Magazine article The Spectator

Most of Us - and Doing Quite Well

Magazine article The Spectator

Most of Us - and Doing Quite Well

Article excerpt

THE MIDDLE CLASS by Lawrence James Little, Brown, £25, pp. 690, ISBN 0316861200

Class is the bane of English society. 'As long as you maintain that damned class-ridden society of yours, ' declared the former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt in 1978, 'you will never get anywhere.' There are signs in the 21st century that we have taken this advice to heart and become a classless society. A posh middle-class accent has become a liability, as anyone of a certain age educated at a public school knows to their cost. We all dress the same, we all shop at Tesco and hereditary titles no longer count for much. But, as Lawrence James shows, the new classlessness is a myth. We may all speak estuary English, wear Gap jeans and use Nokia phones, but the reality is that we are as obsessed with class as ever. What has happened over the last 50 years or so is that the middle class has grown and swollen and swamped the rest. Today, as many as two-thirds of Britons consider themselves middle class.

Lawrence James's ambitious new book charts the history of this huge, sprawling class. In his view, the middle class has always been with us, or at least for the last 500 years. It's possible to pinpoint a middle class as far back as the 15th century -- men who were committed to maximising profit, educating their sons and achieving the upward mobility which was allowed by England's relatively open society. If I have a grumble, it's about James's handling of the early part of the story. There's a vast historical literature on class and the English bourgeoisie, starting with Adam Smith, continuing via Karl Marx, and flowering with the great Marxist historians such as Lawrence Stone and E.P. Thompson. James shuts his ears to all of this and goes back to the primary sources.

No doubt he's determined to avoid socio-historical theorising, which is admirable in a way; but it feels rather as if the historians who have spent their working lives debating whether the English Civil War really was a bourgeois revolution, or how the middle class managed to drive the only spontaneous industrial revolution in the history of the world, are chattering away in another room behind closed doors.

The book really takes off when it reaches the 20th century. James is gripping and illuminating on the evolution of the middle class after 1914. The first world war was a hard time for them.

Public-school-educated middle-class officers were slaughtered in the trenches.

The command economy of wartime damaged middle-class bank-balances. After the war, the threat from the lower orders, from the communist-led working class, was worse than it had been at the time of the Chartists. …

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