Where lies Middle England?: Over a politician's rainbow a land of cricket, contentment and conservatism tantalises . . .

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The Independent Online
'PROVIDING a sense of security in an uncertain and changing world has nothing to do with featherbedding Middle England. I am simply arguing that it is idle to think that Middle England does not sometimes feel worried. Only Conservatism can address that concern.'

This is from Kenneth Clarke's demonstrator-disrupted speech to the Social Market Foundation last week. It was an important speech, which is not, of course, to say that it was intelligible. Contemporary political speeches, however philosophically ambitious, can never be intelligible because the genre rests upon assertion and effect rather than thought or argument.

So, for example, when Mr Clarke asserts in the same speech: 'A society which runs its affairs based on a market choice system promotes civic virtues like respect, generosity and honesty and is certainly not a society based on greed,' the ugliness of the construction is matched only by the meaninglessness of the content. This is not a meaninglessness that springs merely from clumsiness or evasion. Rather it is a fundamental meaninglessness: that sentence cannot under any circumstances mean anything because all of its terms are so vast and shifting, and its historical and global sense so palpably lacking that one could go quite mad attempting to piece together anything resembling lucid, substantial content.

Never mind. We know the game, we know the rules and we know Kenneth Clarke to be a serious player. And, particularly through his employment of the key phrase 'civic virtues', we know exactly what he is doing. He is splashing about in the turbulent pool of ideas that has appeared as if by some sorcery alongside the rise and rise of fresh-faced Tony Blair.

The dark, swirling contents of this pool have been exhaustively anatomised by myself and others. Little more, apparently, need be said until the man Blair is in Downing Street. But the reason Mr Clarke's intervention is worth noting is his use of another key phrase - 'Middle England', a place which, according to Mr Clarke, must not be 'featherbedded' and yet which must be cared for.

The first remarkable thing about this phrase is the way in which it is clearly being used to avoid the phrase 'the middle classes'. There are superficial and obvious reasons for this avoidance. The middle classes are exclusive in a way that Middle England is not and, of course, Mr Clarke must appear to be dedicated to the same ideal of 'classlessness' as his leader. In addition, in terms of rhetorical effect, 'middle classes' sounds mean and narrow, 'Middle England' large and expansive.

But this squeamishness only confuses the issue. Say 'middle classes' and a fairly stable repertoire of images is likely to spring to mind, all of them clustered around an economic centre. Say 'Middle England' and suddenly there is a strange, kaleidoscopic instability. Perhaps we see a country town or village with its labourers, yeomen and squires, perhaps a pedestrianised shopping precinct or a garden centre, perhaps a farm, an office, a factory or a church. We imagine something with a stocky, insensitive quality. Middle England is a place and has virtues; the middle classes are people and have only interests.

For myself Middle England evokes Bromley, with its disturbingly well-groomed teenagers and its fanatical devotion to 'leisurewear', or, unaccountably, since I cannot recall having been there, Evesham. Others have suggested Bedford, Gravesend, Slough or Hereford. These images have almost nothing in common. Stocky, virtuous Middle England, far from being ordinary and recognisable, turns out to be a blurred sort of place. The term is a Rorschach Blot: any attempt at interpretation says more about you than it does about the world.

Even if you try to salvage Mr Clarke's usage by insisting that he meant a group of people, the term still slips and slides. It has none of the economic and social anchoring of the phrase 'middle classes'. The only hard evidence he offers about who they might be comes in his conclusion, when he speaks of 'the ambitions of the least well-off and of Middle England', indicating that, whoever they are, they are not the poor.

But let us not be pedantic. He meant the middle classes, and what we have here is no more than the mealy-mouthed politics of the hour. Mr Clarke's normally rampant tongue was simply tied by this pestiferous classless-society project of his leader.

Yet even so, the confusion is significant. For the slippery problem of Middle England is emblematic. Middle England implies an essence, and yet no two people seem able to agree on what this is. Not long ago John Major was also in pursuit of this essence. As an attempt to calm the nation's nerve after the Shoemaker-Levy shocks of the Thatcher years, he took to talking of cricket, lengthening shadows and old maids cycling to Communion. Ultimate, intimate England was for ever.

It was, of course, shallow nonsense, postcard nostalgia. But it was intended to address a range of anxieties, from fear of the future to mistrust of Europe and, equally clearly, these were the anxieties of 'ordinary', moderate people, the people for whom Thatcher had once been a heroine but who were now seeking a quiet life. These people were no longer the sub-units of an economic reductionism, whether of the right or of the left, rather they were human things with a need for comforting myths and consoling stories about themselves.

In practice the cricket and the old maids were just too unspeakably crude and silly to work. But the sense that economics were no longer enough carried a certain timely truth, and this truth was still lying around when John Smith died and Tony Blair appeared on the scene to pick it up. Since then he has not been daft enough to adopt risible imagery, rather he has gone for ambitious abstraction. He wishes, it seems, to perform an act of retrieval - retrieval of community values, of interdependence, cohesion and continuity.

Best of all he is in a position to say - with, latterly, the backing of the formidable intellect of the Oxford academic and apostate of the right John Gray - that it is precisely those values which have been subverted by the malevolent neo-liberalism of the Thatcher years. Suddenly, as we all plunge into the pool of ideas, the hard free-market doctrine looks suspiciously similar to Leninism. It is reductionist, it has a Bolshevik fetish for the destruction of ancient cultures and it barely conceals its desire to, in Lenin's single most chilling phrase, 'engineer souls'.

And this is where we return to the main burden of Mr Clarke's speech. The heart of his case is the laboured, entirely unargued and therefore unintelligible insistence that free markets and the values of Middle England are organically and eternally conjoined. What is happening now, says the Chancellor, is that Labour is stealing the Tory's clothes, they have become a party of 'political cross-dressers'.

Stripping out the party sniping, what we have here is agreement - we do need more than economics, we do need continuity and cohesion. That's all right, then. Except that, in reality, they are all, Labour and Tory, whistling to keep their - or rather, our - spirits up. Because they are politicians, what none of these people can say is that Middle England, wherever and whoever it is, is almost certainly dead. Take your pick about what did the damage - the years of collectivism or of neo-liberalism - but there can be little doubt that the body is stiff.

This is the deeply pessimistic possibility that lies behind the new politics. The point is that, when whole cultures are at stake, destruction is easy, reconstruction almost certainly impossible. In an image that superbly captured the wild improbability of such a task, Ludwig Wittgenstein said that trying to save damaged traditions by conscious effort is like trying to repair a broken spider's web with one's bare hands. The strands are too fine and too sticky, and their interrelations are too complex.

If too much has been destroyed or, more likely, simply abandoned or given away, then the quixotic Mr Blair's retrieval programme is a fantasy. This, satisfyingly, leaves Mr Clarke as Sancho Panza, wheezing along in the wake of the idealist, not really believing but knowing his job. Perhaps they both know how wrong they are and perhaps politics, even the new politics, must remain unintelligible to conceal the void beneath.

Matthew Symonds is on holiday.