Friday, 5 November 2010


We are currently in a phoney-war. Waiting for the cuts to make the transformation from paper projections to concrete reality it appears that aside from a few opening skirmishes the real action is still somewhere further down the line.

Yet have we already seen the birth of one of the most important debates, one which may well come to define the new century.

Much has been made of the term the 'squeezed middle' which exploded into our consciousness following Ed Milibands election as labour leader.

On one hand this can be dismissed as simply the politics of Blair; Championing the middle ground occupied by the floating voter, but on the other it can be an astute reflection on the final collapse of the Post War Welfare State. Like Brighton's West Pier the Post War Welfare state seems to have lingered on an, a shell of its former self, gradually disintegrating back into the sea with each new storm.

It has long been said that the welfare state, founded on principles of universalism, benefited the middle classes, sometimes even disproportionately. They gained from an expansion in university education, the universal NHS and perhaps most importantly benefited from the jobs created by expanding state bureaucracies the legions of teachers, nurses, town-planners and social workers all needed to deliver the new universal services.

The impact of the disintegration of the post-war welfare state therefore means that, as Madeline Bunting pointed out in the Guardian, the middle-class dream of university education, home ownership and the trappings of status are in effect now over.

There are of course many interestiong arguments about just who the middle class are. Melanie Phillips favours the term 'aspirational classes'. Aspiration is of course another word for dream; the dreaming classes. Whilst I do not wholly accept Phillips views about the finer points of the definition the dreams of the middle-classes, of a comfortable life, of a good society, of upward-mobility and fairness provide the template for the post-war welfare state and are intrinsically, inseparably linked.

The question this leaves is what replaces the dream? For its many faults the attempt to create a 'New Jerusalem' after the war was an act of dreaming par excellence. A dream of a better society which would somehow make sense of the sacrifices made to create the platform of peace and prosperity it rested upon.

The 'big society' just doesn't seem an appropriate replacement for the good society; something the Philosopher Slavoj Zizek (credit for the link goes to The Plashing Vole) hits upon when he argues, using some intellectual groundwork by Oscar Wilde, that charitable giving only alleviates and prolongs the misery caused by the overarching system; Charity per se is not necessarily bad he suggests, but what is needed is to attack the causes of the problems - to create a better society. To dream of a better world.

This is our challenge all the more urgent now the dreams of 1945 and the middle classes are over. Once the phoney-war has ended and the cuts begin to bite we need to ask ourselves what kind of society we want.

Just what are we dreaming of?


  1. Hi Neil. Thanks for commenting over at my place. I tend to agree with you: it would take a harder man than I to refuse a charity while saying 'sorry, I think we need to lobby for structural change rather than offer individuals immediate aid' - but we do need to stop assuming that we can run a society on the goodwill of volunteers and individuals who may well decide that donkeys are a more deserving cause than for example the poor, currently being demonised.

  2. I think that is one of the massive issues when it comes to the whole big society proposition. In the third sector now there is huge inequality between organisations, some are bloated with cash, allowing them to plough even more into marketing and fund-raising whilst others - especially those dealing with the most marginalised lead a hand-to-mouth existence. If we rely on charitable giving for providing services without any, or little state funding to redress the balance then the inequality of these structures will find itself translated across the whole welfare state.