Every country has its social obsession, and class is undoubtedly the British, or at any rate English, obsession. It is, to be sure, more amusing than some others. When Franz Josef Strauss recently argued that the Nazis had, after all, been ‘National Socialists’ and were therefore closer to the Social Democrats than to him, his extraordinary invective backfired, but the intensity of the public debate that followed showed that the subject was close to an understandable, and deadly serious, German obsession. Perhaps ‘ethnicity’ is now the American equivalent (we are not told how the little boy in the New Yorker cartoon felt when he failed to get an answer from his father to the question: ‘Dad, are we ethnic?’).
In so far as class is amusing, Jilly Cooper has not let her subject down. She quotes the Registrar General and Richard Hoggart and Michael Young, while writing in a manner that falls somewhere between Nancy Mitford and a Daily Mail column. Her characters are fun, her observations acute, and since she does not try her hand at analysis, it is hard to fault her.
Yet the question remains: is class in England more than an obsession? Is the world of Mrs Cooper’s Gideon Upward, Jen Teale and Mr Nouveau-Richards so different from that of, say, Hermann Aufwärts, Lena Vornehm and Herr Neureich? P.T. Bauer recently argued in his little book, Class on the Brain, that the differences between England and the rest are nowhere near as important as many believe. Figures of income distribution, or of social mobility, are remarkably similar in comparable countries; and, one might add, Herr Neureich behaves almost exactly like Mr Nouveau-Richards, the middle classes are worried, career-oriented and prone to defer gratification everywhere, the working classes are similarly ethnocentric, and so on. It would be possible to write a book like this one about Germany or France or even America without much difficulty. The difference is that no one would read the book in Germany, or in France. Class is fun in England because everybody talks about it. And the more people talk about it, the more one wonders whether perhaps it exists after all. Is not one of the axioms of social science that what people regard as real is real?
The matter is not quite as simple as that. At least one of the characters whom Jilly Cooper follows from birth to death, Harry Stow-Crat (‘a member of the aristocracy’), is strangely absent from most other societies. There are, to be sure, dukes and counts and even ‘Royal’, indeed ‘Imperial Highnesses’: but they have ceased to have any importance for setting the tone of German or French society. In America they have never existed at all. As a result, it has come to be possible for these other societies to have their values pervaded by the middle classes in their various facets, and thus to become middle-class-centred in a way that has never happened in England. For England continues to be a bipolar, indeed a multipolar society, in which the distant alliance between the aristocracy and the working class makes the middle class look slightly out of place, even if it has produced yet another Tory prime minister.
There are other consequences of this difference. Continental middle-class parents are upset if their children adopt what they like to call ‘alternative life-styles’, working as little as possible, wearing shabby clothes every day of the week including Sunday, preferring a leisurely country life to the rat-race of the cities. In England, such fashions more or less go unnoticed: they are, after all, those of Mr Stow-Crat and his children. The country has two life-styles to offer: that of the Protestant Ethic, and that of the members of White’s or Boodle’s and their distant mirror-images in the Working Men’s Clubs. And when one tries to explain why it is that the first industrial society has never really become a fully industrial society, one does well to remember the alternative life-styles of those at the top and those at the bottom, and the many who have been driven abroad since the Mayflower because their Protestant Ethic made them unhappy at home.
The absence of the ‘Stow-Crats’ in other countries certainly makes England different. The difference can be described as a difference of class. Yet the closer one looks at what Mrs Cooper calls the ‘huge striped rugger shirt’ of class ‘that had run in the wash, with each layer blurring into the next one’, the more one feels that the word ‘class’ is expendable in relation to what people have in mind when they talk about England. ‘Your own class,’ Mrs Cooper says, ‘tend to be people you feel comfortable with “one of our sort” … ’ The truth is that people in England find it more important to feel comfortable with others of their own sort than to surpass them and stand out. English individualism is strangely collective: one can see in each individual his or her ‘sort’ much more easily than one can elsewhere. What is often called ‘class’ is in fact a pervasive sense of solidarity with one’s group, more often than not at the expense of other groups with which one engages in ‘boundary disputes’, and only in exceptional cases does the group comprise the whole nation. England is not so much a class society as a solidarity society, in which success is measured in terms of belonging rather than in terms of achieving. The categories of class – the Stow-Crats, Nouveau-Richards and the rest – are but a very rough matrix within and across the lines of which many islands of solidarity have their place.
One is bound to conclude that these islands may make people happy, but are not likely to stimulate them into industrial achievement. The obsession with class is the very opposite of an obsession with money, or with promotion. It is the obsession of a society which has never fully entered the modern age, and, for that very reason, some believe that it is a model for the post-modern age, or, in the words of Bernard Nossiter, for ‘a future that works’.