Deborah Orr: We blame the poor for 'lack of aspiration' when we should be grateful to them for it

Our society gets richer and richer, but it doesn't become more happy or at ease with itself
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You can blame them for it, and fulminate about their easy lives on handouts, spent zoned out on skunk, watching daytime TV and cosseted by an army of state-funded do-gooders. Or you can excuse them for it, and emote about their disambiguation in the poverty trap, their befuddled susceptibility to addiction, mental illness or abuse, the shitty childhoods that render them unprepared to offer anything different to their fecklessly acquired offspring.

But whether you style yourself as hard cop or soft cop of the socially excluded, you place yourself in the broadly consensual centre ground when you agree, either sympathetically or contemptuously, that "lack of aspiration" is key. Jobs and money are there for the taking. The tools are available, if you can work and fight, for the acquisition of education, health, success and upward mobility.

And no use in denying it. While the least advantaged in Britain sulk in their ghettoes, more thrusting individuals pour in, unencumbered by "lack of aspiration", to take advantage of the humblest opportunities available to those willing to grasp them.

A report this week from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation added further, more detailed chiaroscuro to what the Salvation Army, through the auspices of thinktank the Henley Centre, dubbed some years back the "paradox of prosperity".

Our society gets richer and richer, but it doesn't become more happy and more at ease with itself. The rich are burgeoning, and they are so disengaged from the poor that they no longer even know when they are well-off. The "average household" is gradually disappearing - two thirds were classed in the 1980s as average, compared with just over half in 2000.

While extreme poverty has fallen - at least in the legal, visible, population - the number of people below the poverty line - that unreliable benchmark which those who have never strayed near it declare to be a perfectly comfortable place to pay the bills from - has grown. All this, against a 10-year investment in tackling the problem, which Blair as much as admitted in his dog days had proved more intractable than he ever imagined, and which Brown, from the start and in anticipation, no doubt, of triumphant success, did his best, every budget day, to claim as his very own.

I don't disagree that the stubborn monolith that is educational failure, welfare dependency, ignorance, "lack of respect" and petty, destructive criminality, has proved so unyielding in large part because of "lack of aspiration". I don't disagree, either, that "lack of aspiration" is a very tricky problem for politics to challenge. My disagreement is far more fundamental than that.

Given that no one has the least idea how to tackle "lack of aspiration", I think it might be time to start asking instead whether whether "lack of aspiration" might be something we can learn to accept and even to value. Or re-learn, at least. Only a couple of generations ago, after all, "lack of aspiration" was something that both left and right, in their different ways, accommodated and even nurtured.

We are so hung up now on the transforming, powerful magic of ambition that even to say such a thing sounds unhinged. Yet not so long ago, "lack of aspiration" was revered by Conservative and socialist alike. The Tories, after the First World War, fetishised the idea of "the little man" modest in his needs, proud of his respectability, usefully unquestioning of his ability to "know his place", at ease with the idea and the practice of doffing his cap to his betters.

They fetishised yet further, of course, the idea of "the little woman". She was tremendously useful, because no matter what her intellectual capacities were, no matter what her talents, she was expected to have no further aspiration than the making of a home and the raising of a family. More usefully still, instead of careening off to university to get herself a first, and run a company, she might work as a secretary for a time, or as a nurse, or in a shop, prior to her nuptials. She might even return to such modest work after her children had grown up, bringing her intelligence and good sense to the marketplace in return for "pin money".

While the left could certainly be depicted as being against all that stuff - patronising class deference, rampant, annihilating sexism - the truth is that the Labour movement also was a keen protector of "lack of aspiration". What else was the promotion of the desirability of a job for life, a low-cost home rented from the council, an apprenticeship for a clever boy rather than a university place? What else, in the end, was the union movement's self-immolating hatred of "the management" and those turncoats who dared or desired to cross the floor?

Now Conservatives and Labour alike despise "lack of aspiration" and both seek to be punitive towards those who display it. These punitive attitudes don't manifest themselves only in the criminal justice system, or in the obsessive tinkering with the fiscal levers that lavish millions on delivering little rewards to "hard working families".

They manifest themselves also in the idea that no self-respecting company - not even a hospital - should employ its own cleaners or its own catering staff, on an equal footing with the rest of the team, because only a mug would confer rights and privileges on such unambitious little menials. They manifest themselves in the idea that people bleating about how they can't afford a home near their parents should move somewhere where they can, even though we're supposed to be very, very worried about the breakdown of the family, even though we're supposed to be very, very concerned that no one looks after their neighbour any more.

They manifest themselves, even, God help us, in the all-conquering power of aspirational brands - goods that are valuable first because of the image that the modern skills of marketing and advertising and designing have conferred on them, and second, way second, because of the old-fashioned skills of artisanal manufacture that have - or have not - been lavished on them.

They manifest themselves in the idea that leaving school at 16 is so shameful that it's going to be banned, that sweeping the streets is so demeaning that it should be doled out as punishment, and that the needs of an entrepreneur who wishes to offer poverty wages are so much more important than those of a family living on them, that it should be up to them to ask the tax-payer to subsidise their survival (and that of their boss).

Yet we are crying out for people who are "lacking in aspiration" to do simple jobs well, with commitment and pride, and without complaint. But at the same time we are convinced that "lack of aspiration" is the scourge of our age. Not everyone is ambitious. Scratching our head over how we can change that is a sign of a society driven mad by its own self-absorbed aspiration.