The Liberal Party was once the party of what historian Judith Brett refers to as the "moral middle class". This term refers to "those people who see their politics as an expression of their principles and values rather than their self-interest, who want the country to do what is good and right, not just what is good for them". According to Brett's book Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class: From Alfred Deakin to John Howard, John Howard's Liberal Party has abandoned these admirable roots and become a narrow party of self-interest.
Brett's evocation of the moral middle class harks back to Menzies' "forgotten people" speech of 1942, where he defined the middle class as excluding both "the rich and powerful" and "the mass of unskilled people, almost invariably well-organised, and with their wages and conditions safeguarded by popular law". The middle class thus consisted of "salary-earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women, farmers and so on".
An alternative interpretation of recent years is that, far from the Liberal Party leaving the middle class, sections of the middle class have left the Liberal Party. The onset of the information age has disrupted traditional class divisions. Menzies' shopkeepers and farmers are still voting Liberal, but many of the professional men and women do so no longer.
Brett's explanation is that "Howard has dismissed sections of informed middle class opinion that he disagrees with as simply the sectional views of the elites". I believe that a segment of the middle class - that part most involved in the information economy - has broken off from the rest. This is what Brett lovingly describes as the "moral" middle class with "informed" opinions. Predominantly lawyers, journalists, academics and white collar public servants, its members constitute what Howard likes to disparage as the "elites".
Howard is ignoring them, but in doing so he is keeping the faith with the rest of Menzies' middle class. In election parlance, the latter group has become known as the "aspirational voters". They are small businessmen, salesmen, tradesmen, technicians, supervisors and middle managers. The university-qualified among them are accountants or engineers. They are conservative and suspicious of utopian ideology.
By implication, one supposes that Brett thinks of them as the "immoral" or at least "amoral" middle class, with "uninformed" opinions. She does not see them as true to the Menzies legacy. I'm not so sure. Hearken back to Menzies' speech and you come across his defining themes of "homes material, homes human and homes spiritual", by which he identifies the middle class.
In relation to homes material, Menzies extolled the virtue of middle class home ownership, saying, "National patriotism, in other words, inevitably springs from the instinct to defend and preserve our own homes".
To Brett's moral middle class, national patriotism is a primitive and misguided sentiment worthy only of scorn. Yet in the suburbs where the aspirationals worry over their mortgages, patriotism is at its strongest. So, of course, is the great Australian dream of home ownership. It is the elites, not the aspirationals, who have parted company with Menzies' ideal of homes material.
In relation to homes human, Menzies warned that, "A great house, full of loneliness, is not a home". The rearing of children to have a deep affiliation for our community is a profound responsibility of our society. Yet the word "family" rarely enters elite discourse without an accompanying sneer. Brett's moral middle class spurns child rearing in favour of high-powered careers and feminist ideology. Its members inhabit inner cities, which are almost devoid of traditional families.
"If human homes are to fulfil their destiny, then we must have frugality and saving for education and progress", Menzies concludes. And who are the people scrimping and saving to send their children to private schools? Not, the opinion pollsters tell us, for an extra mark on their TER but for "values". They would be the aspirationals. Meanwhile, the elites condemn the very notion that education should be funded by anyone but the state.
On homes human, we can chalk up another match for the aspirationals, not the elites.
Finally, Menzies spoke of homes spiritual, founded on "a brave acceptance of unclouded individual responsibility", "intelligent ambition", "intellectual life" and "pure learning". It is here that the aspirationals come into their own, striving to better themselves and their children and resisting the culture of victim mentality propagated by the elites. Yet it is here that the elite critique of the aspirationals is most harsh.