"Class," the greengrocer's daughter Margaret Thatcher once remarked, "is a Communist concept. It groups people as bundles, and sets them against one another." The notion of social and economic classes has certainly been a durable one, and it has proven useful to not only Communist theoreticians but also historians and social scientists of all stripes. Nowhere does the idea of class seem quite so powerful as in Britain, writes London University historian David Cannadine in this engrossing study: Although his fellow historians there have largely abandoned class analysis in their work, social distinctions and divisions persist and remain powerful. That historians (notably among them the Marxist scholars E. P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm) and politicians now prefer to disregard those distinctions, Cannadine believes, is the result of "the shift from the traditional preoccupation with people as collective producers to the alternative notion of people as individual consumers"--the triumph, in other words, of market capitalism. Yet, Cannadine continues, it is through the lens of class that Britons "understand and describe their social worlds," and not through other idealized models. Cannadine examines the work of scholars and political thinkers who have attempted to alter that view, among them Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin, whose "main concern was to change the way the British looked and felt and thought about their society and themselves." However well intentioned, such efforts are doomed to failure, Cannadine argues, and although Tories and Labourites promise a classless society to come, the British view will likely remain class-bound. --Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly
Class has been a touchstone for historians of all ideological stripes over the last century, but no consensus has emerged. "The rise of the middle class," for instance, has been located in every century of British history from the 14th to the 19th. Clearly, something is amiss. Here Cannadine pragmatically reframes the question, looking at the perception, rather than the reality, of class over the last 300 years of British history and attending to the ways that political commitments have shaped writers' and politicians' conceptions and rhetoric on the issue. What he finds is startling: consistently, throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, three models of class have prevailed in British thought?and within the work of individual thinkers. The first divides Britain into the rich and the poor (a model generally used to foment, or warn of, class war); the second divides society into three parts, the working, middle and upper classes (used to praise the virtue of the middle class); the third presents British society as thoroughly hierarchical, with every individual having a proper place, which is marked off from those above and below by minuscule increments (used to praise and reinforce the "traditional" nature of British society). Ultimately, Cannadine shows that all three models are valid to some degree but that none can claim to represent the rock-bottom truth. The same applies to other modern nations. In the U.S., for instance, the first two models are just as constantly and contradictorily invoked. However, the third is unique to Britain. Therefore, Cannadine finds, it is the third model, that of a steeply graded hierarchy, that is most illustrative of British society and the self-perception of its members. Cannadine succeeds at striking a balance between offering detailed evidence and making a comprehensive argument about a vast, contentious topic; his book is a joy to read.
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