What even is “middle class?”

My thought for this musing begins on that dark cavern of the internet called Twitter. Far from the sweet birdsong of a summer morning, as a platform Twitter is dominated by highly emotive short text “tweets” that are fuelled by an algorithm on the hunt continually for ‘trending’ topics.

No, I am not interested in Elon Musk buying it for a dollar valuation one can scarcely comprehend in tangible terms. What made me think was a tweet from an author called Fergus Craig, which as you can see from below decries the odd referral system still used by the home office to issue passports:

The referral system has lot much of its power. It used to exist for things as basic as a bank account and in parts of old Northern Ireland (pre-1972) it was common for Catholics to not have bank accounts due to lack of Protestant referrals. In fact this is why in some quarters there is still a feeling that credit unions are for working class CNR communities and banks are for PUL people.

Nowadays though this is largely a stereotype, but don’t we all know middle class Catholics and middle class Protestants who wear their working class roots like a badge of honour? I am guilty of it too, in the throws of political discourse it can be enraging when people think you had it easy. Apart from being a man, I still am not sure how I ever had much of an advantage growing up – incidentally I only have a bank account because I set one up through school!

But now in adulthood, after the slog of a public education, and with help from an international employer partly enticed here by Invest NI it isn’t unfair to say that I am “middle class.” It is uncomfortable, but it is the truth. Neighbours who mean well but to me resemble Hyacinth Bucket and her cringeworthy obsession with the upper class, who (oddly enough) always seem to chime more with the working class than their joint disdain for the middle classes in the old sitcom.

Politics is a middle class game, however it is unfair to say that they don’t care or aren’t motivated by working class issues. In the 19th century it was thought that the great size of the proletariat would mean the inevitability of socialism, but what happened? What happened was that the middle class expanded, until the 1930s worldwide depression it had expanded continually since the invention of the spinning jenny. FDR-ism, which modern liberalism owes its entire values system to, articulated a vision of using your vote to eliminate the vices of poverty and fear.

Since then, especially after the war with the welfare state, there has been a growth in the middle classes with pushes and pulls of the market and the state (left-right). It is hubris to not recognise how the state has done this too, but still when I talk to people out campaigning I get the usual anger about means testing and the so called “benefits society.” When my granny bought her pebble dashed terrace in the ’80s as a strong working woman was she part of this “benefits society?” Society built her house, she paid the rents, she then bought it with money from her job in the health service.

Our squeamishness with class is a refusal to accept that stable societies have strong middle classes and that getting as many people to join it should be the goal of said society. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems to talk of nothing else. The late Robert Campbell put it best when he said to me and the other moderators that the distinction in our society today is between a guaranteed salary/wages and the instability of the zero hours/casual ‘gig’ economy. Shouldn’t it be our goal that if somebody is stuck in the latter, we provide them with ample opportunity to join the former?

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