Cameron’s nation of unhappy campers

The Prime Minister has suggested that Britons should holiday more in the UK. But for the middle clas

The bickering began as they started to erect their tent: a man haranguing his children, the kids protesting, a woman watching, looking fed up and a little bemused to find herself in a field for a holiday. There are many bad things about camping, but among the worst must be "Caveman" - the bloke who normally sits in an office eating Pret A Manger sandwiches and drinking mango smoothies at his desk but who fancies himself as some kind of primal provider for a week.

It was about 6am the next day when the real rows started. One child awoke with a wail and was roughly told to shut up, which made him wail louder. He was taken to the toilet by his mother. What appeared to happen next was that a second child, a girl of five, sat on her father's foot, causing him to do . . . I don't know what, but it provoked an outraged howl. By the time the mother returned with the child from the toilet, the whole campsite (of five tents; this was middle-class camping) was awake.

Thanks to the British weather, I had a fair amount of time to listen to this family rowing in their tent over the next couple of days. They were having a vile time: too many of them in too small a space. There were an awful lot of arguments about children stepping on things in the tent, or doing things too loudly, or needing to go to the loo. "You'll have to go in the potty." Wail. The mother grew quieter and quieter.

Unhappy campers

I realise that the Prime Minister cannot be held personally responsible for this family's miserable holiday, but it did nothing to improve my mood when, sheltering under canvas from the rain, I flicked through the BBC News website and came across David Cameron's speech suggesting that people should holiday in Britain more. It is de rigueur, we all know, for prime ministers to do that these days, and Cameron rattled off an impressive-sounding list of the places he loves to visit in the UK, from north Cornwall to the Scottish Highlands - classic upper-class destinations for long weekends or shooting breaks. It is one thing to risk bad weather on an extended weekend; quite another if it is to be your only holiday for the year.

On a pretty Dorset beach, I tried to work out what it was that made the scene feel so grim. The cliffs looked beautiful, children splashed happily in rock pools, the beach café served excellent seafood, the sun was sort of shining. It was the adults who were depressing. There weren't so much smiles on their faces as looks of grim determination. Huddled inside their wind shelters, in sweaters, glancing nervously at the sky (which was threatening to rain again), they were a picture of British joylessness.

Despite being open to the sea, the whole area felt hemmed in. All the beach car parks had charges, the roads were crammed, there were speed cameras everywhere and all the lovely fields were full of semi-permanent trailer parks, trailing down towards the sea. There was oppressive bossiness: yellow lines, no stopping, no overnight stays, "Private", "This Gate Will Be Locked At 8pm".

That feeling of lack of freedom was the opposite of what you want on holiday. Go to Normandy, where the weather is just as bad, and you find open roads, open beaches, no restrictions, no charges and no cameras - and it makes all the difference.

Britain's relative unpopularity as a domestic holiday destination is due to its unpredictable weather. In hot summers, such as 2003, revenues from domestic tourism rise. The other factors that influence people's decisions to stay or to go abroad are financial: both the exchange rate and personal finances. Figures show that the British, uncertain what is to come, are now saving, not spending. And that's another reason why Cameron's comments were so annoying. In the current economic climate, I expect many people felt they had no choice but to stay in the UK this summer.

The Prime Minister, who has recently been posing as middle class, faces no such financial pressures. As a number of people have pointed out, the Camerons are completely upper class, belonging, really, to the super elite. They can holiday anywhere in the world, any time they want to. And the electorate knows it: 70 per cent of the respondents to a recent YouGov survey identified Cameron as "upper class".

The tent comes down

The real middle classes are increasingly being squeezed; with the growing polarisation between rich and poor in England, those in the middle are under ever greater pressure. The problem is worst in southern England, where inequality is greatest and property prices are still far too high.

It is a problem that, on 15 August, the Rural Coalition, led by the Liberal Democrat peer Matthew Taylor, warned will be exacerbated by the coalition's new planning rules, which will in effect act as a block on village development, barring young families and poorer people from the countryside.

The middle classes are beginning to be priced out, too. Politicians do not talk about reverse ­social mobility, but it is harder and harder to climb back up again if you fall in Britain today. It's that worry which puts the frown on people's faces, and perhaps, who knows, persuaded that family in the tent next door to go camping this year instead of taking a holiday abroad.

The wife popped her head into our tent on day three, as we drank coffee and watched the rain drive over the hills. Her family had just
received a weather report, she said happily: showers on and off for the rest of the day, then torrential rain at 1am, followed by a rainy day tomorrow. "I thought I'd pass it on. We're packing up and leaving." It was the first time I saw her relax. Her children were cheering. I wouldn't want to be telling them they ought to holiday in Britain more.

This article first appeared in the 23 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan