NS Essay – ‘Thatcherism’s triumph was double-edged. Union militancy pushed large sections of the middle class to the right. Now unions threaten no one and the main threat to middle-class interests comes from the rich’
Middle-class hatred of the upper class used to erupt regularly in Britain. From 1815 to 1914, it inspired the campaigns against rotten boroughs, the corn laws and the House of Lords. It is everywhere in novels from the 18th to the early 20th centuries, sometimes as a dominant theme, in Nicholas Nickleby for example, more often in the background, as in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Today, the old anger seems to be dead. People talk with passion about the gap that exists between the top and the bottom – between rich and poor people and rich and poor countries – but not the gap between the top and the middle. The only modern writer I can think of who uses middle-class fury at the privileges of the rich in most of his plots is James Hawes. Fortunately, isolation has not harmed him and he is very good at it.
The typical Hawes hero realises that working hard and playing by the rules will never get him the family home in a nice part of London he took for granted when he was young. To join the respectable middle class he has to stop being respectable. He must rob a bank, cut a deal with the Russian mafia or humiliate himself on a reality TV show. The system is stacked against the middle class, as the hero in A White Merc with Fins explains, after learning that the children of the rich he thought of as friends at university are from a world whose admission price he cannot afford:
You have slept about and hitched around and your body-clock is locked into the chimes of midnight and the long, slow summers, and now that you have just about realised who you actually are, or might be, you have to go and be an accountant or a schoolteacher or work for ICI developing brave new deodorants.
Suddenly, the brief yoof-socialist near-equality of college is gone: the nice guy who had the crap old funny GTi is off to see America, the nice girl who subbed your drug experiments has gone to Mum’s spare flat in South Ken to look up some pals in publishing, and little you are left high and dry, wilting towards teacher-training, accountancy or the dole office.
The Imperfectly Launched Young Adults swarm home for more money.
Except Mum and Dad have no money.
Hawes wrote that in 1996. A decade on, his angry young man is as likely to be a woman. She hears that nearly everyone is middle class these days, but everyday life shows her there is middle class and then there is Middle Class. Her parents have modest savings, and helped a little with tuition fees – but that was it. She still left university with a pile of expensive debt and a cheap degree that was next to worthless because so many of her contemporaries had one too. Like a nurse I met recently who spat tacks at how the children of editors and celebrity columnists got jobs that weren’t open to the likes of her, our heroine had ambitions to go into the glamorous world of media London. She found that to gain admission she needed to have taken and partially funded not only a first degree but a postgraduate degree as well. After she had paid for her own training, she discovered, she still wouldn’t get a job that would let her begin paying her bills. Instead, she would have to endure what employers quaintly describe as “work experience”, a refined version of slavery. The deal is that she works for nothing for six months, a year or however long it takes for an employer to condescend to hire her. The employer has the profits of unrewarded labour while ensuring that what jobs there are go to the Right Sort of Person, because those without a private income cannot afford to live without a wage as a rule, our heroine included.
In the culture industries – publishing, theatre, TV, radio, film-making, the fine arts and the genteel end of newspapers – it helps to have a mummy with a spare flat in South Ken, and if her friends are your prospective employers, all the better. In 1936, George Orwell complained in Keep the Aspidistra Flying about “Snooty, refined books on safe painters and safe poets by those moneyed young beasts who glide so gracefully from Eton to Cambridge and from Cambridge to the literary reviews”. The beasts are gliding again. I’m not saying it is impossible to get a job in the arts or the media without family money and connections, but when I meet someone with a familiar name at a party, I no longer ask if they are X’s daughter or Y’s son. It only creates an awkward atmosphere.
When the BBC exploded into one of the world’s most interesting arts institutions in the Sixties, innovation came from grammar-school-educated producers and writers from modest backgrounds. At first glance, modern British institutions seem determined to foster egalitarianism. Diversity is king at the BBC and elsewhere. To be accused of racism, sexism or homophobia is a career-breaking charge because staff are recruited without regard to gender, colour, creed or sexual orientation. Yet look closer, at the men and women who make the decisions. The grammar-school boys are long gone and the managers’ diverse appearance conceals a uniform background in the moneyed class. In the name of diversity, everyone is the same. They will argue for positive discrimination to compensate for sex or race . . . but for class, never.
The striking difference from Orwell’s day is that the Cambridge graduates produce Big Brother and Ant and Dec. I can’t say that’s an advance, although obviously there is more money in it for the beasts, and from a class point of view churning out pap can help knock out the competition their children will face a generation down the line. A TV producer, who still believes the media are honourable, told me how his eyes widened at his child’s sixth birthday party. He had hired an entertainer for the sons and daughters of other media executives. Unfortunately, the act was a disaster. “Don’t worry,” the entertainer told him, “I’ll get them to guess TV show tunes. That always makes them happy.” For once, the sure-fire hit failed. The children stared at the wretched man as he played the jingles for Hollyoaks and Emmerdale. My friend learned what he ought to have guessed years before: television executives do not allow their children to watch the programmes they push at the masses. And who can blame them?
Despairing of ever working for Channel 4 or Tate Modern, our young middle-class woman decides on a middling career. Maybe she joins the public sector as a teacher, or becomes a personnel officer for a private firm. She is bright and competent and is soon earning £30,000 – well above the £22,000 average. Yet she doesn’t feel remotely well off because the gap between what she earns and what her bosses earn is enormous. Local authority chief executives are making £150,000, even though they are responsible for little more than the armies of traffic wardens who find any half-legal pretext to give her a ticket. The average salary of a chief executive is £550,000, even though neither our young woman nor any reputable economist can find a correlation between their pay and performance. They take the money because they can. The gap between £30,000 and £550,000 isn’t a difference within the middle class, it is an unbridgeable gulf between classes.
Part of her grievance is due, no doubt, to the selfishness of the consumer society that writers for the New Statesman denounce so regularly. The complaints are easy to substantiate. The British Market Research Bureau produced figures in 2003 which made the middle class look like depraved drunks at an orgy. “Luxury fever” was gripping them, the bureau declared, and the more luxuries they had, the more they wanted.
It found that nearly half of those earning more than £35,000 a year, and 40 per cent earning over £50,000, said they felt “deprived” because they couldn’t afford items they considered “essential”. They were talking about Jaguars, cosmetic surgery and kitchens with vast cookers and bigger fridges. The bureau blamed the media, particularly television, for spreading decadent tastes. In the past, middling sort of people knew their place and “set their aspirations for their standard of living by their own social class, and the people around them”. Such jeremiads contain a great deal of truth – you have only to look at the debt burden to know that – but blaming the media misses the crucial change in British middle-class life of the late 20th century. Many of today’s rich were middle class 30 years ago. The council’s chief officer did not earn five times as much as a teacher, the chief executive did not earn 20 times as much as bright young women in personnel. Thatcherism made them wealthy for no better reason than they happened to be sitting behind a manager’s desk at the moment their industry was privatised or public service commercialised. Middle-class heads were bound to be turned by the sight of conspicuous consumption with so little economic justification.
Nor do lamentations about greed and selfishness take account of the greatest cause of class tension between the top and the middle: the unselfish act of having and rearing children.
For about a month now women writers across Fleet Street have been repeating the same anecdote in angry tones. The story runs like this: City dealers with six- or seven-figure bonuses are flaunting their wealth by having four or more children. A large family shows that the hedge-fund manager or venture capitalist makes enough for his wife to stay at home – with ample support staff – and for him to educate his brood privately. The story is popping up everywhere because it hits the most sensitive of nerves. In the 21st century, having children comes naturally to the rich and to the poor, as it always has, but our middle-class woman is likely to get in all kinds of trouble if she wants to have a family.
First, she will have difficulties with men, which other women don’t have to lose sleep over. The brute economic fact is that a single mother on a council estate doesn’t have to worry about fathers abandoning their children because the state will pay for them. Equally, the wife of the hedge-fund manager may not be happy if her husband runs off with a girl from Lloyd’s, but her lawyers will make her feel better by taking a fortune in alimony. Our middle-class woman doesn’t want to raise children alone on a council estate, but she can’t be sure of having the money to raise children if her partner leaves. If he pays alimony – and most men do not – her ex is not going to keep her and her children in comfort. Even if she is confident that her partner will stay with her, they will have to find a decent home. Location is everything, as the estate agents say, but in London, the south-east, Edinburgh and, increasingly, Leeds and Manchester, good homes are way beyond their means.
The combination of social and financial pressures has produced one of the most familiar figures of our time: the middle-aged, middle-class woman being prodded by fertility doctors because finding a home she can raise children in and a man she can raise them with has taken her such a long time – maybe too long a time. She may not be starving in Darfur or living in a Glasgow slum, but it’s not a competition and her suffering is real.
If the test results are good and she is still able to have children, she will confront an education system that, despite stiff competition, remains the crowning glory of British hypocrisy. Private schools for the few and comprehensives for the many have created a structure that might have been invented by the caricature capitalist in a top hat from old socialist propaganda. Since the abolition of the grammar schools, the best schools are private, and she can’t afford to send her children there. If she wants her children to have a chance of competing with today’s moneyed young beasts, she too will have to pay a premium, not to a private school but so she can move her family to the catchment area of a good comprehensive, which in all likelihood will be far from her work.
What will she make of her country by the time she has experienced university, work and motherhood? At every stage she will have found that extremes of wealth have determined what job she can get, where she can live, when and whether she can have children and whether her children will get a good education. Ever since the Eighties, we’ve been told that the “politics of envy” is dead and it was Margaret Thatcher’s triumph to make people admire the wealthy and wish to emulate them. Maybe that remains true. But the triumph of Thatcherism was double-edged. Union militancy pushed large sections of the middle class, and many in the working class, to the right. Now the main threat to middle-class interests is from the rich.
It’s not a conspiracy. Employers aren’t consciously excluding young people on modest means, just taking advantage of the mismatch between supply and demand. The media grandees who pump out pap they would never allow their own children to watch, aren’t plotting to keep people stupid, just giving the market what it wants. Conservationists act from the highest of motives when they defend the green belt and don’t think for a moment that they are denying families affordable homes. Supporters of comprehensives believe in equality and never ask why, in 18 years of power, wealthy Tories never insisted on a return to state selection.
Tony Blair knew how the system frustrated middle-class hopes, and probably a part of him still does. The snag for Labour is that his behaviour is now an affront to middle-class values. He has made it clear that he wants to join the super-rich for whom taxes are what the little people pay. His party sells them peerages, his ministers’ spouses advise them on how to shift their fortune from tax haven to tax haven. So used has new Labour become to the world of the wealthy that it mistakes it for the whole world. The most extraordinary moment during the Jowell affair came when one Blair adviser told the Daily Telegraph he couldn’t see what the fuss was about because “everyone has a hedge fund”.
No they don’t, and Labour politicians have been fools for allowing themselves to be seduced by the funny-money men. The British middle class will make them suffer for it.