The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain

David Cannadine finds the oldest understanding of British class structure to be the hierarchical social structure in which individuals fall into their proper place, for whatever reason and wherever that place may be, without being lumped together into any perceived class. A second vision of British social structure posits a large middle class that over the years has been both praised for its values and thrift and denigrated for its supposed greed and vulgarity. And finally there has been an enduring view of society as a struggle between “us” and “them,” between the aristocratic ranks and the exploited labor force.

Cannadine’s valuable insight is to recognize these various understandings of class structure as the social constructions of politicians always intent on manipulating public opinion: “They are not ‘real social knowledge’ so much as ‘imagined constructions’ or ‘rhetorical devices’. . . .” Moreover, Cannadine identifies a temporal dimension peculiar to each. Visions of a grand, peaceable hierarchy point to a settled past; the tri-partite system stresses a present as seen from the middle-class point of view; and the believers in “us” and “them” always pray for, or fear, the future.

Cannadine has written a superb study, with 681 notes supporting 194 pages of the clearest argument, but nothing in this book surpasses the brilliant anatomy of Margaret Thatcher’s vision of an England as seen from the perspective of a Grantham grocery store.