The souring of the middle classes

Social mobility is where it’s at these days. It is the holy grail of contemporary politics. Nobody dares question it on any political side; you cannot sit at the round table of power without being a true believer. It means – or is supposed to mean – opportunity, equality and fairness. To be passionately in favour of it is good. To fail to “deliver” it is bad.

What social mobility actually means is joining the middle classes – the hard-working, educated and respectable bourgeois masses of middle Britain. However, something shocking was revealed last week. The middle classes are not by any means as respectable as we thought. In fact they – I will not say “we”, though I do to my shame belong to the middle classes, because I do not wish to associate myself with their turpitude – are criminals.

Shock and awe greeted the publication of a report last week from two academics at Keele University. “The moral majority is a myth”, according to a headline in the Mirror. The Express promised to explain “Why middle England is a secret hotbed of crime”. It seems from this survey that 61% of the population admit to pilfering and peculation, from paying builders and au pairs in cash, stealing office stationery, padding insurance claims, asking well-placed bureaucratic friends to bend the rules, keeping quiet about getting too much change in shops, selling faulty secondhand goods and failing to pay the TV licence – 62% of them do so repeatedly. The middle classes are as bad as any. “The law-abiding majority which politicians like to address is a chimera,” says the report.

As Professor Susanne Karstedt, one of the authors, said: “Contempt for the law is as widespread in the centre of society as it is assumed to be rampant at the margins and among specific marginal groups. Antisocial behaviour by the few is mirrored by anticivil behaviour by the many.” Neither need nor greed, she says, can explain why respectable citizens do such things.

I wonder. First of all I wonder about the findings. Her study interviewed only 1,807 people. Perhaps the middle classes can be discredited as an entirety on the basis of such evidence. On the other hand, perhaps they can’t. But assuming the study is right and the middle classes are doing these dastardly things, I wonder whether there isn’t an obvious explanation, which as Karstedt suggests has little to do with need or greed. I suspect these misdemeanours are an expression of middle-class resentment and revolt. Society, they might feel, hasn’t been so civil to them, so they are becoming less civil to it. This is not immorality, necessarily; it is civil disobedience.

A civil society is based on common consent and shared respect. That means, among other things, that civic virtue must be fairly rewarded. Taxpayers and law abiders should be consulted and respected and enjoy the returns of good behaviour. They should be able to feel their efforts benefit themselves as well as others and they should be able to take pride in both. When they no longer do, their inclination to civic virtue will be undermined. They will become demoralised and disaffected and sooner or later will start breaking rules and laws they no longer consent to; illegal fox-hunting is an example.

That is what has been happening to the British middle classes. They have been mocked and derided for decades. It was not so long ago that middle England was a term of abuse. Now, though politicians may try to show more respect to them, the truth is that the middle classes are getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop.

The rich, the poor, the unemployed and the underclass all do relatively well in contemporary Britain. By contrast the middle classes are pinched and squeezed and bullied wherever they turn. It is as if they were being punished for their thrift, their prudence, their hard work and their aspirations – made to pay and pay again, while those above and below them are not. The result is that they are learning to behave as badly as those above and below.

Taxation is only a part of this, though it is a large part. Taxes here are high now; we recently overtook the Germans in our tax burden. While the rich can find legal ways of avoiding it, and the poor get clumsily reimbursed or offered credits, the middle classes have no escape. Yet they see their rising taxes squandered on schools, hospitals, prisons and police services that are all performing badly and getting worse.

If, in despair at their local schools and hospitals, they move to a better area, they will face punitive stamp duties on their horribly expensive new houses; if they want to hire a nanny or an au pair they will have to pay her taxes out of their own taxed income while other less responsible women get masses of subsidised child care – subsidised by middle-class taxes.

If they want to send their children to university, they will find that they are discriminated against by deliberate policies. If they want to leave something to their children, they will find their houses now attract so much death duty they will have to be sold. Their investments – taxed three times before death, as earned income to be saved, as interest and on capital gains – will be taxed again after death. Their pension schemes have been raided and in some cases shut or ruined.

Underlying all this, and probably irreversible, has been the recent loss of shared social identity and shared social purpose in this country. Ten years of uncontrolled mass immigration and cultural upheaval under Labour have weakened the ties that bind society together. Too much diversity has quickly come to mean too little solidarity, and that means much less inclination to pay taxes willingly for the welfare of alien newcomers, many of them apparently working in the black market or exploiting the NHS. Even Margaret Hodge has woken up to this obvious problem.

And cheating is catching. The result is that despite all the government’s expensive efforts, it seems we have less and less social mobility upwards into the middle classes. What we have instead is moral mobility downwards from the middle classes. The demoralised bourgeoisie is slipping into the moral indifference of the upper classes and down into the petty criminality of the masses. Some holy grail.