First of all, Burkesworks takes issue with the Prime Minister’s latest vain attempt to struggle up from the governmental deeps and break the surface of reality.
Brown has announced that the “middle classes” are to be his party’s election battleground, which seems to me to be less an act of campaigning and more an act of journalism. At least in the good old days columnists had to earn their keep by working out that a party’s proposals were targeting the middle class. Now it seems the politicians just take you straight to the interpretation and miss out the bit where they tell you what they’re actually going to do. Burkesworks’ problem is as follows:
when he says “middle-class” I’m sure he means “middle-income”, and the two are not necessarily congruent.
(Burkesworks also blames the Normans for the class divide between north and south, an intriguing suggestion that I’ve seen made elsewhere, and I’ve often wondered whether this “folk memory” of looting and destruction by the southern king is a genuine folk memory or a post-medieval resurrection to underline later, unrelated grievances.)
The odd thing is, I have a lot of sympathy for Brown’s take here, which is not something I’ll often say. “Middle class” should mean “middle income”, otherwise it is a misused turn of phrase that only gets us into trouble. We have a certain tic in this country of applying the term “middle class” to such regular everyday consumables as, erm, agas, private education and annual skiing holidays. These are things that are available to perhaps 5% or 10% of the population. Calling them “middle class” seems to fly in the face of common sense.
It also, I submit, gives the people who do have access to these things an artificial sense that they are “normal”, as opposed to “very, very wealthy to the point where any sane country would call them upper class” (so essentially I blame the Normans too). “Middle” is such a common or garden word, seducing the bearer into thinking that they cannot possibly be that unusual. The universal perception that extraordinary circumstances of personal wealth are “normal” is why David Cameron is able to suggest that raising the inheritance tax threshold will benefit “Middle” England.
It’s why glossy newspaper supplements are full of cushions costing as much as a small house, and small houses costing as much as the GDP of a developing nation, and no-one ever bats an eyelid. 90% of us or more would no sooner buy the things depicted in the glossies than we would stir lumps of edible gold leaf into our morning cuppa, but we take it as read that it’s normal to be presented with them as choices. Someone has got to be buying them. (Actually, of course, the debt bubble is explained by the fact that a small number among that 90% lost sight of the boundaries between fantasy and reality as a result of exactly this sort of advertising).
This thoroughly artificial “middle class” benchmark has a knock-on effect as well. I once saw a blogger, a smart, impassioned, left-wing blogger, comment to the effect that his £40,000-odd salary was not that high. This is a thing that can be quite dramatically disproved by means of a pile of beans and a few facts gleaned from Wikipedia. And he knew perfectly well what the “average income” is. But his perceptions were such that £40,000 nonetheless seemed like a middling income. Well, you couldn’t afford an aga, private education and an annual skiing holiday on it, so it must be pretty ordinary!
That skewed perception of reality is only half the trouble. The other half is that when you propose, say, an alteration to the tax system which will benefit of people on “low and middle incomes” (by which you mean, up to about 25k), the responses will fall into two categories: those that paid attention to the word “incomes” and so know what kind of earners you mean, and those that only noticed the word “middle”, and think you’re in the business of giving tax breaks to aga-owners, or similar.
This fuzziness about class and how it relates to income is partly, as Burkesworks suggests when he blames the Normans, an outcome of having started out as a feudal monarchy, wherein the phrase “upper class” means something quite specific and “middle class” has to do triple duty. But it may also be because politicians just don’t discourse about class and poverty any more, and our perceptions are the rustier for it, and that leads me to this post from Chris Dillow, which I urge you to read and pin to a tree:
…how could anyone have ever thought that class wasn’t important, or that race and disadvantage were the same?
To cut a long and tragi-comic story short, I fear the answer originates in the Left’s reaction against orthodox Marxism in the 1980s. Inspired in part by Hobsbawm’s essay, the Forward March of Labour Halted?, many on the Left gave up on the idea of the working class as a revolutionary force, and looked instead to what they called “new social movements”: women, blacks and gays (yes – to many the three were somehow homogenous!) Allied to this was a growing lack of interest in economics, and a rise in interest in cultural theory.