The tragedy of the middle classes

The Economist had an interesting article about Russia a while back, but one paragraph in particular stands out as having more general application:

The old social contract, with a weak, passive middle class enriching itself while staying out of politics, cannot become an indefinite right to rule.

Isn’t this the problem in Northern Ireland too? The middle classes, such as the apocryphal “garden centre Prod”, have withdrawn from politics and left the tribal bases to prop up an ossifying system. Electoral turnout has been on the wane ever since the GFA, and it can be argued that this reflects not consent but apathy.

The peace dividend, consisting mainly of a bloated public sector, has left the middle classes comfortable. But this is the lazy comfort of managed decline – there is precious little fresh thinking in either the business or political establishments. And meanwhile the tribal divide continues to fester, with Girdwood the latest integration plan to have its teeth pulled. Political announcements by the main parties seem designed not to break out of the trenches, but to consolidate their position within them.

In most advanced countries the middle classes hold considerable political power – it is the middle classes in the main that parties from both sides try to woo through tax schemes and public order initiatives. But politics in Northern Ireland is divorced from such concerns. If one has no interest in the tribal balance of power, NI politics holds no appeal. If one’s livelihood is funded (directly or indirectly) from London then there is no incentive to get involved in provincial affairs.

Stormont cannot do anything about the economy, and will not do anything about society. What remains of middle-class politics? The garden centre has never looked more attractive.


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