To hell with that underclass feel-good factor

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE TORY broadsheets encourage their readers to attribute most of society's problems to what they call the 'underclass', a word with sinister implications. It reminds me of Hitler's categorisation of the Jews as 'vermin'.

If you can create the image of a formless, pullulating mass whose furtive life takes place on a subterranean level at which decent people do not care to look, you are half-way to convincing those decent people that this mass is not fully human. After that, it is a short step to suspending the ethical standards they apply to people like themselves.

There is a good example of this phenomenon in a current television commercial about car thieves. A trio of sinister-

looking hyenas prowl a deserted street or car lot, their eyes glinting in the light. They nose around the parked cars until one manages to effect entry (it is not made clear how, since hyenas can't open car doors even if they are left unlocked) and the others converge.

Now hyenas are the despised outcasts of the animal world because they don't kill their own prey but feed off others' carrion. Without wishing to condone car theft, I am not absolutely persuaded that car thieves are so much nastier a breed of human being than car owners that they deserve to be depicted as mangy scavengers.

Some car owners drive too fast, get drunk, injure, maim and kill people (4,470 deaths in England and Wales in 1991, to be precise); yet they are not seen as evil predators hunting innocent prey. I am not clear why we are encouraged to view people who steal car radios or take and drive away cars (it is not suggested that the hyenas are joyriders) as subhuman.

Readers of the tabloids, too, are urged to share this horror of the underclass. Its members are stigmatised (never in so many words, of course: the 1976 Race Relations Act forbids that) as belonging to ethnic minorities; being young and feckless (a subspecies ranging from students to football hooligans); or 'drug-crazed'. Alcohol seldom counts as a drug for tabloid purposes, though smoking can be made to seem shameful, particularly for DSS claimants and 'unwed mums'. The unmarried, especially those with more than one child, come in for particular opprobrium.

It puzzles me that not nearly as much attention is paid to the sins of those in positions of authority; and I don't just mean the hapless Norman Lamont, current scapegoat for all Tory sins. I include everyone in the professions and big business: those rewarded not only with salaries on a spectrum from high to vertiginous, but also with power, influence, purring cars and purring self-importance. I think it far more likely that they - let us call them the aboveclass - are to blame for any moral rot in society.

If a football hooligan, drug addict, young single mother or black first offender is ill-treated by a lawyer, the police or any other authority figure, they are unlikely to seek redress and 10 times more unlikely to get it. Unless you have a posh accent and are highly articulate, you soon discover that most professional people (there are honourable exceptions, of course) won't believe your complaint or simply don't care.

This pullulating mass consists of people, for whom each day is a struggle against poverty, inertia, futility and the demoralising spectacle of a small elite with not two or three but 10 or 20 times as much money as they can ever hope to have. Who can blame an unmarried couple for pretending to the DSS that they live apart, or an unemployed person for denying the few quid earnt on the side? The miracle is that only a tiny proportion of claimants cheat: far fewer than those who do not claim all their entitlements.

Banks drive small businessmen into bankruptcy, hastened by levying exorbitant charges. Lawyers bill clients thousands of pounds for a few hours' work. Rich men claim that their wives are their secretaries, thereby saving themselves tax. Those in positions of grave responsibility fail to resign although the walls of Jericho crash about their ears - but it is the underclass that is vilified and punished. Where is the difference in their actions, except in scale and opportunity?