Class in Britain

Cannadine, David
Date published: 
October 1998

George Orwell once described Britain as 'the most class-ridden society under the sun', and it is still widely believed that British society is obsessed with class, to a degree unrivalled by any other country. Yet it is remarkable just how ignorant and confused this British sense of class generally is, indeed always has been. In this original and sparkling book, David Cannadine sets out to banish this ignorance and shed light on the confusion by offering the first sustained history of class in Britain over the last three hundred years.This is not a history of class as understood in Marxist terms; as the making of classes, the clash and conflict of classes, and the birth and demise of class. In this post-communist, post-modern world of multiple identities that we inhabit today, this is no longer an appropriate or constructive way to treat or define the subject. Cannadine's concern is to explain how different generations of Britons, across the centuries from the eighteenth to the twentieth, have perceived their society, and their place within it. He suggests that class may best be understood as a shorthand term for three different but abiding ways in which the British have visualised their social worlds and social identities: class as a seamless hierarchy of individual social relations; class as 'upper', 'middle' and 'lower'; and class as 'us' versus 'them'.

The book discusses how most commonly the social order has been defined by hierarchy - a great chain of being extending from the humblest of subjects to the monarch on the throne. Even today, Cannadine argues, the belief in a providentially ordered social world, where everyone knows their station, retains an importance often underestimated. British society has also been seen as divided into three, especially by those in the middle, anxious to assert their unique claims of virtue and importance against those above and beneath them. And again there is a division into two, especially (but not exclusively) by those who term themselves 'the people', and who want to protest against the exclusive privilege of their social superiors. Across the last three centuries, the resonance and appeal of these three different ways of viewing British society has ebbed and flowed, Class in Britain is a fascinating and powerful account of why this has been the case. In discussing how we see ourselves and how we see the society to which we belong, Cannadine lays particular emphasis on the role of politicians in shaping social identities in a modern democratic world. Among the most original parts of the book are those dealing with Margaret Thatcher and the indubitable significance of her attempt 'to change the way we look at things', and with John Major, whose vision of a 'classless society' still lingers on in the aftermath of Conservative defeat. David Cannadine's book is the first to confront these ideas, ideologies and perceptions. The history of class, the author insists, is as much about the history of ideas as it is about the history of society, and this study draws together the many disparate strands of the class debate, to produce a book that may not change British society, but should illuminate the way it is seen forever.