Is sun setting on the squeezed middle classes?

The middle classes are emaciated prisoners of globalised capitalism and a technological revolution with little further need of them. Gerard Howlin on a book that may be an obituary

Broke: Who killed the Middle Classes?
David Boyle
Fourth Estate,

THE middle-aged and middle class David Boyle’s account of the decline of his own kind is thankfully frequently leavened by self-awareness and humour.

He admits they are a “po-faced bunch” and “puritanical and disapproving” in demeanour. Ironically his chatty account tells how from the late 1970s the English middle class abandoned the thrift that made them great as a group and financially comfortable as individuals.

They first backed Margaret Thatcher and then her heirs Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. In enthusiastically embracing economic liberalism and financial globalisation they catastrophically undermined the basis of their own economic and social position.

Having too briefly gorged on greed as their houses exploded in value during the 1980s, they are now the emaciated prisoners of globalised capitalism and a technological revolution that has little further need of them. The continuing temptation turning the pages is to simultaneously translate from Boyle’s England to our Ireland. The parallels are alarming and eerie.

Boyle’s account is rooted in the cosmopolitan middle class of the London metropolis. The author is clearly a tourist in middle England and the Celtic fringes are beyond his horizon. Occasionally there are visits to provincial but suspiciously sophisticated outposts. His journey by train to the outer London suburb of Surbiton, the mythical setting of the 1970s sitcom The Good Life, is a wonderful vignette of both the outer limits of his own experience and of how life has changed.

You have to be of an age to remember Tom and Barbara Good and their next door neighbours Margot Leadbetter and her husband Jeremy, played by the actor Paul Eddington who later found greater fame as Jim Hacker in Yes Minister. But those of us who are can’t forget that cast of characters. It was the middle class done to a caricature of perfection.

A generation later Hyacinth Bucket outdid them in camp and slapstick comedy. Mrs Bucket, however, couldn’t surpass them in the subtlety of snobbery so cruelly perfected by a class that was itself always socially insecure, permanently worried about money and, in Boyle’s telling ultimately, couldn’t hold their nerve.

Instead they put their slowly accumulated prosperity on a series of big bets that catastrophically backfired. A wildly variegated assortment of class distinctions and social pretensions itself, Boyle’s tale is of a class, once the salt of the earth, now at risk being ground back into it.

Rising house prices, plummeting pensions, a scarcity of places in the right schools and a technological revolution that has displaced a once mighty middle class from their middle management jobs are the themes of this book. All of these phenomena can be traced to the financial revolution that created a plutocratic 1% of the population who earn ever vaster sums of money and a middle class that in greater London and many places beyond cannot sustain the lifestyle they are accustomed to.

Boyle reminds us how Captain Mainwaring in Dads Army, an archetype of British decency, was a bank manager. Local and small banks and above all building societies were along with occupational pension schemes, the mainstay of the thrift that allowed the middle class prosper. It assured them of decent housing, good schools, a good pension and a standard of living that separated them socially and physically from the great sea of the chav proletariat they dread receding back into.

The local bank manager, solicitor and headmaster were all pillars of a dense network of mutually reinforcing solidarity and, of course, a back scratching old boy network.

Boyle fleetingly infers but never fully admits that his cosy world was also a cesspit of petty snobbery, inefficiency and inequality. I say ‘fleetingly’ because he doesn’t dwell upon the shortcoming of a system that if it served some well, was subsidised by the taxes and opportunity of those below. In a Britain where class distinction is much sharper than in Ireland and the sense of self-identification by class still much stronger, Boyle’s lament for the now lost institutional infrastructure of an increasingly unattainable lifestyle ignores the masses that didn’t benefit from the taxes used to subsidise mortgages, fee paying schools and free university places.

Women are no longer at home when Boyle gets off the train in modern Surbiton, unlike Margot Leadbetter in the 1970s. Instead they are at work. Around the world, globalisation, for all of its problems, has lifted millions out of poverty. Boyle’s breezy style cleverly disguises the art and determination of a true polemicist. His telling of the decades of decay and destruction, from the 1970s on, of the comfortable cocoon of his class and gender are well told. But it is funnel vision that ignores the fact that while many are stranded, many more than the 1% in the financial plutocracy have moved on, and they include many women.

Boyle is at his best on the liberalisation of financial markets planned by Thatcher’s lieutenants in opposition and implemented in government after 1979. Over the course of a generation, what began as market liberalisation continued as massive institutional mergers. It cumulated in the ultimate breakdown of barriers first between building societies and banks and then in the great ‘big bang’ of the 1980s between banks and stockbrokers. It ended ultimately in the financial meltdown we are living through today.

As Boyle frankly admits, the political mandate for this financial and institutional revolution came from the middle class themselves. As international capital markets were liberalised and financial institutions and functions merged, a sea of money flooded onto the property market and under then-chancellor Nigel Lawson inflated house markets massively. As in our own housing bubble 20 years later, hubris soon led to nemesis. Priced out of their traditional housing stock, away from the private and independent schools that were pillars of their establishment, the middle class were increasingly stranded with inherited aspirations they could no longer afford.

Scarce housing and school places in the right areas and at the right prices are only the problems of a lifestyle that is increasingly harried and shabby compared to the modest gentility of their parents’ generation. Across London and beyond an international class of ‘money’ people have resources that have stratospherically outpaced the rank and file of the middle class they largely originated in. People like teachers and other higher public servants who voted Tory in 1979 have been fundamentally dislocated out of the class Thatcher was elected to protect.

But worse is to come. The near universal end of defined benefit occupational pension schemes means that the comfortable retirement seen as just reward of a thrifty middle class is no longer possible. The Tea Party in the United States and UKIP in Britain are all symptoms of the existential angst of a dislocated and squeezed middle.

Boyle is no swivel eyed loon. His concern is heightened by the fact that these “embarrassingly conservative organisations” have emerged. Just as robots have taken over the relatively few remaining factories and displaced a traditional working class, the middle class is being reduced by an IT revolution to toil on the new “assembly lines of the digital age” which are a “continuation of the hollowing out of the middle class”.

He doesn’t admit to being a Guardian reader but by the end of this book you feel you have met the archetype. Cosmopolitan in demeanour, principled in outlook and shamelessly self-serving in cherry-picking those principles to suit his stance; one senses that Boyle knows that his ideological underwear is sliding south towards his ankles as he bestrides his soap box. Like every polemicist his weakness are the facts he ignores. But Boyle’s strength is a real feeling for the tribe he belongs to.

His book goes beyond self serving nostalgia. It is a charmingly self-deprecating and socially acute take on a once vast and now distressed ecosystem aptly called the squeezed middle.

Buy this book


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