Whitewashing the class debate

March 3, 2008 at 10:15 pm | Posted in British Politics, What's left? | Leave a comment
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There have been some interesting responses (which I’ll try to cover in a later post) to Andrew Anthony’s Observer article on ‘How Britain turned its back on the white working class’, itself a response to the BBC’s forthcoming series of programmes on the subject. Unable to decide whether it wants to be a TV review or a social commentary culled from late night cab rides through council estates, the piece is Anthony at his best: pious, preachy and vague, high on self-righteous emotioneering but low on the kind of substance you need to start a genuine debate. After rightly denouncing the snobbish and all-too-common trend towards sneering dismissively at the ‘tacky, mouthy, burberry-clad chavs’ who occupy the lowest income bands, he then begins to bizarrely romanticise some fictional time when the working man was revered as a hero:

Back in the late Fifties and early Sixties, the working class was flavour of the decade. Films such as Saturday Night, Sunday Morning found something noble, if harsh, in the condition of the indigenous poor. The theatre was filled with angry young men with earthy accents railing against the class structure. Pop music was transformed by cocky lads from humble backgrounds, as were photography and advertising.


Back in the Sixties, there was a nobility to the working class and also, crucially, a mobility. It was on the way somewhere. But that optimism has gone. Those who could get out have left, joining an expanded middle class, and those left behind have become the underclass: ugly, obnoxious, feckless and amoral.

We’ll put aside for the moment the fact that his point about a pessimism, stagnance and decay amongst working class communities could’ve been written at any point over the last 20 years. Hell, we’ll even refrain from asking why it’s taken him so long to discover it. Instead, we’ll point out that there’s never been a nobility to being poor, and that fetishising some imagined age when the working class were revered rather than reviled puts a patronising gloss over people like my Grandfather who put in arduous, back-breaking shifts in the collieries of South Yorkshire for a wage that certainly never reflected any ‘nobility’.

So how else do we explain the poverty and despair that Andrew paints as characteristic of the working class? The unreformed leftists among us would, of course, point to the policies of successive Conservative governments and their wanton disregard for the effects their privatising, union-busting agendas would have on real people. But bashing Thatcher isn’t in vogue anymore, and whilst he slams the fashion for mocking the common man, he’s perfectly happy to subscribe to the fashion of bashing multiculturalism.

There will be those who will put the whole malaise down to politics and economics – ‘It’s all Thatcher’s fault!’ – but close observation reveals something else in these films. In All White in Barking, a white woman working in a traditional butcher’s going out of business is asked whether she’d eat pig’s ears. It’s obvious that she’s repelled by the thought, but she also knows that it’s wrong to express a critical opinion about another culture’s tastes, so she timidly says that she doesn’t eat much meat. There’s a lot of this kind of doubt and prevarication, which may be an improvement on crass racism but doesn’t exactly signify self-confidence.

Sure, the clash of races and cultures among unskilled and undereducated men and women might contribute towards tensions between different groups of poor people, but that’s not the reason they’re poor or unskilled or undereducated. Nor does it get us any closer to finding ways of alleviating poverty among the working class as a whole – not just the caucasion subset. This is where a focus on economics and politics, dismissed by Anthony as cliched Thatcher-baiting, becomes something of an inconvenient truth.

I’m happy to accept that this cock-eyed emphasis on multiculturalism as a contributor to the white working class malaise is merely Anthony’s way of furthering his own political agenda, in the same way a politician pivots each question to the one he/she really wants to talk about. That said, it’s still a sly, cowardly and predictably middle class means of avoiding the fact that rehabilitation of these areas needs sustained political and financial investment. It can’t be done on the cheap, nor can it be done in time for the feel-good effects to reach the front page of tomorrow’s Guardian.

If we’re serious about tackling these problems, we need to put our money where our mouths are. Maybe that’s the real reason the working classes in this country seem so ignored.


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