The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

November 18th, 2007

Middle classes are Labour’s whipping boy

‘It’s the same the whole world over: it’s the poor what gets the blame.” In new Labour Britain, the poor still get a rough deal but it’s increasingly the middle classes what gets the blame.

Those who doubt me should have listened to “Red” Dawn Primarolo on Radio 4’s Today programme last Tuesday. She was challenged again and again about Labour’s 24-hour licensing laws. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has just produced a report on public health which points out that the policy isn’t working. Far from creating a continental cafe culture, the availability of alcohol has been disastrous.

City centres, and even market towns, are filled with young binge drinkers ululating, urinating, fornicating and throwing up. Lord Krebs, the main author of the report, describes a street in central Oxford as Vomit Alley – disgusting and dangerous.

Yet Primarolo’s only response to all this new mayhem among the young was to ignore them and to point a finger of blame instead at the middle-aged middle classes. They appear to be the only people whose behaviour alarms her; young people, she claims, are getting the government’s messages.

But as for the middle-aged middle classes – dear, oh dear. They will persist in heavy drinking and, what’s worse, in the secrecy of their own homes. That’s where the risk of “serious harm” is “dramatically increasing”, according to Primarolo. As for the Vomit Alley challenge, repeated by the interviewer, she became distinctly irritable. “Frankly,” she said in her infuriatingly bossy way, “that’s not the point.”

There are those who insist on clinging to the view – the view of the Nuffield report, in fact – that young people drinking heavily and lurching drunkenly round the streets at night, getting into trouble, wasting police time, creating no-go areas and making life miserable for everyone else, is very much the point. But Primarolo brushes them aside. All that concerns her is the one group of people that doesn’t cause trouble of this kind – older people who stay at home and may drink a little more than Primarolo might, in her scientific ignorance, think fit.

Perhaps one shouldn’t expect much of this uninspiring woman; it was Primarolo, as paymaster-general, who presided over the disastrous administration of Gordon Brown’s tax credits, to general distress among the poor. All the same, a strong protest must be made. Primarolo’s silly response is an emblem of something much more serious about contemporary politics.

Those despised, middle-aged middle classes may indeed be getting a bit squiffy, or indeed sozzled, on their sofas. They may be pickling their internal organs faster than they used to. But at least they aren’t upsetting anyone else or breaking the law. On the contrary, in their sober moments they are the backbone of the country. They are the ones who have produced this country’s wealth, pay for its welfare and uphold its laws. And in any case, what possible business can it be of the government’s to interfere in their private pleasures in their private homes?

It ought to be the default position of any civilised government in a freedom-loving country that what people do in private, so long as it harms nobody else and is within the law, is their own affair. Yet the Labour government’s default position, embodied by Primarolo, is the opposite.

Ministers seem to have not the slightest idea of what freedom is. They regard it as normal for Whitehall to have its nose in all our business, from the fridge to the rubbish bin, from the bathroom to the bedroom. So it’s consistent that Primarolo thinks that she should do something drastic about our quiet bourgeois tipples in the sedate comfort of our homes.

All this comes from a simple desire for statist control with which we have become all too familiar and something you might expect from someone who used to be Red, but now new Labour Pink, Dawn. However, underlying it is perhaps something more complex – a nasty, unthinking combination of class hatred and pleasure hatred. This strikes me as more Brownite than Blairite.

The class hatred element has to do with blaming the middle classes whenever possible, no matter how absurd that might be. This is partly due to a desire to show that they are no different from and certainly no better than anybody else when it comes to wife beating, incest, child abuse, crime and so on. This struck me forcibly when the official word went out in the 1980s that nits like clean hair. That was code for the idea that middle-class children have nits just like poorer children. In fact they prefer respectably clean little kiddies – and infestations have nothing to do with poverty and poor hygiene. It was nonsense, of course, and disinformation at that.

The same applies to alcohol abuse. Just because some middle-class middle-aged adults hit the bottle a little hard in the twilight of their productive days, they must be just like the rat-arsed young bingers who drink themselves senseless. In fact, being middle class they are rather worse.

The minister might point out that heavy drinking is not merely a personal matter; it makes people ill and will sooner or later cost the National Health Service a lot of money; that makes it of genuine public concern.

However, it is far from clear what heavy drinking is, what damage it does and to whom. Anyone following the government’s frequent pieces of advice on this (and all other health matters) must feel thoroughly confused. It emerged recently that government figures for safe weekly drinking levels for adults were plucked from the air, in default of any scientific evidence. What’s more, it is becoming ever clearer that individuals respond differently to all drugs, including alcohol, so it’s impossible for anyone, even for Pink Dawn, to say what is an acceptable level for everyone.

None of that will stop the government killjoys trying to dream up ways to stop the middle classes enjoying a tincture at home. There has always been in the Labour party a punitive puritanism. Pleasure and self-indulgence must be prevented, particularly among the middle classes and the middle aged, to punish them for their other privileges. They should know better than to want to have fun. They must be stopped and if they can’t be stopped they must at least be blamed.