Class is a very British obsession but for David Cannadine it is more about perception than economic statistics. Lucy Hodges reports.
Class is a subject that obsesses us British. We use it as a lens through which to explain ourselves; to position ourselves socially and evaluate where everybody else comes from in a way that Americans do not. Yet historians have, in the past 20 years, thrown out the concept of class as a tool of historical analysis. "Historians have just packed up with it really," says David Cannadine, the historian who has spent years studying the "alternative" world of the British aristocracy - their upper versus his own lower middle class.
Class as a social category is a topic Cannadine has been struggling with for the past three years from the other side of the Atlantic, where he is Moore Collegiate professor of history at Columbia University. His book on the subject, provisionally entitled The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain, 1700-2000, will be published later this year, "just in time to help tell the new Labour government how it ought to think about British society".
The book was partly inspired by the inverted political debate about class that has been running throughout the 1990s. Cannadine cites John Major's desire to create a "classless society" and Tony Blair's "greater interest in community cooperation than class war". Class, notes Cannadine, is deeply unfashionable in many quarters. Nonetheless, it has been, and still is, a powerful force within British society.
By connecting the sociological and historical approaches to class ("which all too often seem to have nothing in common") Cannadine hopes to be able to "shed some historical light on what ought to be the current political debate", and answer such questions as: "What would have to be done to make Britain a 'classless society'?"; "Is this a worthwhile or realisable political objective?"; and "Where, on earth, has a classless society ever existed?"
Yesterday, in a British Academy lecture, Cannadine pondered the strange paradox that while historians have abandoned class, everyone else in Britain thinks the subject is important. It is the Marxist definition of class - that the history of Britain can be explained by conflict between distinct social groups - that has been junked. And good riddance, says Cannadine. "It no longer seems that's a helpful way of seeing modern British history," he explains. "It now seems as though the history of British social structure has been fairly static over the past 300 years. The balance between what we might wish to call the upper, middle and lower classes doesn't much change - so the question is: 'What is class about if it's not about this Marxist concept?"' For Cannadine class is about perception rather than economic or social statistics. "Class is what culture does to social structure," he says. According to his analysis there are three ways of looking at society. The first is the hierarchical model, the seamless web of social gradations where everyone knows his place, the monarch via the aristocracy, country gentry, the professions, to those at the bottom of the social pile. "This is the sort of Elizabethan world picture, the great chain of being and all that," he explains. "It is a model less in evidence now than it used to be but people are still talking about hierarchy in this country which I think they are not altogether mistaken in doing." The second model sees people as collective groups - upper, middle and lower - rather than as individuals. The third views society as divided into two: us and them - those in work versus those on the dole, the U versus the non-U, the privately versus the state-educated.
Cannadine developed his three models notion after reading an essay by Robert Darnton, the French historian of the 18th century, called "A bourgeois puts his world in order" - an account of how a bourgeois sees his town, Montpelier, in the 1760s. The 18th-century Frenchman produces three different versions: one is of society as a procession, gradations of dignitaries from the richest, most powerful people in the town to the poorest; the second is the three estates; the third is us and them. In her memoirs, Margaret Thatcher does the same thing. She remembers Grantham as a town with civic processions. Then she remembers that she is born somewhere in the middle of society with people above and below. Finally, she has a notion of the great divide: those in work and those not in work. "Those are exactly the same three models," according to Cannadine.
When you think of how people talk about society it is almost entirely in terms of these three definitions that have existed since at least the 18th century. When we talk about the British being obsessed with class we might be referring to any one of these ways of seeing things. "All people in Britain do, I think, move from one of these models to another. The same language is used for each and each is an oversimplification of how things really are. None of these models is about what Ernest Gellner would have called 'real social knowledge'. And so the way to talk about class now is to see it like that - that we are talking about the history of three different perceptions of social structure, how they work and interact."
Americans have no hierarchical view of their social structure. They got rid of it in 1776. Cannadine quotes Lord Beaverbrook, who said the only difference between rich and poor in the New World is that rich people have more money. In the United States, everybody sees themselves as middle class. Yet the gap between rich and poor is at least as great as it is in Britain. Americans just see their society differently; they do not have the three models the British do. "I don't believe everything is culturally constructed, but it is the case that the visions we have of our society are to some extent culturally constructed and they are more elaborate and varied than the ones the Americans have," says Cannadine.
The lesson for Tony Blair, and indeed John Major, is that if they are serious about creating a classless society, they need to think about what we mean by Britain being a classbound society. "If we're serious, for example, about abolishing hierarchy then we would have to do what the Americans did when they abolished hierarchy, which was get rid of all titles," says Cannadine. Similarly, if you wanted to abolish the divide between us and them, you would have to think about getting rid of the two-tier educational system, the fee-paying versus the rest. It would be very difficult, Cannadine admits. What about the monarchy? Very tricky. Other nations have monarchies and are more classless than Britain. So, it is not impossible to imagine a nation in which you detach or uncouple the monarchy and social hierarchy. "It would, I think, be necessary to make some adjustments to the monarchy so that it was less the apex of our hierarchy."
At this point Cannadine removes his big toe from the political waters and says he is not advocating any of these things. All he is saying is that if people want to think seriously about class they need to consider such options. "It is true that politicians can change how we see society if they are prepared to do so, and they can do that by abolishing titles and hereditary peerages."
Thatcher was one such leader. She raised the aspirations of council tenants by enabling them to sell their homes and join the army of home-owners. Mrs T's notion of society was one of aggressive social mobility; Mr Major's vision is of a world in which everyone is nicer to one another. Thatcher disliked hierarchy very much, according to Cannadine.
The Conservatives still have not made up their minds whether they are a party of the traditional social order or whether they care more about people getting on. Take Major's recent defence of the royal yacht and hereditary peerages, which was a bit odd for the self-confessed champion of the classless society, says Cannadine. Major is a living example of the three models: when he defends the royal yacht and hereditary peerages he is standing for hierarchy; when he refers to middle England and ladies peddling to holy communion on bicycles, he is talking about upper, middle and lower; and when he is invoking the citizen's charter, the boy from Brixton and new Labour old-school tie, he is talking about us against them. "They all do this. They move from one of these idioms to another."
Mrs T drove the word class off the agenda, Cannadine thinks. She was very good at that. She systematically set about it. Nobody nowadays uses the language of class in politics at all. "She really did want to change the way we see ourselves. She didn't want us to see ourselves as collective producers in battle with managers or workers," he says. "She wanted us to see ourselves as individual consumers with freedom of choice. And she went a way towards accomplishing that." Blair's vocabulary is the same. In the past Labour used to talk about class and about class conflict. But no longer.
In his book Cannadine provides a simple sketch of how his three models of class play out in each century and when one of the models becomes more appealing. In the 18th century the hierarchical view of society was fairly broadly based, although there is plenty of language of upper, middle and lower as well and us and them, the rich and the poor, patricians and plebs and the nobs and the rabble. There is no particular tension between moving from one model to another. Between 1790 and 1840, however, the models become more politicised and people start talking about how they do not like hierarchy and how they believe in the middle classes. They denounce old corruption, the upper classes against the rest, and say society has got to change. In Victorian times the hierarchical model becomes the mode again. In the late 19th century the competing models reassert themselves. You get Gladstone saying: "I will back the masses against the classes." Why was it that people blew hot and cold in this way? Cannadine does not know but he believes it may have something to do with political leadership.
The book, he says, was only made possible by his life as an expatriate. He took up the Columbia chair in 1988. "I do think distance starts you asking questions about things you take for granted." Next year Cannadine will return to Britain from New York when he takes up the post of director of London University's Institute of Historical Research. But he sees himself continuing to have a strong relationship with America all his life. "I couldn't ever imagine not wanting to have part of me there and part of me here really," he says. "You never feel you belong there but you also feel you don't any longer belong here. That's the unsettlement, but the case for America is that it's a marvellously enjoyable nation to be part of." And, he might have added, less obsessed by class.