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

JOHN DEVOLLE/GETTY IMAGES
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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge