The sacred myths of Middle England

'The whole idea is phoney, a fraud, a confusing cottage industry selling us back to ourselves so as to benefit the seller'
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The Independent Online

My dad had a thing about class. Not the traditional British interest in what class he and his family could be considered to be (an interest akin to looking at your star-signs, except more determinative), but in exactly what the class structure of the country was. If we communists said that the working class should ally itself with "intermediate strata" (one of my personal favourites as a teenager), then who exactly were those strata, and what precisely made them intermediate? And were students (with their new radicalism) simply sons and daughters of the intermediate classes, or were they - as some claimed - déclassé?

My dad had a thing about class. Not the traditional British interest in what class he and his family could be considered to be (an interest akin to looking at your star-signs, except more determinative), but in exactly what the class structure of the country was. If we communists said that the working class should ally itself with "intermediate strata" (one of my personal favourites as a teenager), then who exactly were those strata, and what precisely made them intermediate? And were students (with their new radicalism) simply sons and daughters of the intermediate classes, or were they - as some claimed - déclassé?

So, for my old man, class was merely a scientific construct, a million miles from the "triadic" structure famously satirised on The Frost Report, back in the days when John Cleese and Ronnie Barker were young. Only after a precise description of the social group, and an analysis of its relationship with the rest of the society and the economy, could one hope to make proper use of its existence. Anything else was laziness or - even worse - journalism.

Is it sad or mad people who spend their lives shouting at the radio or hurling the newspaper to the floor over breakfast in cafés? There is enough of the father in the son to have me behaving that way almost every time I read or hear the phrase "Middle England". It is quite one thing (I yell) to talk about Middle England in an impressionistic or comic way, but to insert it into arguments about concrete things - the impact of policies, the appeal of political parties, social trends - is to abuse the reader and listener.

Because there is no such place as Middle England. There is no entity, no one group, no homogeneous culture that can be usefully and separately defined as being Middle English (except one, perhaps, and we'll return to that later). What there is instead is a myth of Middle England. Or several myths of Middle England, each one constructed to justify the prejudices or interests of its protagonist. The whole thing is a fraud, a confusing, obfuscatory cottage industry selling us back to ourselves to benefit the seller.

No one invests as heavily in social myth-making as newspapers and political parties. The Daily Telegraph's Middle England, for example, is different from that of the Daily Mail. This first Middle England is Nimby incarnate; pre-Thatcherite, almost. It consists of villages and small towns under attack from burglars, anti-hunt saboteurs, ramblers and modernisers. Threatened by modernity, as uniquely represented by the cosmopolitans of Islington (an interesting place in contemporary demonology, since it is held at one and the same time to represent the urban against the rural, and the élite versus the people), what this Middle England is defined by is its loss of power. Bizarrely, this is the Middle England of Prince Charles.

Politically, the Middle England of the Daily Mail overlaps that of its conservative rival, sharing many of its prejudices. Except that this second Middle England is far more confident. It may not be able to hold back "the tide of smut and vulgarity" (Channel 5), but does it really want to? What else would there be to talk about? But it finds its mythological country in the growing suburbs, among the empowered women shopping in the out-of-town malls, and it believes itself to be the majority (moral, but unsilent). It is a Middle England of hard workers, and hard judgers. When Mrs Thatcher invoked a Middle Britain to match the Republican Middle America, this was the place she had in mind.

New Labour's Middle England is, of course, a Big Tent, and much less geographically defined. It enfolds those who embody a set of values involving the role of the individual in the community. Labour Middle Englanders are those people ("decent, hard-working") whose enlightened self- interest leads them to want to make reasonable provision for the poor, largely through improvements in the same education and health services that they themselves will benefit from. These Middle Englanders are tolerant and modern, and are exemplified by Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman.

The left, however, considers itself to be outside Middle England altogether. The interests of the constituency it serves are often (it considers) irreconcilable with those of Middle England. The Government is accused of "pandering to" a Middle England synonymous with middle class. In economic terms this place is selfish; in social terms it is often racist or homophobic; in cultural terms, philistine and small-minded. The Scottish nationalist version describes a simultaneously hidebound, crabby and morally decadent country, unable to adjust to the modern world but equally incapable of maintaining older civil virtues. The only factor common to all of these landscapes is that almost everyone's Middle England - good or bad - could easily have the Women's Institute in it.

But Middle England is merely the most ubiquitous of the mythical countries parlayed around the journalistic/political knocking-shop. We also have the Countryside (close relative to the Telegraph's Middle England), which is more a badge of allegiance than a real place. And the latest addition is the Labour Heartland, which variously embraces the poor and dispossessed, trades unionists (who will probably be neither), Labour activists (who certainly won't) and any minority so incautious as to be walking past when a Heartlander is in full spate.

As a set of categories designed to be a guide for political action, these are next to useless. Take Europe, where traditional Labour voters are considerably less pro-euro than many in the heart of Middle England (just recall the 1975 referendum). Or fox-hunting. Measures to ban hunting with dogs are said to appeal to Labour's heartlands. But there can be little that the estate-dwellers of Hoxton care about less than foxes. The battle over fox-hunting is, if anything, a solipsistic Middle English civil war. And are inhabitants of Cheshire more exercised about asylum-seeking than those of south London?

No, it's all about class again, folks. These categories are just new, looser ways, of describing social divisions. In his recent book, Class in Britain, the historian David Cannadine traced the way in which class continues to be discussed in England. He ended on a pessimistic note, believing that we were still fixated by class. But he gave two very interesting examples to back up his gloominess. The first was the fact that the "nation [was] agog" over whether Diana should lose the Her Royal Highness prefix. The second was the nation's preoccupation with whether John Prescott was right to say that he was now middle class.

But I wonder whether Cannadine (like the politicians) hasn't confused what the people think with what are mainly media constructions. There may have been people in pubs, clubs and saunas willing to discuss the HRH business, but I'm not sure many cared. The problem, it seems to me, is that we lack adequate language to describe the increasing fluidity of British society, with its different and shifting groups. Does the gender revolution really leave the old categories untouched? Or the exposure of half a generation to university, where - until recently - only an élite could study?

The times are changing. Most of us find ourselves suspended somewhere between fear and hope - the fear of social dislocation and breakdown, and the hope of ever more opportunity and progress. I sometimes think that Optimists and Pessimists are the only two categories that really count. My dad would have hated that.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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