Mary Dejevsky: A chattering class that is out of touch

There is a rather different approach to the looming age of austerity - one that is more stoical, less angry and more realistic than you will find among the chattering classes

Sunday 23 October 2011 05:21

Oh dear, oh dear. If you want an example of all the selfish little societies that coexist in the so-called United Kingdom, you have only to survey the public responses to the Coalition's "cuts". In how many ways is it possible to say how utterly unjust, disastrous, catastrophic the Comprehensive Spending Review will be for the wealth, health and happiness of everyone, while actually meaning dreadful, disastrous and catastrophic "for me" – or the special interest I represent?

A preliminary count of those who came out all rhetorical guns blazing would include the following: self-appointed spokesmen for the "middle classes" (also known as the "squeezed middle"); public sector trade unions, especially those defending council workers; campaigners against child poverty; campaigners for the single homeless, disabled people and women, and not a few charities which – though you may not be aware of this – are already contracted to do a surprising amount of paid work for local councils.

To these must be added the people who turned their megaphones to full volume in earlier weeks. The military chiefs, notably the senior Air Force official who threatened that British cities would be vulnerable to 9/11 style attacks if they did not get the number of jets they wanted; the admirals who agitated for their aircraft carriers (and ended up sacrificing their flagship); the assistant commissioner of the Met who also brandished the terrorist warning in defence of police numbers.

And, on top of it all, the economic theorists who waved their magic wands – the same wands they waved, if I am not mistaken, to make the ballooning credit of the Blair years temporarily disappear – before declaring the emergency Budget last June "regressive". Thus they damned it in the view of all those – the majority of self-styled "thinking people" – who regard themselves as "progressive". Oh yes, and let's not forget: a large section of the national media, not least at BBC Television, whose generally sneering coverage of "the cuts" on Wednesday evening had only one peripheral benefit – in sort of demonstrating the independence of our public broadcaster.

Scan the breadth of the British media and you will find that, although the spending review was signed off jointly by both partners in the Coalition, it was presented largely as George Osborne's baby, and thus – by implication – the product of Bullingdon Club privilege. The bottom-line interpretation follows: the rich emerge unscathed; the poor take the flak. Some reports even gave the impression that the Government deliberately had it in for the sick and disabled, and for "poor" children, which is plain wrong.

The child benefit changes will affect only those in the upper tax brackets; child tax credit changes ditto. In no way can children in these families be said to be growing up "in poverty" – at least not the sort of poverty governments can be expected to remedy. People who are ill and families with disabled children are specifically exempted from most of the measures being taken. Why should recipients of the successor to incapacity benefit not be reviewed annually? Why should single people under 35 be better off homeless (to qualify for a flat) than single people working to pay the rent? Why should elderly people in care homes qualify for a mobility allowance, when those in hospital do not? Why should working families have to settle for the size and location of housing they can afford, while many non-working families have their housing allocated according to need?

"Out there" – that is, outside the London media bubble, beyond the continual clamour from vocal lobbies – it is these questions you will find being asked and these questions that provide the yardstick for "fairness", not the claims of myriad self-interested minorities. And this breeds a rather different approach to the looming age of austerity, one that is more stoical, less angry and, I would say, more realistic than the one you will find among – for want of a better term – the metropolitan chattering classes. Somewhat unexpectedly, I find the realism largely shared on the old, traditional – and mostly retired – political Left.

To realise why there is such a gap in understanding, consider just two salient facts. The first is that almost three in four people employed in the UK work in the private sector – likely job losses in the public sector must be seen against the swathes cut from the private sector in recent years. The second is that the average individual income in Britain is around £25,000 a year and average household income around £35,000.

The figures are higher in both categories for London, which may be one reason why the assumptions in the national media are so often skewed. But the truth is that the "middle" is actually not being squeezed, because the middle is not where London's chatterers often try to locate it. The vast majority of people in Britain do not earn nearly enough to pay higher-rate tax. These are quite specific reasons, along with the residual Dunkirk spirit, why the Coalition's cuts may well not precipitate a winter of discontent, let alone the sort of "hot autumn" being experienced in France.

Nor is it just in the response to "the cuts" that I detect a glaring gap between the alarmed consensus uniting much of the media and the prevailing equanimity in the country at large. Something similar is seen in attitudes to the Government generally. Where opinion polls show the public reasonably well disposed towards the Coalition, the national media have given it a hammering almost from the start, while hunting obsessively for points of conflict.

And while it is true that the media everywhere love a conflict and all our journalistic instincts are – rightly – to challenge the claims of those in power, this disparity seems to me to reflect something much less healthy: a potential breakdown in understanding between media and people. Which prompts the question: could it be that this upper-drawer Chancellor, often described as remote from popular concerns, actually has a better handle on the sensibilities of voters than we in the Fourth Estate who so often fancy that we speak on their behalf? Perhaps we should ask ourselves exactly who is out of touch.

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