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Cut to child benefit will bring out best in the middle class

Can the middle classes live up to their own hype?

Can they take the loss of child benefit on the chin? I hope so. They’ll disgrace themselves if they whinge. For the middle classes are the keepers of the flame of self-reliance. They claim the virtues of hard work, good management and thrift.

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Now they can demonstrate them.

It is this group which contains within it those who never tire of condemning benefit scroungers. Now they must let this precious pre-pension benefit go with good grace.

Not that the challenge is great, let’s face it. As always, they’re getting off lightly, relatively. Those whose income is on the threshold will feel a pinch but many won’t even notice this dip. For two children, they collect £33.70 a week. That’s a gym membership, a restaurant lunch for two or a hairdo. They can live without it.

I know mothers who banked it for their children, used it as their shoe fund or saved it for a fun weekend away. It was appreciated and delighted in: a little manna from heaven, recognition that (as higher rate taxpayers) their relationship with the state was not only one way.

This cut is already being called a tax hike by another name. Well, so what? It’s the first cut of many and affordable for most middle class families. The wily Chancellor, George Osborne, has targeted his own income group so that when the tougher cuts come down the line -- the ones designed to knock the work shy out of their complacency; the ones that will hurt ordinary families on the national average wage of £25,000 -- he can point to yesterday’s news as a demonstration of fair-mindedness.

He’s relying on the 15% of the population who earn more than £44,000, the higher tax threshold, to swallow their objections.

Some have already pointed to an injustice. A household with two people earning £39,000 each will escape the cut while another with a single earner on £44,000 will be penalised. It’s an attack on the traditional family with a stay-at-home mum, they say.

Mr Osborne’s reply is that the two-salary household should do the decent thing and leave the allowance unclaimed. For once, I agree with him.

The bankers may have got us into this fine mess but we’re here now and if we wait for the bankers to rescue us, we’ll wait forever. To say we are all in this together isn’t just a mantra -- it’s a fact. So, since we all have to get out of it together, who better than the relatively affluent to lead the way?

After all, the middle classes did well under New Labour. The tax system was benign, executive pay soared and no-one prospered more in the property boom. In fact, what we now see as middle class habits were, not so long ago, the preserve of the rich.

To the true blue traditional Conservative voter, a middle class life is one shaped by hard work, thrift, aspiration and education. They rise early, think waste is a mortal sin and self-indulgence an abomination. Conspicuous consumption is despised. The middle classes used to thrive on making do and mending. They can do so again. For them, home-made beats shop-bought every time.

Margaret Thatcher was hard-wired into this mentality: the grocer’s daughter was an electoral success because she understood what made the middle classes tick. Her mother worked all week in the family shop and on Saturdays she baked so that Margaret and her sister could take scones and cakes to the poor. There’s an example of David Cameron’s Big Society.

It sounds anachronistic in our modern throwaway world. But if you take on board the £120m the country is paying in interest every day, if you wrap your brain around our £164bn debt, if you realise that this first cut will account for a mere £1bn annual saving (and not until 2013), you’ll realise that we’re just being softened up for much larger future privations.

Making do and mending will be back in fashion -- out of necessity

Then we’ll be reminded that those middle class values have virtues. Their champions can run short on compassion but they’re equally scant on self-pity. And they have at their core an admirable self-reliance.

These people will applaud Ian Duncan Smith’s revolutionary welfare reform because -- if push came to shove -- they, too, would manage to raise a family on a benefits maximum of £500 a week. They should, therefore, accept their share of the cuts as an opportunity to rebrand themselves. Of late, they have been depicted as living in materialistic splendour. They’ve been associated with two homes and two holidays excess. They can now prove their claim that they remain the strong backbone of British society.

They can demonstrate that they’re the ones we can rely on to get us out of this mess. And their resourcefulness can be the engine of recovery for everyone. They have education or entrepreneurial skill and, if they are half as good as their own boast, the initiative to use it well.

If, instead, they wriggle and squirm about a small percentage cut in income, let them hold their tongues when union leaders call the low-paid out on strike in response to threatened job cuts. Don’t let them dare say: “Get on your bike,” when the long-term unemployed lose their dole money and the not sickly enough have their benefits removed.

Every government department bar the NHS and international development is having its budget slashed. There aren’t enough higher-rate taxpayers to absorb that level of pain but at least they now have a loin cloth of privation to point to -- a tiny touch of “we, too, have suffered”.

If they know what side their bread is buttered on -- and they usually do -- they’ll set an example by suffering it in silence, setting their faces to the storm and getting on with it.

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