In this erudite, sinewy book, David Cannadine distances himself from the postmodern tendency to play down class, and equally from the clumsy pigeon-holing, as he sees it, of Marxism. He promises instead an unprecedentedly subtle analysis of his impalpable subject.
For his starting point, he turns to Montpellier in 1768, and a description by a local bourgeois of town life. This worthy argued that there were three possible perspectives. The town could be seen as a hierarchy, with fine gradations from top to bottom, or as tripartite in structure (nobility, bourgeoisie and the common people, with the bourgeoisie the crucial fulcrum), or as dichotomous (patricians against plebeians).
Cannadine's contention is that these three perspectives have obtained throughout the past three centuries in Britain, overlapping, generally muddy-ing the waters and all confusingly gathered under the shorthand "class".
He claims that none of the three was ever dominant. He acknowledges, for example, that the growth of the two-party system in the past century favoured the dichotomous model, but then he invokes that eternal spanner in the works: working-class Toryism, along with the varying forms of capital and so on. Cannadine argues that, while Margaret Thatcher sought to banish talk of class, she subscribed to all three models, as did Major, whose contradictions are brilliantly encapsulated in the description of him as "a Trollope-reading traditionalist", as well as being a defender of the hereditary peerage (hierarchical), a supporter of such middle-class causes as Surrey Cricket Club (tripartite), but also the promoter of the demotic Citizen's Charter (dichotomous).
It's all done with great brio, but I would have welcomed more touches of colour. When Cannadine mentions that it was said of the apparent grandee Gladstone that he entered a room in a non-aristocratic manner, one is quite desperate to know what this means. My second cavil is unreasonable. One virtue of class is that it's a great galvaniser, and there's nothing like reading Cannadine's Olympian demystifications for making you want to get straight back to bawling in the pub about the local snobs or yobs.
Andrew Martin's novel Bilton is published by Faber & Faber (£6.99)