Middle England. They’re nicer than you think

Middle Englanders are insular, selfish and intolerant. Not so, argues Richard Reeves. Plus Stephen A

It is a place inhabited by "ordinary people with suburban dreams who worked hard to improve their homes and their lives; to get gradually better cars, washing machines and televisions; to go on holiday in Spain rather than Bournemouth", in the words of the new Labour strategist Philip Gould. It is where homes are anxiously owned, families are raised and crime is feared. The Daily Mail lies on the doorsteps. It is where contemporary British elections are won and lost. And it casts a powerful spell over marketeers, pollsters, journalists and - above all - politicians. It is, of course, "Middle England".

When Gordon Brown praises "hard-working families" or when David Cameron takes the axe to inheritance tax, they are assumed by headline-writers to have their eyes trained on this semi-mythical land. It represents, we are supposed to assume, the very heartland of the nation. As such, it acts as a kind of political bull's-eye: if parties can aim their policies directly at Middle England, the electoral match will be theirs.

Middle England is also frequently assumed to be insular, selfish, xeno phobic, homophobic, anti-welfare, anti-Europe and generally resentful. It is the place where Thatcher's children moved to when they grew up. But if Middle England means anything at all, then its inhabitants are in fact more numerous, more diverse and considerably more liberal than the stereotype. Middle England reads the Mail, but does not agree with it.

Ian Hislop, researching his BBC radio series Looking for Middle England, found Lord Salisbury using the term in 1882, but it did not seem to have caught on. The historian David Cannadine records in his Class in Britain that it was Mrs T herself who introduced the term into the modern political lexicon - apparently copying Richard Nixon's conjuring of "Middle America". Politically, Middle England denotes a set of voters, presumed to have mainstream attitudes, who are also disproportionately likely to be swing voters in marginal constituencies. Martin Jacques has complained that Middle England is a "metaphor for respectability, the nuclear family, conservatism, whiteness, middle age and the status quo".

One of the fears of liberal-left commentators, who unfailingly use the term disparagingly, is that national politics is being driven by the neuroses of an insular, unrepresentative group of a few hundred thousand people. It is certainly true that those in Brown's team are obsessively interested in the views of this group, and that Lord Ashcroft is pouring money into winning their votes, but they are not political freaks. Their views may not be those of New Statesman readers - but they are roughly representative of the nation. They voted Tory until 1997 and have voted Labour since, though with misgivings in 2005. They are non-graduate families in which both Dad and Mum work to pay the mortgage. They read the tabloids but get their news from television, and are utterly uninterested in party politics. They water their neighbours' plants when they are on holiday and keep an eye on the old lady over the road. The only manner in which they differ significantly from the norm is their unusually high, and largely irrational, fear of crime.

Ben Page, managing director of the MORI Social Research Institute, says that the label Middle England is used as "a convenient shorthand for the 25 per cent of the population who are not surgically wedded to one of the main parties - and who happen to live in marginal constituencies". For this group, party commitment is weak and the impression made by an individual leader is strong. Policies are generally weakly linked with voting intention - unless they push the right buttons.

The Conservative pincer movement to lower both stamp duty and inheritance tax played beautifully with them because of their powerful relationship with property: they are the first in their family to own a home, and fear that they will be the last. The rise in house prices threatens to price their children out of the market. This is also the group with the darkest memories of Black Wednesday, negative equity and repossessions. Even if they were not personally affected, they know somebody who was. It is true that inheritance tax is extremely unlikely to affect them - but it also offends one of their strongest instincts, which is to see their kids right.

Geographically, Middle England means suburbs - in the south and the Midlands. There are moments when "Middle Britain" is preferred by Labour politicians, but Scotland and Wales do not feature in any of the social, spatial or psepho logical categories that command the attention of the political classes. Middle England is Metroland - the areas traversed by the Metropolitan Line: Pinner, Ruislip, Hillingdon - writ large across the English nation. It is Essex Man, or Worcester Woman, but never Merthyr Man or Galloway Girl.

In terms of social status, Middle Englanders are what pollsters and marketing analysts call C1s and C2s, otherwise the lower middle class and skilled working class, though analysts at the purer end of the market don't like such labels. "Categorisations always carry the danger of being misleading," says Miranda Phillips from the National Centre for Social Research. "Middle England is a phrase used in the press and politics, rather than in social research. On balance, I think Middle England is likely to be a misleading categorisation. It is simply not that straightforward."

The university effect

It certainly is not. Class, status and attitudes relate to each other in complex and changing ways and there are many dangers in our apparently insatiable desire to put ourselves - and especially other people - into tidy boxes. Nonetheless, certain key trends are fairly clear. More people are middle class, and more people think of themselves that way; the relationship between social class and both political identification and social attitudes is weakening; and - most interesting of all - the group that can plausibly be defined as being in the "middle" is both more liberal than the stereotype suggests, and becoming more so with each passing year.

Forty per cent of the population now define themselves as "middle class", up from 30 per cent four decades ago. The final numerical triumph of the bourgeoisie is at hand: as Professor Anthony Heath has written: "In 1964, for every person who called themselves middle-class, there were 2.1 who said they were working-class. Now that ratio is just 1:1.5." Even John Prescott is middle-class now, remember. As the number of unskilled labourers has diminished, the proportion of the adult population classified as C1 or C2 or equivalent has reached 22 per cent, up from 18 per cent in 1983 - a significant expansion in socioeconomic terms.

Profound shifts are taking place in attitudes, too. The lazy stereotype is that Middle Englanders lack the lofty liberalism of their AB cousins, but the evidence often suggests otherwise. In a Populus survey this year, for example, 42 per cent of respondents in social classes AB agreed that "children brought up by a single parent are more likely to get into trouble than children brought up by married parents", compared to 37 per cent of C1s and 28 per cent of C2s.

Over time, Middle Englanders have become more tolerant and open-minded. According to data prepared by the National Centre for Social Research, the pro p ortions of C1s and C2s who think that "sexual relations between two adults of the same sex" are "always wrong" are 23 and 30 per cent, respectively - down from 38 and 56 per cent in 1983. The current figure among those from social class A is 17 per cent.

Widening access to higher education has played a part: one of the best predictors of socially liberal attitudes is level of edu cation. Universities have been opened to the masses, to the dismay of über-conservative commentators such as Digby Anderson, who asks in his pamphlet All Oiks Now: the Un noticed Surrender of Middle England: "In what ways do the middle-class students differ from the others? They certainly look the same. It is difficult to tell the daughter of a doctor from the daughter of an unemployed miner, indeed sometimes from the son of an unemployed miner." His Middle England, it should be noted, is entirely upper-middle-class.

In the 1960s, a fierce academic debate raged over the "em bourgeoisement thesis" - which stated that, as the working class became more affluent, they would detach from their proletarian peers, lose class consciousness and adopt the attitudes and values of the middle class, in particular with regard to party and trade union loyalty. (Anderson fears that the opposite process - de-embourgeoisement, perhaps? - is the actual result.) The famous sociologist John Goldthorpe, in his masterpiece The Affluent Worker, showed that, in terms of social networks, even well-off workers remained true to their roots, but that their political opinions did begin to alter. In particular, their support for the Labour Party became contingent, rather than given. In some ways, the politics of the rest of the century flow from this fact, and Labour's long failure to grasp it. Where it is clear that embourgeoisement does apply is in social attitudes; affluence has brought toleration in its wake.

Muddle England

One reason why commentators miss the rising liberalism of Middle England is that they make the mistake of looking at what they read, and assuming they agree with it. It is true that Daily Mail readers are more likely to vote Conservative - but to a lesser extent than Mirror readers are more likely to vote Labour. And while it is also true that 46 per cent of Mail readers think that immigration is one of the most important issues facing the country, 44 per cent of Financial Times readers do, too. On many social issues, the readers of the Middle England tabloids are more liberal than the population at large, especially the younger ones. The views of Mail readers are not facsimiles of the paper's editorials. There is no clone army of Paul Dacres roaming the suburbs.

What is stalking the land is anxiety and fear, especially about money. Middle Englanders are under huge financial pressure. Wages in the middle-income range have ticked up painfully slowly over the past decade - which may be one reason why Middle England supports moves to hit the unearned wealth of private equity barons and the untethered wealth of the "non-doms": again, a truth the Tories divined before phobic Labour ministers. Their concerns about immigration are primarily economic, rather than straightforwardly "racist".

The fears of Middle England are not always consistent, or rational. Ben Page has decided that the public is suffering from "cognitive polyphasia", a diagnosis that means "people are holding lots of conflicting ideas": more muddle England than Middle England. The majority think immigration is a big problem, but only a small minority say it is a problem affecting them. Middle England, he says, is also "a bit Pooterish - a bit Margo from The Good Life; they are conservative but with a small 'c'". They may well be fiscally conservative, but they are mostly socially liberal. Their high fear of crime may stem from their position as the first middle-class members of their family: now they have something to lose.

As with all sociopolitical categories, the edges of Middle England become more blurred as you approach them, the inhabitants as hard to pin down as those of Middle Earth. Middle Englanders certainly do not recognise the "long shadows" falling across county cricket grounds and the "old maids bicycling to Holy Communion" evoked by John Major; but nor did they make much of the tortured attempts of early new Labour to conjure a "Cool Britannia".

Middle England is sceptical of party politics, yes. Fearful about crime and immigration, certainly. Instinctively desiring to hold on to its own money rather than give it to the Treasury, you bet. Much of which is because Middle England is a more precarious place than the lands above, where professionals and the rich can insulate themselves against risk, and below, where there is less to be lost in any case. But Middle England is not nasty. Indeed, it is a broad-minded kind of place. And to the extent that it really is the soul of the nation, this can only be cause for celebration. For the liberalisation of Middle England might represent the final triumph of liberalism itself.

Illustration by A Richard Allen

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan

Chris Ball/UNP
Show Hide image

The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

0800 7318496