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'The great abdication' of the middle classes

By Alexander Deane - posted Tuesday, 14 June 2005

Has a society ever changed so much, so quickly? In 1955, the American anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer wrote: “The English are certainly among the most peaceful, gentle, courteous and orderly populations that the civilised world has ever seen. The control of aggression has gone to such remarkable lengths that you hardly ever see a fight in a bar and football crowds are as orderly as church meetings.”

Those words could hardly sound more hollow in the England of 50 years later, where anti-social behaviour prevails, where chief constables admit they have lost control of their cities, where feral children wander without restraint, where drug-taking and gun crime is rife, where family structures have broken down and authority has collapsed.

Mr Blair is quite right to speak of his anxiety about social decline, although his attitude smacks of hypocrisy, given that his government has wilfully dissolved so many of the bonds that used to hold our society together. From its vast expansion of the welfare state to its enthusiasm for uncontrolled immigration, New Labour has been an engine of social destruction.


It is a grim reflection of eight years of Labour rule that we now have among the highest rates of lone parenthood, pensioner poverty, drug abuse, and teenage pregnancy in Europe, while standards of education and healthcare are falling.

But apart from the Government, there has been another guilty party in this sorry saga: the British middle class. In my view, the very people who should have been challenging the lack of respect and morality in modern Britain have been colluding with it.

The middle class used to form the conscience of the nation. Their values of respectability and decency were the guiding principles for society. At the turn of the century, for instance, many coalminers consciously modelled themselves on the best of the middle class, seeking to better themselves by establishing their own libraries, evening classes, and debating societies.

The essentially middle-class virtues of self-reliance, honesty, thrift and fidelity were widely promulgated, turning Britain into one of the most orderly societies the world has ever known, with crime rates and family breakdown just a fraction of those that exist today.

Aristotle said that the best state was one dominated by the middle class. That was certainly the attitude which prevailed in Britain until the late 1960s. But since then, in our age of social upheaval, that spirit has all but disappeared.

Middle-class values, once seen as something to aspire to, are now widely regarded as outdated, snobbish, irrelevant or shallow. For many, the desire to keep up appearances, to show restraint and dignity, are faintly disreputable or downright laughable.


As I explain in my new book, The Great Abdication, the great tragedy is that the middle classes themselves, supposedly the bedrock of our civilisation, have so willingly gone along with this change. Instead of standing up for their moral code, they have presided over its demise.

Unwilling to impose judgments on anyone, they have retreated into a private world of self-gratification and self-advancement, or, even worse, they have sought to pretend that they are not middle class at all.

Disguising their own affluent backgrounds, they glory in downward mobility, adopting the manners, outlook and the voice of the working class - the well-heeled university student from public school with the fake Estuary accent has become one of the more regrettable symbols of modern Britain.

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First published in the Daily Mail  June 4, 2005. The Great Abdication, by Alexander Deane, is published by Imprint Academic.

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About the Author

Alexander Deane is a Barrister. He read English Literature at Trinity College, Cambridge and took a Masters degree in International Relations as a Rotary Scholar at Griffith University. He is a World Universities Debating Champion and is the author of The Great Abdication: Why Britain’s Decline is the Fault of the Middle Class, published by Imprint Academic. A former chief of staff to David Cameron MP in the UK, he also works for the Liberal Party in Australia.

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