The first sentence of this book reads 'Class doesn't count in Britain any more' - a proposition which the rest of the book seeks to refute. Mr.Mount suggests that whilst appearances may have changed, the substance of class difference remains: there are, within Britain, obvious disparities in wealth, lifestyle and opportunity. Only the determinants of class have changed; what was once conferred by birth is now conferred by capability; the primacy of land and title has yielded to that of talent and acumen; the key value, 'fairness', is defined as 'equality of opportunity', but what 'fairness' actually seems to mean is that the successful (and their children) should succeed. This, says Mr.Mount, breeds a sick society in which the unsuccessful are perceived as 'losers' through their own fault, while the successful justify complacency on the grounds that if they are succesful, it is because they deserve to be. This is no more attractive or morally justifiable a basis for social precedence than what preceded it.
The argument of the second part of the book considers the historical background. The dawning of the industrial age offered substantial opportunities to working people which they were not slow to take up. The Victorian working classes were moral, hard-working, thrifty, mutually co-operative and determined to improve themselves. Before the great programmes of social welfare, commencing with the Education Act in 1870 and culminating in the creation of the National Health in 1946, the poor had already put in place mutually co-operative forms of education, health insurance, and housing provision which proved remarkably effective in producing educated, self-confident, and self-respecting communities.
The trouble, argues Mr.Mount, is that these generative impulses were largely perceived as having been given form by the forces of popular religion and that popular religion, then as now, was feared and despised by the intellectual middle class. It was the intellectual middle-class that believed that 'the poor' - of whom, Mr.Mount alleges, such intellectuals knew little - needed to be 'managed', in their own interest. They also believed that the vehicle best suited for this managerial role was the State. In practice, this proved to be the reverse of the case: not only did the State destroy the remarkably robust institutions which working people had created, but it replaced them with systems that were markedly more expensive and less efficient. Meanwhile working people in general, and the unemployed in particular, were increasingly robbed of their self-respect and led to think of themselves as dependent upon, and later, as quite simply entitled to, State support.
The real object of social reform, argues Mr.Mount, should be to re-invigorate the people at the bottom of the pile by reinforcing the family, weakened by liberal divorce legislation and the elimination of tax-breaks; by taking the poor entirely out of tax so that tax is paid only by the upper and middle-class; by giving people control over their local schools, hospitals, police forces, and local government; by promoting schemes whereby employees own shares of the enterprises in which they work; by breaking up the great estates and de-regularising the green-belt so as to bring down the cost of land and make housing and small-holdings available to the poor.' In additionn, Mr.Mount would like to see the re-invigoration of the established Church, a state braodcasting system that adheres to Reithian principles, a purge of the cynical and irresponsible in journalism, the fostering of national pride and patriotism: he is, inevitably, unclear as to how any of these ends would, in practice be achieved.
There is much in this book that can be criticised - it is, essentially, a piece of journalism and not an academic thesis or a political manifesto; it relies too heavily on a few, and somewhat partial sources; it's view of the victorian 'masses' can be said to be overly rosy, and it's attitude to the inter-war middle class intellectual is over-simplified, being drawn almost eclusively from those who didn't fight in the war, and ignoring a strong intellectual current that came from the working people, but despaired of it - D.H.Lawrence and A.L.Rowse, for example, who mqy be thought to have known what they were talking about.
It also treats the degradation of the working class as an isolated case of the destructiveness visited on society as a whole by the forces of what can only, I suppose, be called the forces of 'modernism'. After 1830, the structure English society became the subject for protracted experiment of which the current state of affairs is merely a late stage. An essentially agrarian establishment with deep roots in the national psyche was destroyed by the removal of protective tarrifs, the import of cheap food, and progressive taxation.
Within a year of Lloyd George's 'People's Budget, Hilaire Belloc was arguing in 'The Servile State' that the system of social security which that budget was intended to finance would result in a new serfdom in which dignity, independence and self-reliance were exchanged for state sponsored sufficiency and security. Belloc's solution then, was, essentially, one of confiscation and redistribution of land and business in order to create a community of free smallholders on the then continental model - a solution which, in extremely diluted form, is advanced by Mr.Mount, and rightly so - for in its undiluted from it is too extreme, too difficult, and too hazardous to implement. And yet it is noticeable that the present coalition is prepared to move cautiously forward in the implementation of measures consistent with this overall philosophy; tax reform may have to wait, but measures to give parents greater freedom in making their own educational arrangements, and the removal of state subsidised divorce are surely to be regarded as consistent with the aims advanced by Mr.Mount.