class than other European nations, and it is difficult to imagine how to devise, or to carry through, a research project that would subject this well-known cliché to the sort of rigorous comparative examination that it certainly deserves. This book makes no claims to attempt such an undertaking but concerns itself with the second matter to which Betjeman's remark directs us: what, exactly, is this thing “class“ with which the British are undeniably so obsessed? Stein Ringen has recently sketched this preliminary, provocative answer: “What is peculiar to Britain,“ he suggests, “is not the reality of the class system and its continuing existence, but class psychology: the preoccupation with class, the belief in class, and the symbols of class in manners, dress and language.“ “This thing they have with class,“ he continues, “is a sign of closed minds, and it is among what is difficult for a stranger to grasp in the British mentality.“ “Britain,“ he concludes, “is a thoroughly modern society, with thoroughly archaic institutions, conventions and beliefs.“

Class, Ringen seems to be implying, is rather like sex: it is to some extent in the eyes of the beholder and in the British case takes place at least as much inside the head as outside. As someone who has lived for ten years in the United States, with the lengthening vista on Britain that this perspective lends, I find it difficult not to be impressed by these remarks. This undoubted British preoccupation may be varyingly regarded as admirable, appropriate, essential, inevitable, regrettable, unhealthy, ignorant, snobbish, petty, small-minded, or mean-spirited.

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