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25 October 2007

Accidental Middle Englanders

Stephen Armstrong finds a worried generation

By Stephen Armstrong

Judy Arnold is a retired teacher. She went on the third Aldermaston march in 1960 and just about every subsequent CND demo in the 1960s. In the 1970s she was active in the Anti-Apartheid Movement and in the 1980s she sent money to families of imprisoned ANC activists through Canon John Collins’s Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa. In 2002, after her husband’s mother died, she realised that the two of them would be worth enough to incur inheritance tax when they passed on. She wanted her children and grandchildren to have all her money, so she began, for the first time in her life, an active policy of tax avoidance.

“We’d bought our house in 1969 for £5,500 and never moved, and now it’s worth quite a lot of money,” she says. “My father was a bank clerk and my husband’s father was a mining engineer; they both had houses, which they left to us. We’ve got good pensions, so even though we had never expected to be in this position, we’ve consulted a tax adviser and we’re setting up a trust for our estate to avoid death duties.

“I believe in paying tax and I want to pay my dues, but I don’t see why I should pay over and above a reasonable amount. I’ve paid tax on my earnings. I’ve paid tax on my savings. I didn’t even try to be rich during my working life. Why can’t I pass this good fortune on to my family?”

Arnold is part of a new and slightly awkward segment of the left – the accidental Middle Englanders. These are people who have been drawn, often against their wishes, under the umbrella of middle-class concerns. They may resent having to think about investments, property, mortgages and interest rates: they may even find such thoughts distasteful, but they are having them all the same.

From the left-wing teachers in Manchester who bought a cheap house in 1993 and now find themselves sitting on a substantial chunk of capital, to the IT workers in Slough who were educated in the 1970s when most schools were OK but are discovering they might have to move or go private if they want their children to get a good education, to Rolling Stones-loving baby boomers who have entered the inheritance tax bracket without ever expecting to, their concerns have pushed them into England’s ample middle. Interestingly, their politics tend to remain on the liberal left. “Ever since seeing David Edgar’s Maydays I’ve been worried I’d move to the right over my life,” says Ashley Barnes, 35, a director for the Sheffield-based community theatre charity Dead Earnest. “But I’m still not against immigration, I’m still pro gay marriage and I still believe you have to challenge the status quo. I do have a mortgage, however, mainly because I’ve got two kids and it seemed unfair to sacrifice their future on my bloody-mindedness.”

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Mark Ratcliffe, who runs the market research consultancy Murmur, recently studied this group for a large financial services company. He found that they were motivated by that other Middle England staple: worry. “They or their parents still remember when there was some faith in the welfare state and see it as something of a golden era,” he explains. “Now they’re convinced everything is a lottery, from schools to hospitals, and they’ve only got their own resources to keep them safe.”

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In a sense, he argues, the one echo of Thatcherism that just won’t leave their ears is the claim that “there is no such thing as society”. “I was interviewing a social worker in Manchester who said: ‘I hate the fact that this is true, but I know that if I don’t scream and shout, I’m going to end up on a trolley in a hospital corridor or my kids will be in a sink school.'”

These accidental Middle Englanders also feel guilty about their role in the property-owning democracy they spent much of their lives mocking. As a result, some asked for their names to be changed for this article. They are alarmed to find that, despite retaining their belief in alternative lifestyles and resistance to mainstream capitalism, their concerns are entering classic Daily Mail territory.

“I rented until last year and I used to feel very smug when I read all the stories about interest rates and house prices,” says Helen Thomas, 29, a teacher from Edinburgh. “Then gradually I started to get the feeling that I was missing the boat and that I was on the outside of something, so I bought a flat. Now I’m not worried about whether my mortgage goes up or down so much as suddenly thinking about what happens if there is a crash in the housing market. I never used to think that way, but now it’s part of my news agenda.”

“I would like my child’s potential to be fulfilled,” explains Dido Reed, 39, an acupuncturist in Hackney, east London. “I’m worried that I won’t be able to provide that for her. I think she would be very happy in the right state school, but there aren’t any good state secondary schools near me and I can’t afford to send her private at the moment.

“I’m saving up for it, but that’s the one area in my life where I’d really like to have money – so I could make that choice however I wanted.”

Arnold points to new sources of information. “When I was choosing a school for my kids in the 1970s you just didn’t know how well they performed,” she says. “I used to teach at a south London comprehensive and it wasn’t until they first published the league tables that I realised quite how badly it did in GCSE passes. Now I can check the league table for my grandchildren’s primary schools online whenever I want. It changes the way you view things.”

As a result, this group is very confused about the ballot box. Many voted Lib Dem after the Iraq War and are now wavering between Lib Dem and Labour. Although most dismiss David Cameron, they do see inheritance tax as an issue – almost certainly for the first time.

“The problem is that the mainstream has spread to encompass everybody, so there’s not much to choose between any of the parties,” Barnes argues. “The only actual alternative left is to opt out of society completely, and that just leaves you in a damp squat. I’m not an oddball, I’m not a Tory, I’m part of society, but I’m not sure what to do about that any more.”