Amy Jenkins: An obsession with extremes blinds us to those in the middle

Related Topics

There was a time in the early part of the last century when the term "middle class" was commonly used as an insult.

The working class and the aristocracy were united in their disdain for those who were neither rich nor poor, neither posh or the salt of the earth – but tediously middling. To be middle class was to be a shopkeeper or the like; you were petty; you were bourgeois; you were probably small-minded. But now that the middle class has expanded so exponentially, creeping both upstairs and down, the term is quite neutral again (unless in the mouth of Julian Fellowes) and there seems to be a lot of confusion about what it actually means.

Yesterday morning on Radio 4's Today programme, Ed Miliband attempted to stick up for the "squeezed middle" and was given a grilling by John Humphrys about who exactly the squeezed middle is. Miliband said it was those who earned around the average income of £26,000 a year but also those who earned a bit more and those who earned a bit less. Humphrys leapt on his vagueness and derided him for attempting to represent 90 per cent of the population.

But why shouldn't Miliband do just that? We're so preoccupied with extremes in this country. Humphrys started by questioning Miliband about the 50p tax rate on those earning over £150,000. Miliband said he'd keep it in a half-hearted kind of way, but why wasn't he more bullish? Only 300,000 people in the entire country pay the 50p rate. That's a lot less than 1 per cent of all tax payers. Humphrys may as well have asked him about a tax on those who keep pink rabbits. At the other end of the scale, there are about five million people on out-of-work benefits of one sort or another. This is a much more substantial figure but still well under 10 per cent of the working population.

So Miliband has a point then when he talks about 90 per cent in the squeezed middle. The 18 millionaires in the Cabinet are as much of a social anomaly as the so called "benefit scroungers" or the people Howard Flight thinks will "breed" in order to swindle the state for a welfare pittance. They are all, at both ends, very rare animals indeed – and it's those in the middle who suffer as the tiny percentage at the top talk an alarmist storm about the tiny percentage at the bottom while getting down to the real job of destroying the public services that are used by everyone in between.

Part of the trouble is that we don't have the right terminology for all of this – witness Miliband struggling to define terms on the Today programme. "Middle class" no longer does what it says on the tin. When I was at a London comprehensive school in the late Seventies, I felt that there was absolutely no doubt as to what middle classness was all about. Middle classness defined my very existence. I imagine it was a bit like being black in the Fifties. My girlfriends and I ate at the chip shop every lunch time in an attempt to fit in (and also because we liked chips) – but we were let down by a tiny group of Hampstead dwellers who got their lunch from a local health food store. They ate bean stews and other such formidably nutritious things. The store displayed melons outside on the street and so all the middle-class kids were known as melons – and, boy, were we never allowed to forget our melon-ness.

But now that so many of the people who used to work in factories work at desks – and so many people have mortgages and send their kids to university – it's simply not possible to limit the term middle class to those who eat beans (cannellini rather than baked, that is). Surely we need a new lexicon for all of this. The poshest bachelor in the land will next year marry someone with "middle" in her name. I rest my case.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture