NS Profile - Middle England

This land of Polo mint-suckers and Sunday car-washers, it is said, will decide who wins the election

When Maria Hutchings from Essex harangued Tony Blair on Channel 5 in February, she claimed to be speaking for Middle Englanders, who "have to pay the taxes that keep the country going" and who are increasingly "impotent" and "forgotten". The man once seen as the embodiment of Middle England, from his Chrysler Grand Voyager to his holidays in Tuscany, was accused of neglecting his own. But as the election campaign's rhetoric will doubtless reiterate, Middle England never gets the right amount of attention. It is always being either shamelessly pandered to or shamefully ignored.

"Middle England" first became a media term during the John Major era. The former Tory minister Tristan Garel-Jones defined Major as the "personification of Middle England", the person you see "by the pavement on a Sunday, washing the car, eating some Polo mints, and listening to the cricket match on the radio". Unfortunately, Garel-Jones did not seem to know where Middle England was. He described it as "an all-embracing term to include Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - anywhere outside SW1": the whole of the country, in other words, apart from a small postal district incorporating Westminster and Belgravia. If "Middle England" suggested a vague geographical area in the south and Midlands and outside the major cities, it referred less to a region than to a particular group of people who had joined the middle classes since the Thatcher years. But its real roots lay deeper.

The British middle classes have always been as much a political idea as a sociological fact. Between the French revolution of 1789 and the Great Reform Act of 1832, politicians and journalists began to evoke middle-classness to convey support for moderate reform, against the more extreme aims of working-class radicals. The middle classes were imagined as the moral backbone of the nation - but they were also seen as beleaguered and put-upon. This sense of victimhood began with William Pitt the Younger's imposition of income tax in 1798, which many members of the middle classes saw as punishment for their industry and enterprise. Similar anxieties have resurfaced at times of political crisis, such as after the two world wars, when inflation, taxation and industrial unrest threatened to destroy hard-won privileges.

It was middle-class discontent during the economic downturn of the 1970s that led to the success of the Thatcherite appeal to their traditional values: hard work and self-betterment. Margaret Thatcher's innovation was to promote this idea as anti-elitist. In her memoirs, she proudly notes the discomfort of Tory wets at her "alarming conviction that the values and virtues of Middle England should be brought to bear on the problems which the establishment consensus had created". Middle Englanders could be usefully contrasted with unpopular figures such as bureaucrats, intellectuals and public service professionals, all now viewed as self-interested elites protecting their own jobs and privileges.

Thatcher's Middle England owed something to Middle America, a term coined during Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign to describe a region populated by the silent majority of Americans, whose opinions were not represented in the east-coast media. Accepting the Republican nomination, Nixon addressed "the quiet voice in the tumult of the shouting . . . the forgotten Americans - the non-shouters". Nixon was mobilising what became known as the blue-collar backlash, a movement dissected in What's the Matter With America? by Thomas Frank. The parallel between Middle Englanders and what Frank calls the "red-staters" (Americans living in the swathe of Republican states beyond the coasts) is striking. Both have been encouraged to see themselves as the true spirit of the nation - the humble, unpretentious millions ignored by a fashionable liberal elite.

An important event in the modern invention of Middle England was Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential victory, which Labour eyed enviously after its fourth election defeat in a row. The Democrats' strategy had been to win over what the Clinton strategist Stanley Greenberg called "the working middle class". A few days after Clinton's victory, Labour's chief pollster, Philip Gould, wrote in the Guardian that Labour must find a way of appealing to "our Basildon equivalent of the 'working middle class'". In The Unfinished Revolution (1998), Gould writes that he learned his politics during a childhood spent in "the land that Labour forgot . . . an unexceptional suburban town [Woking] where most people were neither privileged nor deprived". Labour was to betray these people who had "outgrown crude collectivism and left it behind in the supermarket car park".

Gould's book gives an emotionally charged and autobiographical context to his use of private polling and focus groups to target swing voters. But in The Rise of New Labour (2001), the academics Anthony Heath, Roger Jowell and John Curtice dispel this belief in a crucial "median" voter. They show that the success of the Tories in the 1980s and new Labour in the 1990s had more to do with class de-alignment (the establishment of a broad base of support across classes) than class realignment (the winning over of a particular type, such as "Woking man" or "Worcester woman").

The myth of Middle England is that the mood of the middle classes can be straightforwardly measured or intuited, in Gould's "unassuming front rooms" where his focus groups convene. But politics is about struggles over language and meaning, as well as public opinion-gathering and psephology. And the contest to define Middle England has largely been won in recent years by a newspaper that has returned to the pre-eminence it achieved as the voice of the provincial middle classes in the interwar period.

While tabloid circulation in general has been in slow decline, the Daily Mail's has risen. The Mail's favourite topic is the victimised middle classes, whom it celebrates as Britain's most economically dynamic, revenue-generating, law-abiding citizens. They are always being "ripped off" and "ground into the dust", threatened by "tax bombshells" and "creeping burdens". At least the Mail is historically consistent. As early as 1919, it championed the plight of what it called the "New Poor" - that "vast, silent and increasing section" of the middle class, so burdened by tax that it had to employ fewer servants and send its children to cheaper schools.

Yet the Mail's persecution complex on behalf of today's middle classes has developed during a long period of low inflation, low interest rates and rising house prices. Middle-class prosperity in the sustained economic boom of the past decade seems only to have made the Mail more clamant. As homeowners benefited from the buoyant property market in southern England, for example, it campaigned against the inheritance tax for which they were now liable as a result of rising equity.

The Mail's solution is to define Middle England by its opposites: "Islington Person", "Cool Britannia", "the chattering classes". It avoids specific reference to troublesome issues such as class, money and power, which might reveal that the middle classes do not make up the whole of the country and are far from homogeneous anyway. Instead, it contrasts the blameless routine of Tesco and the school run with the modish lifestyle of metropolitan intellectuals, who spout off about the country's problems at north London soirees. And it prefers nice, female newsreaders (Fiona Bruce, Natasha Kaplinsky) to smart-alec macho inquisitors from the west London mafia (Paxman, Humphrys). There is a clear resemblance to what Frank calls the "latte libel" - the automatic equation of American liberal politics with arrogant, elitist cultural tastes, such as a liking for coffee with a fancy foreign name.

Blair has never tried to woo Middle England. He prefers the PC variant, "Middle Britain", which helpfully suggests the key southern and Midland regions without alienating the Celtic fringes. Blair describes Middle Britain in classic Clintonian tones. It is made up of "the moderate, middle-income majority" of decent, working people who "play by the rules". Compared to the ranting Mail, he sounds reasonable. But the themes are the same: the attempt to speak for certain interests while remaining hazily inclusive; the emphasis on hard work to reassure people that they will not be subsidising slackers and scroungers; the implicit appeal to anxieties about loss of wealth and status as the middle class expands. Middle England is the creation of an Anglo-American, conservative populism that aims to bypass political institutions and speak directly to an undifferentiated "people".

No wonder Garel-Jones couldn't find it on the map. As a region or a tribe of people, Middle England doesn't exist.

Joe Moran's longer essay "The Strange Birth of Middle England" appears in the latest issue of the Political Quarterly