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The middle: now located at the top

April 13, 2010

Johann Hari wrote an excellent article a few days ago eviscerating David Cameron’s proposals for tax under a Tory government, and drawing particular attention to the fact of class. Hari makes the excellent point that, while nobody, including the rich, can take responsibility or blame for the social stratum they were born into,

The problem isn’t Cameron’s extreme privilege – it is that he has never tried to see beyond it. He keeps accidentally revealing how warped his view of Britain is, and how little of it he understands. For example, Cameron said in an interview: “The papers keep writing that [my wife, Samantha] comes from a very blue-blooded background”, but “she is actually very unconventional. She went to a day school.”

When we were reading this article, last night, J had to ask me what Cameron meant by a ‘day school’, because it hadn’t even crossed his mind that anyone would think that not going to boarding school marks one as ‘unconventional’. (For the record, that’s all a day school is: a school you go to in the morning and come home from in the afternoon.) Hari continues:

Now imagine how Britain looks from inside David Cameron’s head, where the 97 per cent of us who went to day schools are “very unconventional”. (In the Bullingdon Club, he called George Osborne “oik”, because he had gone to the £20,000-a-year St Pauls, not the £30,000-a-year Eton.) This points to a wider mindset. The group he considers “conventional” and “normal” are the only people he has ever really mixed with, and they are the people he chooses to staff his office with today – very rich people.

I don’t particularly want to imagine what Britain looks like from the inside of David Cameron’s head, but the point is well made. And yet, as the latter part of the article goes on to articulate, Cameron is still regularly referred to as ‘upper-middle-class’.

This is what I want to take as my jumping-off point from Hari’s article, this bizarre inflation of the middle class. To take one last statistic from the article, Hari points out further along that the median wage (half the country earn more, half the country earn less – a pretty definitive sort of middle, really) is £23,000 a year. Does £23k sound like a middle-class sort of wage to you?

Right now, I honestly have no idea, because £23,000 pounds a year is still a large enough figure that I can’t quite get my head around it: I’m a student, I live on about a quarter of that after tuition fees. On the other hand, I don’t have to factor in commuting, respectable work clothes, a mortgage, supporting a family, or tax, all of which our hypothetical middle-class Briton could be reasonably expected to have to do.

But that aside, the fact remains that if £23,000 is the actual statistical middle, then the popular perception of middle-classness is way off. It especially shouldn’t include people like the Camerons, who pay more than that average national wage in school fees. (I have to say I am hard-pressed to imagine what you could teach a child that would actually be worth twenty-three grand a year. If I ever found myself with that much money spare, I’d quit work and teach the kids myself.)

It shouldn’t include people earning into the £100,000s; when 94% of the country earns less than you do, you are not in the middle. You just aren’t. Basic statistics laugh in your face.

I’m sure that some of this weird expanding-middle-classness is caused by people born middle-class doing well for themselves but being unwilling to give up the label; we all have particular associations with class markers, and nobody wants to abandon their roots. (Or be labelled a class traitor.) It’s like the stock nineteenth-century figure of the northern industrialist who owns 47 mills or whatever and still insists he’s a working-class lad. Some of it is that.

Some of it, too, is the reality shifting faster than the perception: the cultural association is still that working in an office, wearing a suit, is automatically bourgeois; that the working-class are down mines or in factories and the upper-class are shooting grouse on their private moors. Yet in practice there are many, many more people in generic suit-wearing jobs, some of whom are poorly paid for doing soul-sapping work, and some of whom are extremely well paid for doing almost nothing. The suit-wearing section has expanded without the suite (ahem) of signifiers we apply to office jobs expanding as well.

And some of it, I’m sure, is coming from the top down. Because the £23k average doesn’t tell the whole story. Because the wealth curve isn’t symmetrical: there’s 23,000 pounds’ difference between the bottom and the middle (assuming for argument’s sake that you can’t have less than no money), but millions of pounds’ difference between the middle and the top.

It means that people on £70k a year look at those on £700k and go “I can’t possibly be in the same class as them.” And, for that matter, those on £700k look at those on £7m and say the same thing. And so you end up with everyone except those demonstrably right on top of the pile perceiving themselves as middle-class – because if you’re not at the top and not at the bottom, you must be in the middle, right?

It’s endemic, and it’s a bad thing, because the artificial widening of the middle class obscures the actual inequalities involved. Britain has two million or so people unemployed right now; that’s two million people, or thereabouts, on a state-provided pittance. At the other end you have David and Samantha Cameron, who could give a tenner to every unemployed person in the country and still have about £10m left over.

People aspire to immense wealth, sure, but a lot more people aspire much more realistically to the more modest goal of middle-classness. A house, maybe a garden; holidays somewhere nice; tasty food; something put by for a rainy day. Those are the modest, comforting associations of the bourgeoisie – the contentment and security of being in a comfy middle.

We do not object to middle-class politicians, because the set of associations with the word is pretty much this: cosy, unthreatening normality. Yet the sneaking expansion of the term conceals what’s actually going on – which is that we’re looking not at government by the slightly-richer-than-us, but by the incredibly wealthy, the stupendously monied, the people who think it’s rather odd to send your child to a school they come home from every day. And naturally, they will look out for their own. Their own, who are not us.

It’s pretty much an open secret among those who actually know me that I’ll be voting Liberal Democrat. If I didn’t live in an area where the LDs are reasonably strong, I’d be gritting my teeth and voting for Labour. I hate what Labour has done to this country on civil liberties; I hate the stupid, ill-thought-out concept of ID cards; the fiasco that was the Digital Economy bill; I hate the pandering to public hysteria over things like Sarah’s Law, the attempts to privatise things that shouldn’t be privatised, the continuing state funding for faith schools at the same time universities are losing money and having to hike their fees, the refusal to get rid of Trident, the foot-dragging on electoral reform.

All of these things are stupid and bad, and I’m glad that the postcode lottery has dumped me in an area where I can vote with my conscience rather than my increasingly well-developed sense of extreme cynicism. But rather a nervous, querulous, over-reacting Labour government than a government which is still all those things and also headed by people so out of touch with reality that they think a man worth £30 million is middle-class.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. knightofthedropdowntable permalink*
    April 13, 2010 3:37 pm

    *Resists going into a working class fit of rage*

    Sigh. Reading that article last night, I didn’t get angry because it was so absolutely ludicrous that it’s only really sunk in now. I suppose, using the old style class definitions, he isn’t upper class only because you need to have a title, don’t you? Using the same system I’m apparently middle class, because I work in an office, even though my salary is barely into 5 figures.

    Probably a better way of seeing it is just by wage breakdown, now. Working class is anything under the median, say, and upper class is anything above the upper quartile (the median of all the salaries above the first median). It’s rough, but more accurate than the old definitions these days – I’ll be damned if I’m in the same class as David Cameron!

  2. Schrodingers Duck permalink
    April 13, 2010 4:46 pm

    Now imagine how Britain looks from inside David Cameron’s head

    Dave is dimly aware of a nearby “Council Estate”, which confuses him greatly since he’s never met the Council family.

    I think part of why identifying as middle class – especially when you want to point out how hard you have it – is so popular is that you can stretch the borders as much as you like either way to include or exclude whoever you like.

    You can see this sort of behaviour on newspaper comment boards all the time. If the article is about benefit “cheats” or immigration, then it’s easy to extend the boundary down to include most of the working class and claim that providing benefits is just the government trying to hurt middle classes. If it’s about bankers or MPs expenses on the other hand, then the middle class stretches all the way up to basically anyone who doesn’t draw a 7 figure salary. And if there’s a piece about tax cuts for people earning less than £20k, then those people don’t count as middle class either!

    The re-definable middle class makes claiming persecution that much easier.

  3. Paul Skinner permalink
    April 13, 2010 6:02 pm

    I’ve been brought up to believe that classes rely on education.

    Working class = the standard, basic high-school education
    Middle class = university
    Upper class = paid-for education every step of the way

    This is still inaccurate in a number of situations, but seem to me to be relatively accurate.

    Incidentally, when it comes to tax on earnings:
    I’ve personally always felt that a fixed percentage of your earnings no matter what you earn should be the same for people of all incomes. That way everyone’s paying the same amount relative to what they earn.

  4. knightofthedropdowntable permalink*
    April 14, 2010 8:43 am

    This definition almost makes me proud I failed university, I still get to be working class! What is it that makes class definition so important to some of us?

    Ironically, even though Income Tax is currently higher for higher wages, National Insurance is lower for the same people, so changing the system to take the same percentage of everyone’s income would actually penalise the rich. And the rich still complain about being screwed over by the tax system. That’s right, the rich of this country feel that paying slightly LESS tax than poor people is still too much and unfair.


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