Opinion: The demise of the middle classes

I was on a policy panel recently, when I heard somebody dismissing the idea of ‘choice’ in public services as a sop for the middle classes.

Now, there are two rather odd aspects of this.

The first is that, depending on what you mean by choice – and every political party has its own distinct meaning – it isn’t actually true.

The polling I carried out during the Barriers to Choice Review showed that nearly 90 per cent want ‘choice’.  It is just that they are often muddled about what that actually means.

The second is that I hear this kind of sentence in many policy discussions, and the peculiar thing is this.  It is nearly always voiced by someone who is pretty clearly middle class themselves.

I have been wondering recently whether there is a clue here for the future – that the political middle classes seem able to dismiss their own little foibles so easily.

What is it?  Inverted snobbery?  Too much self-knowledge?  Or perhaps, too little?

I suppose they are using middle class as shorthand for describing people who have their own very narrow financial interests at heart.  This may of course be true of the middle classes, of course, but it his hardly unique to them.

So I remain a bit confused, especially as I have now been a self-confessed member of the middle classes myself for getting on for five decades (OK, more, I’m 55).

This is not to say that I’m completely enamoured of the behaviour of some people in my own class.  But I wonder if the inverted snobbery of the more enlightened members of the middle classes is actually blinding them to what should be staring them in the face – their own demise as a species.  For example:

  • Their children will be unable to live anywhere near where they were brought up – unless they constrain their dreams by going into financial services.
  • The rises in their paper values of their homes will need to be extracted to pay for their non-existent personal pensions and social care provision.
  • Their career paths have all but disappeared along with the middle managers, though they still exist – cramped and constrained by payment-by-results targets – in parts of the public sector.
  • Their children’s rents will have to be subsidised by the state, because they have been pushed up by big corporate landlords and property speculators from Shanghai.
  • They will be struggling for an edge in a world where there are 260 million students (in 2025, there are now 150m). 

Of course, the same people who complain in policy meetings may not be said about the demise of the middle cases, driven out by the very same forces that first emasculated the working classes.

But I hope they will reflect that, once you take away the class labels, what is being driven out is the possibility of a civilised, independent life – with some leisure and space – which makes the UK the free, cultured, open nation it is.

The forces of Liberalism may not be middle class, but Liberal ideas are underpinned by the same economic forces that make a middle class possible – and give people the time and economic space for debate, campaigning and resistance.

That is why we need to think very clearly about the demise of the middle classes in London and what can be done about it, and it is why I’ve updated my book Broke to spell out a way forward.

I’m hoping Ed Miliband is reading it now…

* David Boyle is a former Lib Dem parliamentary candidate and the author of Tickbox (Little, Brown). You can buy the book from Hive or Amazon.

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  • jenny barnes 22nd Jan '14 - 9:30am

    The 1979 to 1997 Tory government destroyed the reasonably well paid working class. It was a pretty good guess that the 2010 Tory government would do the same to most of the middle class – you can’t throw people under the bus twice. That’s using middle and working class in the usual ways. Of course, if you look at their relationship to capital, you can see that the middle class are also working class, not owners of the means of production, mostly, so it’s really not surprising that the parties of capital/neoliberalism are extracting more from them to enrich the elite.

  • My glaswegian mother was always baffled after moving south by her neighbours’ apparent self-assessment as ‘middle class’ – but they all go out to work, she said, and if they didn’t they’d be homeless. It never sounded to her that they were very different!

  • you can’t throw people under the bus twice

    You can if it’s a bendy bus.

  • Robert Wootton 22nd Jan '14 - 10:38am

    I will have to read the updated “Broke” to find out what the way forward is to being “not broke”.
    My own view is to create a statutory type of PLC, an equitable PLC. there would be a statutory maximum ratio between the highest wage rates (of the CEO and directors and higher management) and the lowest wage rates of 20 to 1. This would mean that when a board awards themselves a pay rise, the whole workforce gets a proportional pay rise as well. This seems reasonable to me, after all the directors are responsible for the whole company.

    However, I would also advocate that the shareholders have a zero rate of tax on their dividends and the new type of PLC would have an earned profits allowance equal to the annual wage bill of the full time lowest paid employees. This would create a causal loop so that it would be in the interests of the business to create full time jobs in order to maximise tax free profits. It could also be possible to set Corporation Tax equal to the ratio between the highest and lowest wage rates. In the above example, 20 to 1 would attract a tax rate of 20%. If however the directors made the wage differential 8 to 1, as advocated by the Wagemark Foundation of Toronto and also by professor Peter F Drucker in his article in the Wall Street Journal published April 23 in 1977 then Corporation tax would be 8%.

    These proposals would have many other implications which is why any change in the economic structures of our economy must integrated into the other social structures and institutions of the country. The education system and the NHS for example.

  • I note that David Boyle is a director of the New Weather Institute — I assume that this is not a UKIP front.

    I would ask David to reflect on his statement —
    …. …. Liberal ideas are underpinned by the same economic forces that make a middle class possible – and give people the time and economic space for debate, campaigning and resistance.

    I just think this is wrong. Perhaps because of my own class background I reject the idea that economic forces (whatever they are) underpin Liberal ideas. I also reject the idea that debate, campaigning and resistance are exclusive to the middle class. There is a slate mine museum in North Wales where deep under the ground they have preserved the hut where in the 19th century the miners went to eat their lunch and with the aid of lamps read and discuss matters of education, religion and politics. It is the clearest example I can think of to demonstrate the working class tradition of debate, campaigning and resistance. But there were plenty of other examples. In virtually every town and city in the UK there were Working Men’s Institutes (usually these were all male but always). These were places of learning and education and self improvement. They were also centres of debate. People clubbed together and paid for and built these places without the interference of the state. They were also often Temperance Institutes offering working people an escape from the sleazier drink fuelled alternatives — the wine swilling, self indulgent hedonists of today’s middle class would not have felt at home in these places.

    I’m too am hoping that Ed Miliband is reading this or at least that he is reading anything other than the Daily Mail.

  • Sorry that should have said —-
    Working Men’s Institutes (usually these were all male but NOT always).

  • John Tilley – those c19th working class values of self help, self improvement and lack of state support sit well in today’s conservative party.

  • David Boyle – isn’t the issue one of an ongoing privatisation of risk? There are also massive generational issues – sitting as I do in the 40-50 bracket, I’m paying crippling mortgage rates to afford a family house, my inheritance will go on parental care, my pension will be negligible and any equity I have will need to be extracted for my children. All whilst working until I’m 75.

  • You could not be more wrong Tabman 22nd Jan ’14 – 11:48am when you say c19th working class values sit well in today’s conservative party.

    Today’s Conservative Party is the party of the bankers who undermine selfhelp and enterprise by rigging the markets to benefit those in receipt of bankers bonuses whilst selling junk ‘financial products’ to small businesses.

    Today’s Conservative Party is the party of the climate change deniers like Lord Lawson who are paid handsomely to perpetuate myths and prevent working class people from benefitting from cheap and sustainable fuel from renewable sources.

    Today’s Conservative Party is the party of the tobacco and alcohol just as they always were. Tory cabinet member cuddly Ken Clarke is happy to profit from getting another generation of children addicted to cigarettes. David Cameron is happy to perform repeated u-turns on public health measures which would protect the working class from death and disease.

    Today’s Conservative Party is the party of the Jeremy Clarkson and the devil take the hindmost couldn’t give a toss about anyone else mentality. Nothing could be further from the values of working class Liberals and Radicals on the 19th century.

  • John Tilley – today’s Tory party, as it always did, gets elected by the working class. Which is why I find all this class-based breast-beating farcical.

  • I assume that shifting the goalposts is your acknowledgment that 19th Century working class values have nothing to o with the values of today’s Conservtive Party?
    Tabman 22nd Jan ’14 – 12:12pm

    Electoral success of today’s Conservative Party includes an element of support from the working class; but there has always been an element of the working class which is nationalistic, deferential, hedonistic or just easily conned. They do not demonstrate the 19th century working values that were under discussion. Those values of self improvement and education are what undermines the Tory electoral and economic stranglehold and enables us to overcome the Tories despite the fact that they own 90% of everything and set out to take even more. Except of course when a Tory government is propped up by non-Tories which is the stupid situation that we have to endure at the moment.

  • Well somebody’s consciousness is certainly false…

  • John Tilley – the values of self improvement, help, education, reliance and independence from the state are exacly what any modern Conservative would claim as “their” values – call it the strivers if you want to use modern parlance.

    People are people – and those of all classes and none will be selfish, racist, small-minded, judgemental and other vices you seem to think are the sole preserve of the Tories to a greater or lesser degree, both in class blocks and as individuals.

    I find assigning behaviour to monolithic class blocks, which may have had some utility in the nineteenth century but certainly don’t today, to be wholly lacking in the sophistication and nuance that any Liberal should bring to an assessment or evaluation.

    What on earth does working or middle class mean in today’s context? An Eton/Oxford-educated bank manager is working class by the definition of owning the means of production; yet the self-employed left school at 15 jobbing builder is ruling class as he owns his means of production.

    Do you work in heavy manual industry?

  • jedibeeftrix 22nd Jan '14 - 1:36pm

    @ JT – regarding wicked immoral Tories:

    If you are going to misrepresent how other parties see their mission, and how their respective electorates view that mission, then we aren’t going to have a very good shot at communicating a distinctive brand for the lib-dems now are we?

    I don’t really know what labours is, something tremendously worthy no doubt, but if you want a single sentence to describe what Conservatism is [supposed] to be about:

    “the role of Conservatism is not to oppose all change but to resist and balance the volatility of current political fads and ideology, and to defend a middle position that enshrines a slowly-changing organic humane traditionalism.”

    Quintin Hogg, Baron Hailsham of St Marylebone

  • Steve Griffiths 22nd Jan '14 - 2:17pm


    Yes, an interesting quote from Hailsham about defending the “middle position”, but is that really what Conservatism is all about? Note also:

    “To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies.”

    “Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides.”

    Margaret Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven

  • IAlwaysDisagree 22nd Jan '14 - 6:12pm

    One the lead subject of choice, rather than the book plug, I am middle class, and I am not fused about choice at the level being offered by recent governments at all.
    – I want a hospital that close to me and reasonably OK
    – I want my nearest schools to be OK – indeed they are.
    – I don’t care who collects my rubbish, provided it happens reliably and I know which day it is.

    On the other hand, I’d rather have less centralised prescription for my public service providers, and allow them to apply some intelligence.

    Re. the reliability of surveys: see Yes Minister.
    Re. London prices. Move. Start a business somewhere in England, or even Romania.
    Re. Equitable PLCs. Cute idea, and what would be the harm? Our just need to be able to stop people cheating the pay system.

  • jedibeeftrix 22nd Jan '14 - 6:15pm

    Well, i’m no fan of consensus politics, at least at the pinnacle of representative politics, i.e. parliament.

    At the very top I feel that it must principally be a forum for ideas and vision, with the potential to mandate that vission and the power to enact it. The corollary to this, that their must be a mechanism to clearly judge that vision, via the ballot box.

    I have little objection to consensus politics in subordinate layers of governance, such as the local or european.

  • David – its interesting to see how the German Sparkasse/Mittelstand economy manages to fix wealth witin local communities rather than allow it to be sucked into a single metropolis.

  • jedibeeftrix 22nd Jan '14 - 10:38pm

    “And while we’re at it, talking about choice without talking about consequence is to invite Mr Hobson to convince you he offers you what you want…”

    James, i am not sure what you said but it sounds very wise, may I ask you to expand what is said above?

  • David Boyle 22nd Jan ’14 – 1:45pm
    If we are all in the precariat, all doing three jobs just to get by, measured when we go to the loo as they do in Amazon, then political campaigning is extremely difficult.

    David. This is a reasonable point but…… If I could think of the title of a good history of early trade unionism I would provide a link. Off the top of my head I cannot, although there is an excellent book about Orator Hunt, the guy who was asked to speak at the meeting that turned into Peterloo.
    If you think conditions at Amazon today are bad try and think through the difficulties of political organisation in the first tweety yers of the 1800s .

  • David Boyle 22nd Jan ’14 – 1:45pm
    I have tracked down the book, it was not Orator Hunt, although he gets a mention but John Gast.
    The title, ‘ARTISANS AND POLITICS, in early nineteenth-century London, John Gast and His Times’. The author is Iorwerth Prothero, first published in 1979 by Wm Dawson & Son.

    It is an enlightening account of radicals struggling to set up working class political activity in times much less friendly than today. If you think the time and resources available for political activity are limited in 2014, check out England in 1814 and the twenty years thereafter.

    If you do not want to give your custom to Amazon, you are welcome to borrow mine. 🙂

  • Does matter to us whether or not Red Ed and his cabal politically succeed in pretentiously conforming to the traditional social norms which make the UK the free, cultured, open nation it is?

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