The Anxious Affluent: Middle Class Insecurity and Social Democracy

Article excerpt

I have a friend who lives in the Home Counties suburbs. On the face of it, he and his family's existence is the very model of the popular affluence championed during the Thatcher years and celebrated by every government since: he owns a roomy house with a sizable garden, and the small car dealership he runs seems to regularly turn a decent profit. Devotees of the up-by-the-bootstraps dream of self-improvement would be cheered to learn that he started out in the humblest of circumstances--raised by a single parent in the days when that fact set you apart, he spent the first part of his childhood in rented housing, and left school at sixteen. These days, I would guess that he belongs in society's uppermost fifteen per cent, with the tastes--golf, regular holidays, designer clothes--to match.

What's strange is the fact that my friend often seems to be scared out of his wits. He claims that anti-social behaviour can transform the pleasant county town where he does his shopping into a 'war zone'. He might not be au fait with the concept of Time Poverty, but his life exhibits most of the requisite signs. He frets about his young son's education, future prosperity and day-to-day safety, and a mess of other possible threats, from food allergies to dangerous imported toys. The state, in his view, is too often a sclerotic, parasitic presence that soaks up tax revenue and mis-spends it, while too much of the private sector is staffed by the spivs and confidence tricksters whose activities demand his constant vigilance. To mention politics to him is to invite a display of cynical derision; though to some extent a disillusioned Thatcherite, my friend is surely just the kind of voter that New Labour prided itself on converting, but the Westminster ritual these days leaves him cold. As far as I am aware, at the last two general elections, he abstained.

When I mention my friend and his anxieties to more left-leaning, metropolitan types, I can usually expect a couple of standard responses. References will be made to the eternally neurotic, reactionary nature of the archetypal petit-bourgeois. There will be dismissive allusions to the Daily Mail--a paper he occasionally reads, though not as often as you might think--and claims that he and his ilk lie so beyond the reach of progressive politics that there is little point in bothering with them. I can see their point: though I have occasionally tried explaining the merits of such notions as mutuality, co-operation and solidarity to my friend (probably piously, and usually after a few drinks), he has usually been stubbornly uninterested. One of my Labour Party acquaintances is fond of an anecdote in which the unmanageable size of New Labour's Big Tent was brought home to him by an afternoon's optimistic canvassing in an outer London neighbourhood, where the simple length of people's drives suggested that they were never going to be dependable members of any progressive coalition; better, in this reading, to simply leave them alone.

To that, there are two responses. First, even if my friend sits in a relatively high-up socioeconomic category, his essential concerns surely intersect with those of a sizable proportion of the UK's population--chiefly, the millions of people these days grouped under the cliched term 'Middle England'. Second, the last five years or so have seen some of his long-standing fears augmented by a new set of anxieties, which plenty of people will recognise as being bound up with the downsides of rampant free-marketry, and the UK's unqualified embrace of globalisation. Before we get any further, that is not meant to suggest that there are openings for red-blooded socialism in places hitherto undreamt of, but rather to point up nuances and tensions of which too many mainstream politicians seem barely aware.

New anxieties for the middle class

For example, though my friend has long claimed that his essential belief in fair play is compromised by the behaviour of those at the bottom ('benefit cheats', asylum seekers and the like), he these days projects at least some of his ire on to people at the top: chiefly, the light-footed Super Rich who blithely ignore the rules by which he sets such store. …