Britain's class structure has become harder to describe. Ferdinand Mount does his best but leaves out the end of empire and the public service eliteby Geoff Dench / December 18, 2004 / Leave a comment
Reading Ferdinand Mount’s study of the British class system brings home just how far ideas about British society have lagged behind actual changes. Mount has a good command of history and an eye for social conflicts but the templates of class structure he takes off the shelf do not work. They are viable – just about – up to the second world war. When he moves past that, his observations spill awkwardly outside of any coherent framework. This is not his fault alone, but also that of sociologists for failing to update property-based theories of class.
Mount’s book starts out from two paradoxes. The first revolves around the question of why the British have been so obsessed with class, when in reality their class system has until recently been relatively open. He deals with this by showing how it is the insecurity of status created by social mobility itself which provokes class consciousness. Following the historian Lewis Namier, he argues that British industrialisation and economic development in the 18th and 19th centuries produced far more opportunities for social advancement than existed in other European countries at the time. This climate also nurtured a great flowering of working-class institutions of self-improvement – which Mount details lovingly. Although these invited scorn from the established middle class, they helped to facilitate movement into it.
His second and major question concerns how and why the emergence in postwar Britain of a state dedicated to an open, meritocratic society seems to have resulted in polarisation between classes, with less mobility. A gap is widening in Britain, just as it is closing in some other countries. This terrain is well suited to a Tory like Mount, sensitive to the power and self-interest of public bureaucracies. But instead of discussing the role of the public service elite in controlling rewards and incentives over the last two generations, he gets sidetracked into exploring the lifestyle choices of the “underclass.”
This is tantalising, as he comes close to unpicking so much more. He notes and laments the way that middle-class charitable impulses have become channelled almost entirely towards the overseas poor. And he shows how the “nationalisation of working-class self-help” in the postwar welfare system has trapped many of the poor into dependency. However he does not even mention immigration – surely a crucial element in the situation.
The weakness in Mount’s analysis lies in its confinement to…