McTernan on politics

Are we witnessing the strange death of bourgeois Britain? Walk
through our town and city centres and you are surrounded by the
signs of the confidence of the Victorian middle classes. As
entrepreneurs and business leaders, they constructed our urban
landscape from office buildings to those secular cathedrals –
railway stations. They believed in progress and they changed the
face of Britain. Their belief that things should, and can, be
better was an important legacy.

If the Victorians created the physical infrastructure, the
progressive middle classes of the 20th century addressed themselves
to social infrastructure. And decade after decade they made Britain
a better country in which to live – pensions, council housing, the
welfare state and equal pay. The list could go on, but the point is
clear: problems were for solving and crusades were for joining.

Look at us now. Clinicians have a category of patients they call
the “worried well”, people who only have to read of a worrying new
disease to realise that they already show the symptoms of its early
onset. Any well publicised health scare will fill GPs’ surgeries
with patients like this. Our body politic now contains a similar
group – the bothered and beleaguered bourgeoisie. The collapse of
mass membership in political parties, the poverty of talent in
elected representatives, the hollowing out of civic institutions
are all symptoms of the collapse of middle-class engagement. Where
once it would have produced a Beveridge who would seek to transform
social conditions we now have a class committed to defending its

How do you rouse middle Britain? Try bringing in a one-way system
in their neighbourhood. Or what about seeking planning permission
to set up a halfway house for people with chronic mental health
problems. Then you will find that the middle classes have lost none
of their capacity for mobilisation. But it is all defensive and it
evaporates when threatened.

Tom Peters, the management guru, once told a group of chief
executives that their staff are thoughtful, innovative, excited and
engaged for all of their lives – except when they are at work. He
was challenging those leaders to find ways to unleash the
creativity of their staff. In the same way today in Britain most
households are engaged with their communities in many ways, but it
is often on a narrow, interest-driven basis – the school their
child attends, the sports club where they exercise. There is little
evidence of less self-interested engagement. Yet our society faces
challenges that organisations are struggling to meet. We are a
knowledge economy and a network society. Where are the civic
entrepreneurs who can create the social institutions we need?

John McTernan is a political analyst.

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