Saturday 24 August 2013

Middle class tolerance - and the threat to it

I have just taken two very long train journeys, one to Devon and one to Edinburgh, and it has given me an unprecedented chance to listen in to middle class conversations with their children.

It has convinced me that I was right in my book Broke: Who Killed the Middle Classes?  I suggested that – far from the heady days of Mr Curry and Hyacinth Bucket, and the curtain-twitching disapproval of suburban life – the middle classes have been the driving force behind the unprecedented tolerance of UK society.

I know this isn’t a popular point of view, but as I listen to a crash just up the aisle from me, and an obviously middle class father saying: “Oh really, darling; you are not being helpful” – when she was being quite the opposite of helpful – I realise it is in fact the case.

No more are they the disapproving snobs of English life. The middle classes have actually presided over a period of unprecedented tolerance in society, embracing a community that – despite the difficulties – is more and more diverse and multiracial, more and more tolerant of the peculiar way that people live, if they are not harming anyone else.

And if this wasn’t led by the middle classes, who was it led by?

That is one major reason why we need the middle classes. More of this in my book.

But I have also wondered whether things have gone too far, especially among what you might call the public sector middle classes.

My youngest comes home from school these days, informing me in a very serious and concerned voice that “Jason didn’t make the right choices today”. Clearly, behaviour is now described in terms of ‘choices’ these days. I’m not sure it means much.

And when I hear another mother on the train to Scotland telling her children off because they are “behaving inappropriately”, I must admit I cringe at the new mind-control which appears to be descending on the middle classes at the same time as this tolerance.

I’m not sure that 'appropriateness' is a concept that will foster tolerance at all.  It seems more like the old curtain-twitching conformity to me.

I may be defending the middle classes these days, but I am still enough of a bohemian to want to behave ‘inappropriately’ if I possibly can.

Who wants to have on their tombstone – ‘He behaved appropriately’? Not me.


Blissex said...

Were you in first class?

Because the middle class, the ones you describe in your book as generals, barristers, bank managers, Lloyd names, those who used to have a gardener around every week, owners of £3m portfolios of property investment, usually travel first class.

If you were in standard class you are listening to people who would like to be middle class but have white collar "working class aristocracy" jobs, the white collar heirs of train drivers, factory floor supervisors, etc.

Simon said...

I have to say I love this post. In defending the Middle Classes from the charge of curtain twitching you base your argument on snatches of overheard conversation and what you believe might be going on at your son's school. Then to cap it all you conclude that part of the problem is that these people are not the *right sort* of middle class - they are public sector professionals, not creatives. Too true!

Blissex - it was my intention since boyhood to travel first class on the trains. I now do this whenever I travel long distance. I am 28 and a full time student, my wife is a homemaker and we have a 2 year old. Fact is - and this is important - none of that matters because we inherited a house and have no mortgage. OK I have to book a few weeks in advance, and this is one of our greater extravagances, but you get it completely wrong when you say that its your job that defines which class of rail travel you can afford, it is nothing but personal preference and not having to live your life in servitude to a bank.

Blissex said...

«we inherited a house and have no mortgage. [ ... ] completely wrong when you say that its your job that defines which class of rail travel you can afford, it is nothing but personal preference»

Apart from the comical argument that a single exception would mean that it is «completely wrong» that first class is not for the affluent middle classes, but just a preference for anybody, the particular case you mention shows exactly the opposite.

You effectively belong to the minor squirearchy, being the fortunate heir of (nearly) independently wealthy property owners, and only that allows you to afford first class, and that means that first class has nothing to do with class?