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Middle class cuts

October 4, 2010

It’s not often that I’m prompted to make a connection between the rarefied world of literary criticism and the (only less slightly rarefied) world of politics. But here I go. In a recent edition of the LRB, there’s a piece on current trends in fiction. It argues that we’re in the grip of a literary culture that only finds truth and interest in the lives of the poor, the huddled masses, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore etc.

So:

Non-white, non-college-educated or non-middle or upper-class people may write what they know, but White People have to find the voice of a Vietnamese woman impregnated by a member of the American army that killed her only true love.

The assumption is that:

Children of privilege don’t have stories to tell; that, because they aren’t from the barrio, they all have families like the one on Father Knows Best.

This is exactly the assumption that underpinned much of the conversation at Labour Party Conference. Tony Blair was famously allergic to the impression that he didn’t understand, or care, about the plight of the middle classes. But his new intake of MPs don’t share this squeamishness. The upsurge in chest-beating about the plight of the poorest was noticeable. Perhaps that’s understandable: public spending cuts will inevitably hit the poorest hardest; and there’s an eagerness amongst activists to escape from the era of politic “triangulation” to something more instinctive.

It’s more surprising, however, to hear this same tin-ear for the aspirations of Middle England at Conservative Party Conference. But that’s exactly what we’re getting. George Osborne will pledge to withdraw Child Benefit from families earning more than £44,000 a year to save £1 billion a year. At the same time he’ll promise tax cuts for lower and middle-earners. And, in the coming months, the review of tuition fees is likely to see wealthy families paying more.

Personally, this all sounds about right. It’s hard to support the payment of benefits to people who don’t need them (who could?). But I’m not so sure how this is all going to play out in the polls. Will middle class families really accept cuts to benefits without tax breaks? Can the government rely on middle-class magnanimity forever? It’s interesting that David Cameron has already got himself into trouble with The Daily Mail for complaining about sharp-elbowed middle class parents.

It will be extremely interesting to see how this develops. One thing’s for sure, however. A certain Anthony Blair would be sensing opportunity.

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