Bourgeois Beacon

"Only the party that wins the trust of the middle classes deserves to govern."

At the time of writing, the British general election is still too close to call. Standpoint has no party allegiance: not just because our charitable status precludes it, but because cheering on one party or another is a task that is already done by plenty of others. The ultimate purpose of politics should not be prosperity and security alone, but liberty and justice too, with all that these entail, from avoiding onerous laws and taxes or gratuitous intrusions in private life to defending our values against those who would consign Western civilisation to oblivion. Persuading our political and cultural elites that they exist to serve us and to preserve our way of life, not the other way round, is part of our job — especially at elections, when all the parties are inclined to mortgage posterity and bribe voters with their own money.

It was Aristotle who first described the perfect polity as “one in which the middle class is in control, and outnumbers both of the other classes”. We in the West live in just such polities, yet most of our leaders ignore middle-class needs and aspirations. They persist in pretending that we live in a binary system of patricians and plebeians: a zero-sum game in which plutocrats plunder everyone else unless politicians play Robin Hood and rob the rich to help the poor. To unleash the might of existing markets, to enable entrepreneurs to discover new ones, or to remove the dead hand of the state from lives stifled by dependency: such ideas play no part in the calculations of parties who prefer to turn citizens into supplicants.

Only the party that can win the trust of the middle class deserves to govern. That is because the other classes have less of a stake in a free, democratic and stable society. The very rich can simply up sticks and leave; the poor fondly imagine they have nothing to lose by punitive taxes, not only on high but also on middle incomes. Only bourgeois virtues benefit everyone, including those who despise them.

Yet nothing is rarer in today’s politics than to hear an honest endorsement of these virtues. Many politicians pay lip service to middle-class notions such as “balancing the books”, only to abandon them once in office. The Labour manifesto, for example, is deliberately bereft of ideas, so that “balancing the books” is the only one that will stick in voters’ minds. Yet the record of Labour governments ever since the 1960s has consistently been one of living beyond the nation’s means: every one has taxed, spent and borrowed more than its predecessor. The notion that Ed Miliband and Ed Balls care a fig about “balancing the books” runs contrary to everything we know about their political careers. Such Labour policies as the vain attempt to rig the energy market by freezing prices, the reversal of the Coalition’s reforms of education and welfare, or the mansion tax all run counter to middle-class interests and instincts.

Not that the Conservative manifesto was any less dispiriting. Not only does the promise of a “long-term plan” embrace frankly socialist rhetoric, but it implies a will to power cynical enough to make big government even bigger. Take the “Right to Buy” plan to force housing associations (which, unlike councils, are independent, efficient charities) to sell their housing stock at below the market rate. It will require a huge extension of state power (which could and should be challenged in the courts), a subsidy running into many billions, and a missed opportunity to relieve the housing shortage. If the forced disposal of local authority assets that will supposedly pay for Right to Buy is practical, why should the proceeds be used, not to build houses, but to benefit a minority of housing association tenants — or property developers who will quickly snap up these bargains? This pseudo-Right is unpopular, unfair and inimical to bourgeois virtues. By contrast, the Conservative promise to exempt homes worth up to £1 million from inheritance tax is popular, because it chimes with the bourgeois desire to pass something on to the next generation.

Neither of the two main parties, then, has heeded Aristotle’s advice. This is bad news for the poor. The only societies in history that have made strenuous efforts to improve the condition of outsiders — women, ethnic and religious minorities, the unemployed, the disabled, the destitute — have been bourgeois societies. None of this happens in places where there is only a weak middle class, or none at all — which is to say, in most places and at most times in history. Only an entrepreneurial capitalist society can create the wealth needed to care for those less able to compete. A middle-class China would be formidable indeed, but as George Walden argues on page 21, right now the Chinese Communist Party is taking the country in the opposite direction, away from the bourgeois model of Singapore created by the Chinese-born but British-educated Lee Kuan Yew. This is bad news for China, where the weakest have so often been allowed to go to the wall, but also for the rest of us. Likewise, the failure of the Islamic world to permit the emergence of a prosperous, educated middle class is catastrophic — and not only for Muslims.

The United Kingdom was the first country to be run by the middle class and the first to demonstrate that this was not the same as being run exclusively for the middle class. We urgently need to return to our historic role as a beacon of bourgeois virtues. No party that fails to understand this deserves to form the next government.

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