It's not nice being middle class: The Tories have managed to make even the comfortably off feel distinctly uncomfortable

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The Independent Online
THIS WEEK the ever-aspiring middle classes have been sending their children to sit entrance exams for private schools. Scholarships aside, they face paying out a huge proportion of their after-tax income in fees if their children pass. But, in large numbers, they will pay. What is the alternative? An untrustworthy, underperforming state sector with low expectations; a depraved and illiterate ideology; sex, drugs, rock'n'roll, and God knows what else. No contest. Work the hours, take the stress. But, whatever the cost, pay.

Those same middle classes will also be paying, or trying to pay, for private health insurance. The National Health Service rations its care with queues. You can bleed to death in casualty before a doctor will see you. Smug, self-serving NHS bureaucrats give themselves cars and big pay cheques while the hospitals rot. But over at the local Bupa clinic, they have proper room service with three types of salad dressing and consultants whose eyes are kind because it's your money. No contest. Pay.

Then there's crime. Can't rely on the police, of course. They never catch the car radio thief or the burglar; these days they don't even pretend to try. There is no alternative to big insurance bills, costly security systems and round-the-clock child care. Bite the bullet. Pay.

Plus, of course, there is the pension problem - state provision is at risk and will anybody be in work long enough to build up a decent private fund? Then there is the rock-bottom value of the house and frightening changes at work. Management has been gripped by the trendy new concept of 'delayering' - stripping away middle management posts - and by the idea of buying in professional services previously done in-house. Your status is under threat, maybe even your job. This last recession has created unprecedented levels of white-collar unemployment. Security is an outdated concept. Tomorrow you may not be able to pay for anything. And what then? Queues, comprehensives and the Job Club. It happens.

Luckily, you have a Tory government. At least there's no danger of them persecuting you in favour of the working class. But wait, what is this? These Tories are crazy. Plus taxes are higher under Clarke than they were under Healey. Mortgage interest relief is being cut, national insurance contributions are rising and tax allowances falling. And the drive to contain state spending, what does it really mean? It means losing student grants, child benefit, probably all mortgage relief, maybe, one day, the tax status of private schools, maybe almost anything. And here is all this academic research showing that the prime beneficiaries of the welfare state are - guess who? - the middle classes.

The message is clear: be afraid, be very afraid. And this burgeoning fear is now one of the most dynamic and yet ill-understood facts of British political life. As one sociologist commented: 'This is so new - really only since the last election - that there really is no proper research data. But it is very big, maybe the biggest thing around.'

Suddenly a ceiling has been placed on the aspirations of the middle classes. The comfortable growth in their post-war fortunes seems to be coming to an end and their support system seems to be disintegrating.

And, perhaps most demoralising of all, another message is beginning to get through. The middle classes are no longer regarded as the stout yeomanry, the independent- minded human engines of economic growth. Rather, they are spoilt, state-dependent and complacent, insulated from economic reality and deluded about their own qualities, competence and importance. 'They are,' I was told by one Tory MP, 'just too damn rich.'

The middle classes are, of course, large, amorphous and increasingly fragmented. Their behaviour is not easily generalised. But their primary belief system is, I think, distinguishable. They believe both in continuity and change. Like the upper classes, they require continuity because that allows them to safeguard and pass on their advantages and, like the lower classes, they believe in change because that holds out the promise of improvement and progress.

However, realising this belief system politically is a complex matter. The professional middle classes - doctors, lawyers and so on - have tended to vote Conservative, but they are more likely to be One Nation than Thatcherite Tories. They are, after all, dependent on the state for their income, and Thatcherite contempt for state spending and state dependency was evidently a threat both to their finances and their status. Sure enough, the Eighties saw a slow drift away from the Tories among professionals.

That drift, however, was balanced by a strengthening of the Tory vote among the small business/self-employed sector - the new petit bourgeois. These were the people Thatcher liked and they remain the most rigorously loyal. That loyalty is, of course, now being tested by the whole fiasco of the Major administration as well as by the general pressures on the whole of the middle classes.

But it is in the realm of lower and middle 'salariat' that the pressures are really being felt. These people may be earning between pounds 15,000 and pounds 30,000 a year with, maybe, a working partner. They consider themselves middle class, but the costs of belonging - school fees, health insurance and so on - are, to them, crippling. They are looking at a future of insecurity, declining wealth and, most frightening of all, the possibility that their children will move down the social order because of unemployment and, if they don't pay the price, poor education.

This group is now being watched carefully. They are not expected to go Labour for any number of predictable reasons - not least because of the party's grim and pointlessly archaic name - but many do want to ditch the Tories. So, on the face of it, the Lib Dems have, at last, discovered a natural class constituency, and it is one that could be further augmented by recruiting from the ranks of disaffected Tory professionals who are equally unable to contemplate Labour.

John Smith's best bet is to keep Labour in the centre - possibly with the aid of a Lib Dem pact - and hope that the middle classes will begin to draw new conclusions. Primarily, he should be hoping that they will see that their wealth and success have relied far more heavily on the state sector, both for jobs and welfare support, than they have yet realised. In the light of such an insight, left-wing tax and spending plans may come to be seen as less of a threat and more of a promise.

In the medium to long term, both right and left can argue that the shock to the middle-class system may be a good thing. The right can say that it is precisely what is needed to shake up the most entrenched sector of the economy, to make them realise the hard facts of British economic decline and to begin to do something about it. It is, in these terms, inevitable because international competition demands that we all wake up to the sheer effort that will be involved in maintaining even our present standard of living. The middle classes will be forced to do what they have always claimed to do - stand on their own two feet.

The left can say that it is natural justice that, at last, the cossetted middle class should feel the shocks and uncertainty that always constituted life-as-usual for the working class. And, of course, it will wake them up to the real, but so far hidden, virtues of public spending.

In the real world outside party politics, the implications of the middle class abyss are almost incalculable. What can be said is that the fear of fragmentation and discontinuity that underlies much contemporary political rhetoric is based on this accumulation of middle-class anxieties. 'Back to basics' really means back to the time when the middle classes were comfortable and optimistic. They occupy the primary political battleground and it is their morale that is the issue. The current signs of their demoralisation - as manifested by, among other things, the cynicism that Michael Portillo so deplores - are the most serious threat to the existing political order.

In the very long term this may come to be seen as the beginning of a fundamental, historical change. The cultural, organisational and property assets of the middle classes may never again yield the dividends that they did in the past. It used to be said that in any university history essay about any period, the sentence 'The rich were getting richer, the poor were getting poorer and the middle classes were rising' would always earn an approving tick. But that long, seemingly inevitable rise may, in Britain at least, be faltering.

So sit the exams, buy the health care, switch on the car alarm. But is it enough?