Thursday, May 05, 2005

Britain's defeated middle classes

So having assured them that a third Labour government would not hurt them financially, barely three weeks have passed before two new tax raising ideas are floated aimed squarley at Middle England; raising the retirement age to 70 for those with a University education, and an increase in National Insurance taking the income tax rate to 51% for earnings above £32,000.

Just what does it take for Britain’s middle classes to care once again about their plight; to stop the relentless erosion of their standard of living; in short, to regain their pride?

Once rightly known as the backbone of the country, their standing and self-esteem has sunk to such depths that this collection of teachers, doctors, social workers, accountants, clerks, middle managers etc now deserve everything they get.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the recent jailing of special needs teacher, Linda Walker. Provoked by no fewer than fifteen acts of aggression against her and her son, and a police force unwilling to help, she finally snapped and had the temerity to shoot an air pistol into the ground next to the group of youths responsible for her living hell. This very un-middle class proactive action was quickly followed by the most remarkable self-denunciation, more akin to Stalin’s Russia. “I acted like a madwoman possessed,” she cried, “I don’t know what came over me.” How typical of the middle classes. I know what came over you, Linda. You were provoked by the violent and intimidating actions of a feral group of youths, and even worse by the shocking complacency and incompetence of the local police force. However, rather than follow up your wonderful act of defiance by proclaiming on the court steps that “next time it’ll be their knee caps,” you were overcome by self-loathing, self-pity and guilt. Yes, guilt - the curse of today’s middle classes.

The middle classes are under attack from all sides. To say this government hates them may be a little strong, but whilst the spin doctors try to hide Ministers’ loathing and contempt, their true colours occasionally sneak out. Witness Health Secretary Dr. Reid’s outburst on Newsnight about “West London wankers” or John Prescott’s single-handed attempts to concrete over the entire South East of England, the natural home of the middle classes.

Whilst pinpointing an exact definition for middle class in 2005 is impossible, a good working assumption would be “anyone earning between £20,000 and £100,000 with high educational aspirations for their children”. Whilst the middle classes have never before constituted such a large percentage of the population, it is ironic that in these democratic times, their standard of living has been so rapidly eroded. In order to fund 2.7 million sickness benefit and 600,000 unemployment benefit claimants (1.1 million of which are the notorious NEETS - Not in Education, Employment or Training), and 11 million state pensioners, the working middle classes are being viciously squeezed by a government that views them as a soft target.

They never complain. No matter what you do them, they take it. Not a murmur, not a raised eyebrow, never mind a rally or a demonstration. Why? Guilt. How often do you hear at a dull suburban dinner party, “Yes the commute is getting Rupert down, and it is so difficult to afford a decent house in little Tommy’s school’s catchment area, but one mustn’t complain eh? It could be worse. We really are so lucky.” Lucky? Don’t be so hard on yourselves. Most of you were not born into money, worked hard at school and University and are now breaking your backs to send little Tommy to that nice prep school.

Oh yes, that’s another government corker isn’t it. Having selflessly sacrificed a decent standard of living to fund two or even three sets of private school fees (about £50,00 pre-tax), you then are told by Tommy’s preferred University that, er, sorry but due to the government’s drive to increase the number of state school educated children at University, and our chronic shortage of funds, we have no room for your vastly better qualified son. Try an American University…that’s what the rich do.

Britain in 2005 has four social classes; NEETS (parasitic - lack social and work skills and motivation), the working class (skilled tradespeople and unskilled workers, also the majority of first generation immigrants); middle class (the professions and middle management)and the wealthy (those earning over £100,000 annually or with £1mm in net assets).

Tony Blair’s Britain is a wonderful place to be a NEET or to be wealthy. It is crippling to be working or middle class. The wealthy can hire fancy lawyers to reduce their tax burden, send their kids to fancy private schools to avoid the awful state alternatives and foreign Universities to avoid the increasingly dumbed down British versions. You only have to look at the most recently published Sunday Times Rich List to see how rapid has been the growth in wealth of Britain’s richest people. Likewise, NEETS can live life to the full by relying on a combination of state handouts, cash-in-hand work and alcohol fuelled highs. The consequences for bad behaviour are negligible. Over 40% of ASBO recipients completely disregard them as there are no penalties for non-compliance. (Less than 1% of those who failed to comply with the terms of their ASBOs have been punished.) The tax code is so punitive to low earners (due to Council Tax and VAT disproportionately hurting the poor) that the financial incentive to work is only apparent for those earning around £20,000 or more.

Contrast their feeble reaction to the ever increasing encroachments on their way of life, with the vigorous response of the aristocracy to the one (and I suspect last) time the government dared take them on; foxhunting. I had always found this much-loved pastime of the rural upper classes a slightly odd, if cruel sport. In this politically correct animal loving age, its time was clearly up. Yet the rearguard action currently being waged by the Countryside Alliance is a sight to behold. Defiant gestures, toffs prepared to go to jail, break-ins at the Houses of Parliament by nouveau-toffs, but most importantly the almost incredible feat of converting most of Britain into, if not foxhunting fans, then at least neutrals. In short, the whole episode has been a monumental embarrassment for the government. Countryside Alliance Chief Executive, Simon Hart, defiantly boasts on their website that “over 800 foxes have been killed since the ban came into force” and refers to the ban as “temporary”.

So will Middle England’s decline and fall continue or will a pocket of resistance turn into rioting in the streets and widespread civil disobedience? J.G Ballard’s tale of a middle class revolt in his latest novel, Millennium People, may offer a glimpse into the future. It is an intriguing tale of a community (the fictional Chelsea Marina) pushed too far; London’s middle classes are portrayed in violent rebellion against the temple of middle class worship – the BBC, The Tate Modern, the National Film theatre. “The middle classes are the new proletariat” is the war cry of the book.

It seems so long ago that the middle classes joined the anarchists, socialists and anti-globalisation crowd in removing Margaret Thatcher as a result of the anti-Poll Tax riots. This stunning success, now more than fifteen years old, proved how effective the middle classes can be once sufficiently antagonized into action. Now there are very few obvious places to look. Fathers for Justice are too much of a single issue protest group, however worthy. The Countryside Alliance is more promising but has so far failed to appeal to the more populous suburban Middle England. Opposition always arises from unseen places. But whilst Middle England continues to drift in a guilt-ridden coma, you can’t help feeling it deserves everything it gets.