The villains of today are not the radical union bosses of old, but Sir Fred Goodwin and his kind
The Observer, Sunday 18 January 2009
I assume that, as a reader of the Observer, you are likely to be middle class and want to put the blunt question to you: who is your enemy? Who has menaced your home and career, brought fear to your slumbers, threatened to turn your work-life balance into all life and no work, placed ever more outrageous claims on your taxes, trashed your pensions and savings and destroyed your ambitions and the ambitions of your children.
It is not the working class, is it?
Unlike the crisis of the Seventies, which shifted middle-class opinion rightwards, today’s crash cannot be blamed on striking trade unionists. The worst you can say about the mass of ordinary people or, indeed, the mass of middle-class people, is that they allowed the bankers to persuade them that they could safely borrow to excess. Speculators running riot brought this emergency. The lazy regulators at the Financial Services Authority who did not and, if their lifting of the ban on short selling is any guide, still do not see the need to control financial capitalism, were their accomplices.
The characteristic villain of our day is not a modern equivalent of Arthur Scargill, but Sir Fred Goodwin, who made £20 million from the Royal Bank of Scotland and NatWest, then left the taxpayer with an unlimited liability for the cost of cleaning up the mess.
That we are living through chaos unleashed by the wealthiest on all beneath them strikes me as one of those points that are so obvious I wonder about the need to type it out. But it is not obvious to the Conservative politicians and newspapers who presume to speak for middle England. They argue that equality, not inequality, is the real danger. Specifically, they accuse Harriet Harman of “declaring war on the middle class” by imposing a statutory requirement on public bodies to close the gap between rich and poor.
They delude themselves if they suppose that protecting the wealth differential of the rich is an abiding bourgeois concern. Middle-class resentment at how City money drove up the price of homes and luxuries they could once afford was the fiercest class passion of the bubble. Now it has burst, let us accept for the sake of argument that Conservative writers may have a point. The question remains: who in the middle class could see their interests harmed by Labour’s proposals?
Encouraging education authorities to concentrate resources on schools in deprived areas and health authorities to spend money on hospitals in poor districts may take resources away from affluent suburbs, although the divisions between the two are often fuzzy and the social effect may well be small.
Harman quotes the example of street markets in her south London constituency. The council may be obliged by her law to charge lower prices to stallholders in the council estates – because any kind of commerce is good for its inhabitants – and higher rates for traders in the upper-middle-class suburb of Dulwich. Her initiative may lead to the fees of Dulwich market traders rising and the price of organic vegetables and free-range sausages going up with them. Again, I suspect the middle class could live with that.
The most damaging consequences may not fall on potential Conservative voters, but on the liberal-left’s middle-class supporters in the public sector. For Harman’s decision to talk about class has not only shocked the right, but also her own side, which has ignored it for years. It may seem odd for the Labour party to be silent about social divisions – its founders created it to talk about little else – but its evasion was a natural consequence of the tortuous history of the late 20th century left.
For good reasons, feminism and anti-racism helped to stop the left concentrating on inequalities of income. Tony Blair reflected the concerns of his generation when he licensed his ministers to argue about the failure of women to break the glass ceiling or the under-representation of ethnic minorities in the professions, but refused to criticise the gap between rich and poor.
There were honourable motives behind the change in priorities – the targets of racism, homophobia and misogyny come from all classes – but the result was often extraordinarily hypocritical as liberals and the public sector institutions they dominated ignored the main cause of disadvantage in society: the lack of money.
The Environment Agency encapsulated the double standard last year when it told Abigail Howarth, a school leaver from Bedfordshire, that there was no point in applying for a traineeship. If she had been Asian, Indian, Afro-Caribbean or even white Irish, Welsh, Scottish or European, it might have offered her a place. As she was white and English, it could discriminate against her at will. Whether she was a state-school girl from a humble family and her rival was a public-school boy who knew only luxury was an irrelevance. Race and nationality were all.
There is a limit to how long a party of the centre-left can carry on with identity politics before its absurdities become too much. When resources are scarce, they have to be well directed. According to the old way of thinking, Lakshmi Mittal, the richest man in Britain, deserved special treatment because he was Asian and Nicola Horlick, the hedge fund queen, needed protection because she was a woman. I can imagine circumstances when they could suffer from either racism or sexism, but they are remote and Britain has more pressing concerns.
Chief among them is the potential for a collapse in the social structure. Conservatives who warn of a war against the middle class fail to understand that millions of middle-class people may not be willing to join the battle because they fear a future of downward mobility. Measures to help the working class do not sound so terrible when you have a terrible premonition that you may soon be joining it.