Uncowed, the ruthless Herbivores took control

The Middle Class

December 1, 2006

Vernon Bogdanor welcomes a rollicking study of Britain's bourgeoisie, who can now make and break governments.

Who are the middle classes?" Harold Macmillan asked the head of the Conservative Research Department in the late 1950s. "What do they want? How can we give it to them?"

These are questions that, no doubt, many prime ministers of the late 20th century have asked. It was, after all, the middle classes, their social conscience aroused by the war, who put Clement Attlee into Downing Street in 1945, and then, six years later, tired of rationing and austerity, ejected him. When Macmillan's Government in 1962 seemed to be neglecting the interests of the middle classes, especially those on fixed incomes, the voters began to desert it and gave the Liberals their famous by-election victory at Orpington.

The Labour Party - whether under Attlee in 1945, Harold Wilson in 1964 or Tony Blair in 1997 - has been able to win power only by assuring the middle classes that they would still be able to sleep safely in their beds. By September 2004, survey evidence indicated that 72 per cent of those polled believed that new Labour was "a middle-class party".

It is the middle classes who are the true swing voters. They have also, historically, been more class conscious than the working class, more ruthless in defending their interests and less seduced by competing cries of patriotism or religion. Yet they have been much less studied than either the working classes or the upper strata of society.

Lawrence James, whose previous books have all been on British imperial themes, makes no pretence at a sociological analysis of the middle class. Nor would he claim to be a social historian of the quality of Harold Perkin or F. M. L. Thompson. The Middle Class is a rollicking, affectionate romp through seven centuries of social history that provokes much thought. Unlike much academic sociology, it is also well written and enjoyable to read. It is a book for the weekend rather than the study or the library.

James's social history relies on anecdote rather than analysis, but he does succeed in charting the change in thinking from a society governed by orders or ranks, and circumscribed by God's laws, as famously celebrated by Shakespeare's Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida - "Take but degree away, untune that string,/ And hark, what discord follows!" - to a more fluid society that gradually came to remove impediments to individual advancement.

Thomas Cranmer believed that "God had given talents to all kinds of people indifferently", with the result that some of the very highest born were "very dolts". Society, therefore, ought to harness ability wherever it was to be found "through the benefit of learning and other civil knowledge". If human reason was a divine gift, it followed that everyone had a duty to develop their talents for the common good. The growth of the middle class was dependent on the development of an open society, what would now be called a meritocracy. It is perhaps odd that James does not discuss Michael Young's 20th-century classic, The Rise of the Meritocracy , for Young's objections to such a society have never been effectively answered.

By the early years of the 20th century, it seemed that the middle class would carry all before it. In his essay "Notes on the English Character", published in Abinger Harvest in 1920, E. M. Forster declared that the middle class was now the "dominant force in our country". Its characteristic "solidity, caution, integrity and efficiency" were, he believed, the mainspring of British greatness. The cost, however, was a smothering of imagination and creativity, symbolised by the Wilcox family in Howards End (1910), who believed: "Equality was nonsense, Votes for Women nonsense, Socialism nonsense, Art and Literature, except when conducive to strengthening character, nonsense."

At the time Forster was writing, the middle class appeared to be threatened by the rise of the labour movement. Yet the movement too came to be dominated by a particular subspecies of the middle class - high-minded, do-gooding and paternalistic. In 1959, Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour leader, told Dick Crossman, his fellow Wykehamist: "We, as middle-class socialists, have got to have a profound humility. Though it's a funny way of putting it, we've got to know that we lead them because they can't do without us, with our abilities, and yet we must feel humble to working people."

At the beginning of the 20th century, socialists hoped that the working class would destroy capitalism. Instead, the opposite has happened.

Capitalism and rising living standards have almost destroyed the working class. By 1971, Tony Benn was to rail against an Austrian Social Democrat who thought that "socialism means everybody being allowed to have a Rolls-Royce". This, so Benn believed, was "the individual escape from class into prosperity, which is the cancer eating into the Western European Social Democratic parties". Few shared Benn's belief that individual prosperity was a "cancer". They preferred instead to aspire to a Rolls-Royce. They wanted to become middle class.

Yet the middle class, as James notes, has never been a homogeneous body, and perhaps it would be better to speak of the middle classes. In the 20th century, it has often been the divisions within the middle classes that have been politically significant, rather than divisions between the middle class and other classes.

In 1951, the Conservatives returned to power and, as James notes, the balance of political power tilted back in favour of the middle class. This was also the year of the Festival of Britain, a last dying celebratory fling by the outgoing Labour Government. This event, as Michael Frayn noted in a perceptive essay, celebrated "the Britain of the radical middle classes - the do-gooders; the readers of the News Chronicle (a Liberal newspaper of the period), The Guardian and The Observer , the signers of petitions, the backbone of the BBC". Frayn labelled this section of the middle class "the Herbivores, or gentle ruminants, who look out from the lush pastures which are their natural station in life with eyes full of sorrow for less fortunate creatures, guiltily conscious of their advantages, though not usually ceasing to eat the grass".

In opposition to the Herbivores were the Carnivores, who included Evelyn Waugh, readers of The Daily Express - today, no doubt, The Daily Mail - and those listed in The Directory of Directors , who imagined that "if God had not wished them to prey upon all smaller and weaker creatures without scruple he would not have made them as they are". An extreme form of that attitude had been expressed by a character in the novel The Middle Road (1922), by Philip Gibbs, written at a time when the middle class seem threatened by "Bolshevism" in the trade unions. "Us - meaning the Decent Crowd, anybody with a stake in the country, including the unfortunate middle classes. All of us. Well, we accept the challenge. We're ready to knock the hell out of them - This clash has got to come. We must get the whole working classes back to their kennels. Back to cheap labour. Back to discipline. Otherwise, we're done for."

In the 1950s, under the gentle leadership of Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden and Macmillan, it seemed that the Herbivores were in control; but the future, under Margaret Thatcher, was to belong to the Carnivores. The Carnivores, she believed, were the real creators of wealth; the Herbivores were critics, carping from the outside. Having been rejected for an honorary degree at Oxford University in 1985, Thatcher declared that cloister and common room cannot stomach wealth creators. The Good Samaritan, she insisted, in a radical revision of accepted theology, was able to help only because he had money behind him. The Carnivores remained loyal Tories and, together with the aspirant working class, they gave Thatcher her landslide election victories in the 1980s. This led Dennis Skinner, the irreverent left-wing Labour MP, to declare that the estate owners had been ousted by the estate agents.

Those Herbivores who had supported the Tories rapidly became disenchanted and helped to launch the doomed Social Democratic Party. Eventually, in 1997, they were to swing to Labour. But, unhappy about the war in Iraq and university fees, the Herbivores were soon on the move again, and, in 2005, supported the Liberal Democrats. The Herbivores were unhappy also about Labour's philistinism, which seemed all too reminiscent of Thatcher. In 2003, the Herbivores shuddered when Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, scion of a highly respectable Herbivore family (his father was a senior civil servant) and educated at that quintessentially Herbivore institution, King's College, Cambridge, declared: "I do not mind there being some medievalists around for ornamental purposes, but there is no reason for the state to pay them."

The defection of the Herbivores constitutes a danger signal to Labour. For, with the working class an ever-diminishing proportion of the electorate, Labour depends crucially on the Herbivore vote. James makes clear that his history is not an obituary but "a history which is still unfolding and has a long way to run. The middle class has never been larger, and is multiplying to fill a growing bureaucracy and man the service industries which have replaced the old course of so much of their wealth".

The middle class is probably more secure now than at any time since 1914.

Socialism, together with militant trade unionism were the main threats to its security. But, James notes, both "were neutered in the 1980s by Thatcher. The aspiration to middle-class standards of living, if not middle-class values, is now almost universal, embracing as it does the ethnic minority communities as well as the indigenous population".

The middle class indeed, as James insists, "created modern Britain, some might say in its own image". Its achievements "have been formidable by any standards, and, on balance, have added considerably to the sum of human happiness". Both Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, and David Cameron, the Conservative leader, therefore, will find themselves striving to answer the questions that Macmillan first posed nearly 50 years ago.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at Oxford University and professor of law at Gresham College. His book The New British Constitution will be published next year by Allen Lane/Penguin.

The Middle Class: A History

Author - Lawrence James
Publisher - Little, Brown
Pages - 704
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 316 86120 0

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