What is Middle England?

As the Daily Mail, house journal of the middle classes, overtakes the Mirror for the first time, a social milestone has been passed. So who are the paper's readers? And where do they come from?

Jack O'Sullivan
Monday 28 September 1998 23:02

THE DAILY MAIL was selling well yesterday in Bentall's shopping centre in Kingston upon Thames. For the glass-domed four-storey emporium is a temple to Middle England, whose every mood the Daily Mail seems to reflect.

Few shoppers were surprised to learn that the paper has finally ousted the Mirror as Britain's second-best selling newspaper. The majority seemed to read it. Most were happy to call themselves part of Middle England, that burgeoning class of ambitious, self-improving home-owners who have become wedded to capitalism and consumerism.

They used to be patronised as lower middle-class aspirants. Terry and June on television and the Gambols in newspaper cartoons belittled their attitudes. But with their importance reflected in American-style malls like this one, they have gained a less damning description, also derived from America - Middle England.

Marjorie Sharples, 56, and her daughter, Jane Howell, 29, are proud Middle Englanders. They had driven yesterday from Petersfield "for our shopping fix" at Bentall's, whose water fountains and background Mozart are so soothing, even if the criss-crossing white bridges joining shopping galleries remind one of prison gangways. They could stop for a cappuccino at Bella Vista, nip into Disneyworld with Mrs Howell's three-year old son, Curtis, check out the designer wares for a family wedding and drop into Racing Green to view the winter collection.

"I came from a cotton town in Lancashire," said Mrs Sharples. "My parents were poor. Now we have our own wholesale stationery business. So we're not rich, but we're not poor. We've sneaked into Middle England."

Until the last election she had voted Conservative. But, like a sizeable chunk of Middle England, she was successfully wooed by Tony Blair. "I voted Labour for the first time."

Their food shopping habits are typical: Sainsbury's or Tesco for the basics, Marks & Spencer for luxuries. The same goes for clothes. "I get my basics, knickers and so on, at Marks & Spencer," said Mrs Howell. "Then I'll go to Next, Principles and Bentall's."

Their holiday destinations would have been dreams for previous generations: France, Egypt, Switzerland, Germany. Likewise, their favourite restaurants - French and Italian - would have been beyond the reach of their grandparents.

But, as Peter York, the style guru, points out, Middle England "wants something better, and when something better turns up, they want to have it".

You can sense this aspiration in the television programmes people watch. "They want to improve themselves not in an intellectual way, but with news that they can use," said Mr York, who runs FRU Ltd, specialising in market research.

The dominance of programmes such as Groundforce, Changing Rooms and Ready, Steady, Cook reflect the cultural hegemony of Middle England as surely as do sales of the Daily Mail. The presenters of these household favourites encapsulate this group's values: Alan Titchmarsh, constantly trying something new and yet simultaneously solid, dependable, provincial and decent.

There are other heroes: Jill Dando and Gary Lineker, the girl and boy next door, who have enjoyed a seamless, scandal-free rise based on self- improvement while retaining an ordinariness.

What do Kingston's shoppers believe in? Patricia Caunter, 37, a nurse in a children's cancer ward, summed up what I was told again and again: "Good, courteous behaviour, traditional family life. The way we were brought up." Which paper did they read? "The Mail," said Mrs Howell. "We got fed up with the Sun and the Mirror. They used to annoy me. They were just silly, like comics, more for men than women."

Middle England is, as is clear from the readership of the Mail, driven by female aspiration and consumer choice. It is also, however, a broad church, taking in the broadsheet-reading, Habitat-frequenting middle classes as well.

And, as Mr York says, there are generational differences. "There are still the older nylon net curtain types, with the front parlour lifestyle. There is the Hyacinth Bucket type, who likes the Royal Doulton when she goes to the restaurant at the local grand hotel. She might not appreciate the plain surfaces and polished concrete that her daughter might like."

There are also style tensions within Middle England between those aspiring to the simple modern design of Ikea and more traditional ideas. Ikea's "chuck out the chintz" advertisement touched that nerve within Middle England. For some in Middle England, being surrounded by chintz remains a source of pride, not embarrassment.


Jill Dando, the firm-but-fair blonde-next-door television presenter who recently topped a BBC poll of favourite newsreaders - intelligent, but not threatening. From the boys, Tim Henman flies the flag.

At Cafe Rouge, reasonably priced French cuisine without the distressing authenticity of garlic. If at home it's Delia Smith or supermarket ready meals. Not Kwiksave, definitely not Iceland.

Changing Rooms. You wouldn't want them in your house, of course, with all that burgundy and lime. But if the Home Front team wanted to do the garden... Hates Channel 4.

Marks and Spencer, affordable quality and unbeatable support underwear. But dressed up with a bit of Racing Green catalogue and the odd piece of Ralph Lauren. You don't want to look like the neighbours.

In France; Paris by Eurostar for romantic breaks (with vouchers from the colour supps) and camp site or gite with family. At home, it's Centerparcs - to get the kids away from Street Fighter III.


Michael Owen - lives at home, loves his mum, sticks with his mates. Have him on my team any day. A credit to Inger-land. Shows all them foreigners how to dribble. Gazza can put it away, but he's over the hill.

Really fast food. MacDonalds, Burger King, and the chip shop. "Chicken nuggets, spring rolls, kebabs, saveloys - oh, and a fish please." Big night out ends with a hot Madras.

Gladiators. It's brash, it's noisy and it has Ulrika. And you know that if you laid off the beer, you could bash that bloke with the over-sized cotton bud. And all the soaps of course.

Hot brand sportswear. Designer t-shirts. And expensive trainers - really expensive trainers. If female, large amounts of gold jewellery are a must. Come to think of it, that goes for the men too.

In Spain. You can't beat the Balearics. Where else can you get drunk as a skunk, red as a lobster and sick as a parrot, and English breakfasts to boot? At home it's Butlins - a shame they don't do duty free.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments