The New Statesman Essay - They're all middle-class now

People like the BBC chairman have long mocked bourgeois taste and values. But we have bourgeois radi

The letters columns of England
How resolute they stand
To show the middle classes
Still have the upper hand . . .

To watch a dissection of bourgeois culture performed by someone who is essentially middle-class is to be reminded of one of those predatory insects that, in fits of absentmindedness, ends up eating a part of itself. There the target hangs - green, succulent, enticing, mysteriously inert. The insect reconnoitres, dances forward and snaps shut its jaws, only to make the terrible discovery that, in its enthusiasm for the kill, it has bitten off its own leg. This, at any rate, was the impression I got from the BBC chairman Gavyn Davies's recent disparagement of the middle-class values of his increasingly disaffected core audience.

No doubt, from his point of view, it is all intensely irritating. There you are, trying to steer millions of pounds' worth of rubbish on to the screen by stealth, push arts coverage into the ghetto of BBC4 and appease the government watchdogs, bleating all the while about inclusiveness and cultural remits - and the fragment of your constituency that, quaintly, doesn't want BBC2 stuffed with gardening shows has the cheek to complain. Meanwhile, that (one suspects) largely mythical Asian teenager to whom Davies wants to reach out will go back to his West Midlands street corner.

This outburst is all too familiar. To a very large degree, cultural debate in this country has nearly always consisted of middle-class people going around complaining that "culture", whether represented by literature, music or the fine arts, is excessively middle-class. In the 1930s, for example, the average middle-class patron of the arts was constantly being shot at from both sides.

Some of these attacks came from below, from the kind of parlour socialist who spent his time writing books with titles such as Marxism and the Novel; but far more took the form of upper-brow snipings from above. Ask yourself what aesthetic point the 1930s work of writers such as Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell and Cyril Connolly is trying to convey, and the answer is generally only a kind of jeering at conventional middle-class taste. There is a wonderfully funny scene towards the end of Powell's 1933 novel From a View to a Death, in which a girl, having left her mother on the sofa reading Axel Munthe's The Story of San Michele, bumps into her dim-witted suitor Jasper Forsdick. Jasper's idea of a come-on is to invite her to borrow a copy of J B Priestley's The Good Companions. The implication is clear: anyone who likes Priestley's solid, undemanding middle-brow novels is a sort of futile halfwit. The real action lies elsewhere, in Joyce, Proust and Firbank, areas where the middle-class mind could not be expected to penetrate.

The whole interwar attitude towards literature, you suspect, betrays this anti-middle-class bias. Novels either had to be "realistic" - set in Salford and featuring casts of out-of-work miners - or they had to be exercises in highbrow posturing such as Connolly's The Rock Pool (1936), in which bohemian idlers lie around on the beaches of the south of France sponging off each other. To write about middle-class people living middle-class lives was seen as a spiritual betrayal. Sixty years on, this strain in literary criticism, or rather non-literary criticism, endures. The serial assaults on all those quiet, genteel English novels in which books supplements in newspapers specialise - I cheerfully own up to having written a few of them myself over the years - are, more often than not, wholly disingenuous, damning Anita Brookner, or whoever, for her aesthetic failings when what is really being objected to is the middle-class subject matter.

There is nothing that any intellectual dislikes more than to be described as "middle-class". Even now, in a world whose social taxonomies include most of the population under this banner, it still operates as a byword for the stuffy and the out-of-date. But to sneer at a novelist for being "bourgeois" seems an odd kind of insult, for the novel is essentially a bourgeois art form. Its greatest flowering in England - the period 1840-70 - came when the middle classes, for the first time, had acquired a definite political power; it reflected, occasionally in painstaking detail, their attitudes and aspirations. Dickens and Thackeray may have come from opposite ends of the middle-class spectrum - Dickens's father was a bankrupt navy clerk, Thackeray's a colonial administrator - but their angle on the social environments they sought to describe was more or less the same. Each benefited from the existence of a new middle-class audience with the leisure and money to indulge literary tastes. Each, too, pursued a careful path through the teeming early-Victorian world of their fiction in search of what might be called middle-class values.

This tendency is most marked in Dickens, whose class-consciousness, and occasional difficulty in finding the right class response, can sometimes become obtrusive. On the one hand, he is keen to caricature debased aristocrats such as Sir Mulberry Hawk in Nicholas Nickleby. On the other, he is consistently alarmed at the prospect of the "lower orders" getting above themselves. Hence the satire of the footmen's "swarry" in Pickwick, where a middle-class audience is invited to amuse itself at the idea of domestic servants aping their betters, but also to register a faint tremor of disquiet. At the same time, Dickens is uneasily aware that certain kinds of social advancement (for instance, that practised by the upwardly mobile Veneerings in Our Mutual Friend) are morally and aesthetically disgusting. All too often, what is left is a sort of easy, middle-class sentimentality of cosy cots and overflowing nurseries. Certainly, the life lived by David Copperfield and his child-bride Dora sounds as if it must have been completely intolerable.

The chief legacy that Thackeray and, more conspicuously, Dickens bequeathed to the novel was a pronounced streak of puritanism. The "message" of their books is, at bottom, simply a kind of middle-class catechism: don't live beyond your means; love truly; be sincere in your dealings with others; don't borrow money from your friends. With a certain amount of revision, and occasional bits of camouflaging, these exhortations have been successfully passed down over the past century and a half. Orwell's reaction to The Rock Pool - "A more serious objection is that even to write about so-called artists who spend on sodomy what they have gained by sponging betrays a kind of spiritual inadequacy" - is essentially a moral reaction, a Victorian reaction, a middle-class reaction. Inevitably, this sort of thing works both ways. How often in Kingsley Amis's novels, say, does one see a social judgement masquerading as a moral judgement?

Simultaneously, the force of what runs beneath is often disguised by the satirical foregrounding. Walter Bagehot once complained that Thackeray had a compulsion to "amass petty detail to prove that tenth-rate people were ever striving to be ninth-rate". This is true, but it ignores the deep implications of this obsession with class and status for Thackeray's sense of himself. In the last resort, his was a middle-class taste exploring the contours of middle-class life, and it was the social grounding that gave him his acuteness. One of the drawbacks of the modern American novel, it might be argued, is that it lacks the kind of class perspective, and the kind of sensibility, on which the novelist can usefully focus.

Broadly speaking, the 19th century was the first genuinely middle-class era in British life. And in education, science, the monarchy and religion, for example, the legacy is keenly felt 150 years later. Nowhere, perhaps, is this more obvious, and at the same time more unquantifiable, than in the great abstract of "taste". There is a difference between the kind of play that got presented on a public stage in 1750 and the kind that followed a century later, and in the main it lies in the influence exerted by the middle-class audience that watched it. It is the difference between Punch (founded in 1841) - purposeful, occasionally priggish, sharply aware of what it would and wouldn't tolerate - and some of the more bohemian periodicals that it supplanted. No doubt Punch's animating spirit was also smug, hypocritical and self-serving, but it benefited from its almost complete lack of self-consciousness. It is this that renders the truly colossal egotism of the specimen mid-Victorian sage - a Ruskin, a Carlyle - more tolerable to a modern audience. More to the point, it was unstoppable: carried away, like the empire and the construct of political democracy, by an unappeasable force, to the point where, even by the end of the century, it had begun to colonise substantial areas of national life.

It is this grand-scale dispersal - perhaps the greatest social phenomenon of the 20th century - that makes the idea of sneering at middle-class tastes and values so fundamentally self-defeating. If there were still such a thing as a genuine working-class culture - or, for that matter, a genuinely aristocratic culture - then there might be some point in looking down your nose at the kind of person who wants more quality programming on TV and doesn't see why he should be subsidising a fourth episode of EastEnders. As commentators frequently observe, we are all (or nearly all) of us middle-class now: you and I and Jarvis Cocker, Jamie Oliver and Dennis Skinner MP. From the angle of the arts world, there is no such thing as a working-class artist: a writer becomes middle-class by the very act of picking up a pen; publishing is a middle-class racket, and Tracey Emin an establishment darling.

Fifty years ago, the Mass Observation surveys offered a variety of specimen categorisations to their respondents: upper-class, upper-middle-class, middle-class, skilled manual and so on; in 1949, only 5 per cent of those questioned were unable to "place" themselves according to these groupings. Now the catchment areas are wider, the distinctions that much more blurred. An insurance broker and his family living in a six-bedroomed village house in Surrey; a wages clerk inhabiting a semi on one of the arterial roads out of London; nurse, policeman and doctor - they are all, when it really comes down to it, middle-class.

Needless to say, huge subterfuges and concealments have attended these transformations. Twenty years ago at Oxford, there was a kind of game that involved whole masses of shamefaced middle-class boys passing themselves off as proletarians. One trick was to wear a collarless shirt, another was to stand at the bar ordering beer in flat northern accents ("pint fer me, pint fer thee", etc). The arch-exponent of this pastime was a boy named Miller, who in his clipped Tyneside accent would actually upbraid other students on the grounds that "Ah'm more wukkin' class than thee". Finally, at a drinks party, Miller's cover was irretrievably blown by an English don who revealed that his father was, in fact, a company director. Middle-class like the rest of us, you see, and despite the stacks of empty Newcastle Brown bottles piled in his room, just another part of the monoculture.

From the point of view of social progress, all this is not quite as depressing as it sounds. The middle-class pursuit of political power, which gathered impetus throughout the late 19th century, could not be accomplished in a vacuum. There were other interests at stake. In Evelyn Waugh's Work Suspended (1942), the hero Plant's father, an elderly painter of Victorian vintage, caustically summarises the political developments of the previous century: "Seventy years ago the politicians and the tradesmen were in alliance; they destroyed the gentry by destroying the value of land; some of the gentry became politicians themselves, others tradesmen; out of what was left they created the new class into which I was born, the moneyless, landless, educated gentry who managed the country for them. My grandfather was a Canon of Christchurch, my father was in the Bengal Civil Service. All the capital they left their sons was education and moral principle."

This is caricature, perhaps, but like most caricature it carries a grain of truth. Moral principle was capable of working in unexpected ways. The radical middle-class spirit that had hovered over the passing of the Great Reform Bill of 1832 grew in strength over the rest of the century. Its protagonists, if not its convictions, turn up in George Gissing's novels. Gissing distrusted the mob and feared the democratising urge. Nevertheless, his novels are full of zealous middle-class people attempting to extend the franchise, promote scientific enlightenment ("rationalism") or even, at a very basic level, provide libraries for slum labourers. When, at about the time Gissing ceased to write, Labour representation in the Commons and the forging of alliances between the various parts of the late 19th-century progressive movement (Fabians, disillusioned liberals, trade unions, craft associations) became a proposition, radical middle-class activists played a pivotal role.

The history of the modern Labour movement, in fact, is the history of the middle classes occupying the strategic high ground. Labour's most successful prime minister? Major Attlee (Haileybury and University College, Oxford). Its enduring socialist conscience? Stafford Cripps, the "red squire". Its most thoughtful postwar ideologue? Anthony Crosland (Winchester and Trinity College, Oxford). Offered a choice between a middle-class professional and a working-class bruiser (Gaitskell versus Bevan and Morrison; Wilson versus Brown; Blair versus Prescott), the party unfailingly plumps for bourgeois expertise. And on purely pragmatic grounds, the party is right to do so. Middle-class tribunes - I am not glorying in this, merely pointing it out - win elections, they get things fixed. In the purely legislative field, examine any genuinely enlightened act of the past 50 years - Roy Jenkins's 1967 decriminalisation of homosexuality, for example - and the chances are that it had its origins in a middle-class lobby.

And if we are all growing more middle-class, then so, necessarily, is our activism. Anyone with a keen eye and a disregard for his or her personal safety can throw a brick at a policeman on duty outside the World Trade Center. But the real pressure that, however incrementally, effects political change comes from within a middle-class political establishment. To go back to the question of our national cultural life, perhaps the most important, certainly the most disturbing, cultural development of the past half-century is this: that whereas, in the past, there existed a popular culture created largely by the people for the people, now there is only a mass culture that is imposed on the people from above. This development is now probably unstoppable, but the only part of the populace capable of diverting it, or at least recasting it in a more acceptable shape, are the kind of licence payers who write bilious letters to the BBC and irritate its chairman.

"If there is hope, it lies in the proles," Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four. But here Orwell, at any rate from the perspective of the early 21st century, was wrong. The proles are either addling their heads with drugs or scuttling into the warm embrace of the bourgeoisie. If there is hope, both for them and for the rest of us, it lies where it has always lain - in the radical middle classes.

D J Taylor is writing a centenary biography of George Orwell