Escaping From Class

December 29, 2009 at 8:24 pm | Posted in What's left?, Working Class Britain | 9 Comments

CH 12

I’ve never been able to get worked up about class and its distinctions, but then I’ve never felt the conventional three-tier account of social divisions has much to do with the case. […] My mother’s scheme of things admitted to much finer distinctions than were allowed by the sociologists. She’d talk about people being ‘better-class’, ‘well-off’, ‘nicely-spoken’, refined’, ‘educated’, ‘genuine’, ‘ordinary’ and – the ultimate condemnation – ‘common’.

In a happy coincidence, a few days after the Prime Minister uttered the jibe which started a class war, the BBC ran a repeat of Alan Bennett’s glorious Dinner at Noon. Part documentary, part voyeurism and part personal reminiscence, Bennett guides you around the stately surrounds of Harrogate’s Crown Hotel, eavesdrops on other people’s conversations, shares stories about his parents and muses about what place class has in contemporary society.

Made at the end of a decade marked by union-busting, industrial decline and emerging consumerism, Bennett uses the people-watching habits of his parents to demonstrate how our rigid definitions of class tell us little about the people wearing the labels. What he prefers to observe are manners, behaviours, embarrassments: “Not class, which I don’t like, but classes, types“.

His preference for thinking of people as ‘types’ rather than ‘classes’ reminded me of a family gathering I attended a few years ago. It was the funeral of a patriarch who was much loved, as evidenced by the fact that his passing had managed to draw a greater number of our extended, estranged family members than other functions of this sort.

The church was like a sweetshop of different ‘types’. You had the emotionally distraught, the jolly reminiscers, the tanned couple who’d just got back from Tenerife and ‘you know, we wouldn’t have come back if we’d had the choice’. There were the self-conscious mums who checked every 10 minutes that their husbands or children were dressed correctly, behaving appropriately & grieving at acceptable levels. You had the step-family who weren’t welcome but felt like they had to turn up, so fidgeted quietly at the back of the church, speaking only to themselves. You had the proud veteran who refused his war medals because ‘you shouldn’t be rewarded for doing your duty’, and the boisterous old busybody who flashed her own accomplishments (holiday in Corfu; new fitted kitchen) as tactlessly as youngsters flashing their bling. It was a church filled with hundreds of years of collective experience, dozens of unique, eccentric, exciting types, and if you could find one thing which united them all, it was that their social class had little importance. Because class really can have little importance. Well, sometimes.

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The real solvent of class distinction is a proper measure of self-esteem, a kind of unselfconsciousness. Some people are at ease with themselves so the world is at ease with them. My parents thought this kind of ease was produced by education: ‘your Dad and me can’t mix; we’re not educated.’ They didn’t see that what disqualified them was temperament, just as, though educated to the hilt, it disqualifies me. What keeps us in our place is embarrassment.

A few months after that funeral took place, I moved down to Cambridge for my first term as an undergraduate. For someone who’d never lived away from home before and was completely unused to its customs & traditions, the first few months were an exhausting experience and a period for intense self-criticism. I always assumed I was at ease with my self; that I knew who I was, where I’d come from, how events and places and people had helped to shape me. I soon found out that not only was that just a flimsy edifice, but, like Alan Bennett, I was embarrassed by everything: my birthplace, my accent, the fact that most of my clothes were from Matalan, my schooling, parents & former school friends. I was embarrassed that people whose parents had spent tens of thousands of pounds on their education (and, unwillingly, on mine) were now sat next to a podgy northern dilettante who hadn’t a clue what to do with all these bloody knives & forks. I thought, this can’t have been what they paid their money for.

I felt like an imposter, and because I desperately wanted to belong there, I tried to fashion myself into what I thought was expected of a Cambridge student. I decided to dress like I was in The Strokes; tried flattening my accent; I ate out regularly and expensively; I over-compensated for my low cultural vocabulary by bingeing on records and books; I started getting drunk. I must’ve spent a whole year trying to escape my class.

Of course, when I realised that no amount of styling would fashion me into one of those well-spoken, confident Home Counties kids I used to envy from my smoke-filled corner of the college bar, I reacted violently against it. I started inventing reasons to dislike people: a love of rowing or rugby, a posh accent, a fondness for Cambridge’s antiquated little traditions, membership of the Conservative Party. I started acting like my background made me one of the few ‘authentic’ kids in a university teeming with pretence, entitlement, self-importance & sycophancy. First my embarrassment made me want to change myself; next it made me want to change everyone else.

Thankfully, each passing year brings with it just a little more experience and wisdom. Thanks to my many embarrassments (and the counsel of some quite wonderful friends), I did eventually reconcile the class-based insecurities of my background with the immense privilege that I had the fortune to enjoy. I realised that most of the public school kids weren’t quietly sneering at the commoner in their midst, and that people from very wealthy backgrounds could be just as prone to embarrassment & self-doubt as I was. I no longer had anything to be embarrassed about, either before the people back home who warned me not to ‘forget my roots’ or those whose roots were already sunk deep in privilege.

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I suppose one of the purposes of coming to this hotel in Harrogate was an evangelical one: I wanted to find people who were as awkward as I used to be in these surroundings and show them it didn’t matter. Only I didn’t find them, and besides, quite sensibly, everybody seems to know that it doesn’t matter. I wanted to revive or relocate some of the embarrassments or awkwardness I felt when I was younger. I didn’t. I’m older, the world has changed, and maybe it’s the businessmen who’ve changed it. Class isn’t what it was; or nowadays perhaps people’s embarrassments are differently located.

When we talk of class in the 21st century, there’s a tendency to either reach for numbers or stereotypes.

Some will clumsily paint the wealthy as airheaded, workshy toffs or bankers as cash-gobbling spivs; some will generalise the working class as uncomplicated & honest or as crass, boorish chavs who rock in the hammock of the welfare state.

Those who prefer their data will seek empirical markers which indicate dividing lines between rich and poor. They’ll study education, inherited wealth and earned income and use those findings to determine where an individual lies in the social hierarchy.

Whilst there’s some populist utility in the stereotype and an analytic function to quantitative research, what these very different approaches have in common is that there’s no room for the vast breadth of difference. They can’t factor in all our strange little sayings, habits, accents, slang, likes, antipathies, old wives tales & folk legends which people from similar backgrounds often share.

That’s a shame, because it’s in these details & this difference where a most personal part of our identities resides. They can influence the way we look at the world or deal with problems, the way we relate to and interact with others, the types of work we choose, the types of hobbies we pursue and the different ways we seek to enjoy ourselves. These differences are also, in many cases, fixed. Many of our traits are inherited; bequeathed to us by the process of socialisation and impossible (no matter how hard I tried) to reject, disown or erase.

My advice to those who wish to exploit the seemingly self-serving aspects of Tory policy to promote a more progressive agenda is this: by all means, go ahead, but please take the language of class out of it. Our politicians will not possess the authenticity, subtlety, sensitivity, respect for difference or understand the deeply personal attachment that people have to their backgrounds. I don’t want to see a succession of well-heeled Labour cabinet ministers clumsily trying to ingratiate themselves with the ‘common man’ anymore than I want society slandered as ‘broken’ and working class communities rendered as stark, dystopic hinterlands populated by perverts & slobs.

But whilst I don’t particularly want to see politicians talking about class as a means of getting elected, I still think we should be prepared to talk about it. If Alan Bennett is right and ‘class isn’t what it was‘, then it seems that we’d all benefit from speaking candidly about what it is – only free from the firing squad of front-line politics. If our backgrounds have helped form our characters, beliefs and positions, then – providing it’s done in good faith – we should be open to making that a part of the conversation. It’s perhaps a sign of my own faith in politicians (or lack thereof) that I’d rather they stuck to arguing about policy.

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“Not class, which I don’t like, but classes, types“.

There were two eulogies given at this funeral I referred to earlier. The first, delivered in an unmistakable Barnsley accent, described the deceased as ‘a smashing chap’; a loving father and husband who would ‘do anything for anyone’. The second was a theatrically-performed reading from Shakespeare’s Tempest.

Mingling around the wake afterwards, I overheard two elderly ladies discussing the passage.

“Well love, I must admit that a lot of it went right over my head”

“Yes, yes, there was a lot of old words in it, weren’t there?”

There was a brief silence, as if both ladies worried that they weren’t showing enough sympathy in a time of mourning.

“Ooh, but didn’t she read it beautifully though! And just look at this grand spread!”

Older & somewhat wiser, I know now that we can’t ever really escape our backgrounds. Better still, I don’t see any reason why we should try.

The Brown Stuff

April 21, 2008 at 8:18 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour, What's left? | 1 Comment
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Gordon Brown by Flickr User Tim Waters (Creative Commons)

Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later; Jackie Ashley holds her nose and defends the indefensible.

To those who think the polls could not get worse, I say: just you wait. A leadership battle is just the sort of tempting quick-fix confection that turns out to be honey-coated poison. David Miliband had it right at the weekend when he warned colleagues that they had to rally round the leader and stop fighting one another. Discipline under fire is what is desperately needed.

And it will have to last. For after the 10p vote will be plenty more possible crises, not least the vote over the 42-day detention proposal. On both, I am 100% against the official government view and, with every instinct, on the side of the Labour rebels. But disaster is looming and the real parliamentarians have carefully to weigh in the balance what they now do, and ask how much likelier it will make a Tory landslide a year hence.

And so it has come to this: after over a decade of mixed success in pursuing social justice – a decade where progressives were implored to ‘get real’ and ‘see the bigger picture’ whenever they challenged every rightward lurch – Labour MPs are once again ordered to swallow two heinous pieces of legislation for no other reason than to retain their rather weak grip on power. Yes, Ashley admits, both the 10p tax abolition and the 42-day detention are atrocious policies. In fact, you could call them a mutilation of progressive principles. But you must vote for them anyway. It’s what Nye Bevan would’ve wanted.

But as Gordon tries to save his beloved tax hike on working class people, he would do well to consider that the death-march of his leadership isn’t just a failure of policy; it’s a failure of the way he practices his politics.

I’ll argue ’til blue red in the face with anyone who insists there are no major differences between Labour and the Conservatives (indeed, it’s worth reminding ourselves that a glance at David Cameron’s record reveals him to be far from a cuddly, common-ground centrist), but you can hardly get angry when people think that. Whatever problems The Left may have had with Blair (and I had plenty), it’s still true that Labour fought the last two elections on a sharp distinction between the parties: Labour will use your tax money to invest in world-class schools and hospitals, safer streets and a vibrant economy; the Conservatives will slash investment in your children’s future in order to give themselves tax cuts that’ll pay for another fortnight in Monaco. It was crude, but it worked.

Now, it’s not entirely Gordon’s fault that events have made this distinction more blurred. For one, an economic downturn and a reliance on borrowing means there isn’t the money to keep expanding public sector investment, particularly when increasing numbers wonder whether we’ve seen value for money. The Conservatives were also wise to insist on imitating Labour’s tax plans for their first few years in power, thus robbing him of the opportunity to tar them as the public sector’s grim reaper.

Nonetheless, where there should’ve been bold thinking and bright new initiatives, we have seen, as Matthew Parris noted, a politician so bound by point-scoring calculation that he now appears before the electorate ans a muzzled, ideologically-neutered animal.

Whilst there’ve been plenty of ‘I told you sos’ in recent weeks, it’s still true that The Left should’ve woken up to this quicker than we did, particularly when some of the danger signs were apparent within the first few weeks of his reign. Sure, the ‘British Jobs For British Workers’ thing was pretty irksome and his meeting with Thatcher – whilst a generous act of social care – was equally brazen, but announcing troop withdrawals from Iraq during last year’s Tory conference was nothing less than a morally-bankrupt act. Over the last few years, I’ve seen plenty of politicians politicise the military to score points off their rivals, but the perpatrators have almost exclusively been Republicans and the victims have been Democrats. It is as wrong for them to do it as it is for us.

And then we get to Brown’s biggest crime – his surrender of inheritance tax to the Tories. What did Gordon gain by giving-away a historically non-negotiable part of Labour Party policy? Well, go check the latest opinion polls (hint: not too much).

Whilst we’re on the subject of selling-out Labour Party principles for absolutely no political gain let’s return to the 10p tax rate and a key paragraph from Toynbee’s last piece:

The 10p rate was a fiddly complexity that needed abolishing. Brown had a right choice and a wrong choice. He could take all 10p payers out of tax altogether, a move that would cost £7bn and cut everyone’s tax a bit, with the lowest-paid gaining most. Instead he used that £7bn to cut 2p off basic income tax, so the better-off gained. (Someone on £30,000 gains more from a 2p cut than someone on £15,000.) Those 10p losers were victims of a deliberate choice to give more to the better-off. People warned Brown before his last budget, but he ignored them. Yet if middle England whooped with gratitude at their tax cut, I somehow missed that moment. As ever, they banked it and forgot it. (emphasis mine)

In other words, on both this and the issue of inheritance tax, Gordon not only failed to do the right thing; he did the wrong thing and achieved no political reward.

This all begs the question of what on earth Brown thought he could gain from this. Did he really think his government would be better-placed if he robbed the electorate, the right-wing press and the Conservative Party of one less issue to complain about? Well, we live in a culture of complaint and it’s impossible for any government to satisfy them all. Even with a rise in the inheritance tax threshold, a 2p cut in income tax, a tougher immigration policy, higher taxes on booze to prevent binge drinking, tougher sentencing for offenders, a distancing of Britain from the United States, a refusal to attend a signing ceremony for the European Treaty, a belated refusal to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, the country still has much to complain about.

A good government seeks to solve those complaints when can and engages in robust dialogue when it can’t, but for the rest of the time it merely needs to show momentum and resolve. It needs to show that progress is being made, that new ideas are being hatched, that important matters are being dealt-with decisively by serious minds for whom the political ramifications come secondary to Doing The Right Thing.

In our deluded fantasies, Brown was the leader of this good government. Now we can’t be sure he should lead any government at all.

Photo of Gordon Brown by Tim Waters (Creative Commons)

Seamus Milne’s Lord’s Prayer

March 27, 2008 at 10:06 pm | Posted in The God Delusion, What's left? | 1 Comment
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Now, this puts me in something of a predicament: either I’m too young, naive & drunk on the self-serving service of capitalism to know any better, or Seumas Milne is a paranoid left-wing dilettante who clumsily casts all those with whom he disagrees as badge-wearing advocates of corporatism, neo-conservatism and… well, general degeneracy.

Oh Neil, show some restraint,’ a voice pleads. ‘Aren’t you being a bit rash to judge such a faithful comrade? Does he really deserve such wordy condemnation?‘ Perhaps/perhaps not, but I’m working on the theory that if all educated people find at least five minutes in their days to ridicule those who, without irony, use the absurd formulation of ‘militant atheists/secularists’, perhaps they’ll only ever use it in those obscure journals that never make it further north than Cambridge (sorry Southerners – you’re on your own).

With their cordouroy jackets and open-necked shirts, their esteemed teaching positions and speeches to lecture halls filled with grad students – speeches that advocate evolution, scientific inquiry, democracy, free speech and the rights of women and gays – there is absolutely no way an unprejudiced, straight-thinking person could class Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens’ atheism as ‘militant’. Forthright and uncompromising? Certainly. Groaning under an internal self-logic that hasn’t won over as many people as their sales figures suggest? Without doubt. But ‘militant’? Abu Hamza militant? Jerry Falwell militant? Louis Farrakhan militant? No. You can only peg these people as spite-spewing venomistas if your intellectual allergies are so strong that you can only digest things you already find agreeable.

Anyway, I should get on to the substance of the matter, for Milne is nothing without substance:

Panicked by the rise of radical Islamism and the newly assertive religious identity of migrant communities in a secular Europe, the anti-religious evangelists are increasingly using atheism as a banner for the defence of the global liberal capitalist order and the wars fought since 2001 to assert its dominance. At the same time, they are unable to recognise the ethnic dimension of their Islamophobia, let alone the deeper reasons why people continue to search for spiritual meaning in a grossly destructive economic environment where social alternatives have been pronounced dead and narcissistic consumption is king.

Welcome to today’s straw men: the anti-religious evangelists whose Islamophobia is not just based on religion but on ethnicity, and who are willing to piggy-back on every one of Dick Cheney’s cruise missiles until those backwards, Qu’ran-bashing bastards either reads some John Stuart Mill or does some internet shopping. Is this an accurate characterisation of any real person? Erm, probably not.

But enough with the straw men. Did you know that religion is now totally left-wing?

Religion cannot but now find itself in conflict with the unfettered rule of money – a capitalism that seeks to dominate exactly the social and personal arena which religion has always regarded as its own preserve. And as it becomes less useful as an ideological prop for power, religion’s more radical and anti-establishment strains have become stronger. 


No wonder the medieval church tried so hard to prevent people reading such incendiary stuff in their own language. But similar demands for equality and social justice can of course also be found in Judaism (“you shall not oppress a stranger”), Islam (“a white has no superiority over a black nor a black over a white”), and other religions.

Yes, terrific. But you can find that stuff in Marx, too. And in Star Trek, for that matter.

Just as the French republican tradition of liberation came to be used as a stick to beat Muslims in a completely different social context from which it emerged, so the militant secularists who fetishise metaphysics and cosmology as a reason to declare the religious beyond the liberal pale are now ending up as apologists for western supremacism and violence. Like nationalism, religion can play a reactionary or a progressive role, and the struggle is now within it, not against it. For the future, it can be an ally of radical change.

And so the balkinisation of the left continues: the atheists in the anti-war left should align with the religious in the anti-war left to do battle against the atheists in the pro-war left, the religious in the pro-war left and everyone on the pro-war right. You’d better not have any plans for the weekend. I understand that factionalism is rife on the left & forever will be, but I look at the columnists and bloggers writing today and think not only are they re-fighting the battles of 2003; they’re re-fighting the battles of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s as well.

I opposed the liberation of Iraq but always hoped I would be proved wrong. I know the threat posed by Islamic extremism but remain vigilant against racist Islamophobia, and reject the idea that multiculturalism is a failure that should be abandoned. Lastly, I am an ex-Church of England alter boy turned atheist who hates any political intervention made by religious groups but will never tell my mother that my late brother probably didn’t go to heaven when he died.

In the current climate, there doesn’t appear to be any Left for me, so I’ll just have to make my own…

Update: Norm wrote far fewer words about this article, but wrote them far better:

What is the instruction that is to be had from this? It’s something indirect. Milne here sets himself up as a spokesman for putatively progressive strands within religion. Liberals and leftists who spend their time badmouthing religion and the religious in general should take note. His ‘progressivism’ is of the spurious Guardianista type that finds itself able to ‘understand’ the most reactionary movements and the most murderous methods as being merely symptoms of justified grievance and legitimate aspiration. Atheists and humanists of the liberal-left who try to defend its more authentic values should not concede this terrain – the terrain of working and talking together with people of all faiths who share similar values – to the Seumas Milnes of this world. It is a mistake that has been made too often before, conceding concepts, values and practical initiatives which are important to the representatives of political reaction.

Thoughts in progress – reflections on class #2

March 4, 2008 at 10:34 pm | Posted in British Politics, What's left?, Working Class Britain | Leave a comment

During yesterday’s tirade against decent dole recipient Andrew Anthony, I promised to link to some interesting posts both on the article itself and the issues surrounding it. Peter Ryley agrees that the article is patchy but reads it more as an indictment of middle class condescension/ignorance of the working class. He highlights this one saving grace towards the end, about an embittered old racist whose children have black partners:

Yet in Dave’s story, we see, even if he can’t, the hidden success of multicultural Britain. Not the tolerance and respect for separatism as preached by archbishops and playwrights, but the messy, difficult and tense business of living and loving together. It’s the children of people such as Dave who live cheek by jowl with new arrivals and adapt to rapid change. They are the ones who really embrace people from other countries and cultures by forming relationships and raising children together.

Meanwhile, the liberal arts community, for all its eloquence in anti-racism, is far more inclined to retreat to private schools and affluent enclaves, the better to maintain a homogenous culture while pronouncing on the benefits of diversity.

It’s a brilliant point that’s not made often enough: for all the talk of segregation, for all the small successes the BNP has in deprived areas and for all the talk of racism and racial tension, the white working class is, in fact, far more integrated than their more mild-mannered middle class superiors. We should give Anthony credit for making it, particularly given his subscription to a brand of liberalism that seeks to dismiss multiculturalism as a failure.

But what this doesn’t explain or excuse is firstly his ridiculous and faintly patronizing allusion to the working class’ lost ‘nobility’, and secondly his decision to take the article down the direction of multiculturalism in the first place. As someone who enthusiastically welcomes a debate on class, poverty and equality in this country, it’s so deeply dispiriting when the emphasis is placed on the quarrels and street skirmishes between different groups of poor people, rather than one of the many more important areas that affect all of these groups: unemployment, crime, education and the barriers erected by segregated religious schools, drugs, social housing, gang culture and our destructive youth, sexual health, health in general.

Over at Southpaw Grammar, the blame for not doing enough about these problems is laid squarely at the feet of the Labour government:

The problem i always find about debates around class is that the working class and the perceived ‘underclass’ are talked about and talked at, but never asked to talk themselves. The disdain for those people has always been apparent in the right wing, but i actually think the development of an underclass is more the fault of the ‘do-good’ liberal left.

The left have for too long allowed behaviour that is unacceptable be justified, it has cut out the working class from becoming Labour MP’s/AM’s and the like, and essentially strangled its voice for fear of being labelled ‘class warriors’ by their political opponents.


I don’t think we need an attempt to target a ‘white’ working class, but the working class full stop. I have always find that class is a bigger divider than race or indeed nationality. That is why i have never been impressed by Plaid Cymru’s pitch even though they are truly centre left, the real divider is the have and the have nots, not the welsh have nots and the english have nots. At a time where increasing representation of all minority groups is thankfully on the agenda across the political parties, it is an outrage that there is no mention of getting ordinary working people of all races and creeds into parliament, for they are probably fast becoming the least represented in parliament at a time where politics is focusing on their plight.

So how can we work to re-enfranchise working people, bring them to the voting booth and make them feel like their voices are represented in Parliament? For me, the main hurdle is the country’s electoral maths. During the 70’s and 80’s Labour’s message seemed to be aimed squarely at its heartlands, but rarely played well in the middle class marginals of the south & midlands. Then during the 90’s, New Labour rightly took the votes of working class constituents as a given, embraced centrism and tailored its agenda to chime with voters in the very constituencies they’d failed to win over.

As a consequence, we now see a Labour Party that may still be doing some good work on behalf of working people, but doesn’t seem to speak to them anymore. Party membership is very low compared to 10 years ago, voter turnouts in working class constituencies keep falling and disgruntled, disaffected working people are still being attracted (though not yet in numbers that might spark panic) to the BNP.

I’ve probably wasted enough blogspace lamenting for one evening, but at some point in the future I’d like to write about two ways in which the Labour Party could revive both itself and its commitment to working families. One is a kind-of ‘Kossification’ of our politics; embracing the internet more as a tool for grassroots fundraising, organization and campaigning in a similar way to how US sites like Daily Kos operate. The other, perhaps controversially for someone who would otherwise align with Labour, would be the introduction of some form of proportional representation in our Parliamentary elections. We need each vote to matter once more, for politicians to tailor their campaigns to the country as a whole rather than the marginal constituencies we need to win. If we do that, we might stand a chance of bringing back some of the people who abandoned the cause, and possibly do more good for them in the process.

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.

We’ve been framed

February 11, 2008 at 9:16 pm | Posted in British Politics, Uncategorized, What's left? | Leave a comment

Were I to waste what little free time I have concocting a list of the most eloquent, passionate and persuasive advocates of liberal/left-wing politics, I’d want to include Johann Hari near the top. In an article for today’s Independent, Johann takes aim at Rowan Williams’ Sharia bumbling by pointing out some stark consequences of having a religious system mashed into our own judiciary:

We don’t need to speculate about what these British sharia courts would look like. They already exist in some mosques across as voluntary enterprises. Last month, a plain, unsensationalist documentary called Divorce: Sharia Style looked at the judgements they hand down. If a man wants a divorce, he simply has to say to his wife, “I divorce you” three times over three months. The wife has no right of appeal, and no right to ask for a reason. If a woman wants a divorce, by contrast, she has to humbly ask her husband. If he refuses, she must turn to a sharia court, and convince three Mullahs that her husband has behaved “unreasonably” – according to the rules laid out in a pre-modern text that recommends domestic violence if your wife gets uppity.

Okay, so you probably get by now that you’re not likely to get the kind of ‘quickie divorces’ that social conservatives wail about, or the ‘gold-digger divorces’ that tabloids rail against. In fact, if you’re a woman, any woman, even a battered, abused and terrified woman, you might be lucky getting any divorce at all. Just one tragic example:

Irum Shazad, a 26-year-old British woman, travels from her battered women’s refuge to a sharia court in East London. She explains that her husband was so abusive she slashed her wrists with a carving knife. The court tells her this was a sin, making her as bad as him. They tell her to go back to her husband. (They grant a divorce half a year later, after a dozen more “last chances” for him to abuse her.)

Then we meet Nasirin Iqbal, a 27-year-old Pakistani woman who was shipped to Britain five years ago to marry. Her husband, Imran, has kept her isolated, and she does not speak a word of English. “I came here thinking he’d treat me well,” she says. “But he keeps hurting me. He brought me here to use me. I’m not an object…. Do I not have a heart?… He tells me I’m stuck with him, and under Islam he can treat me however he wants. ‘I am a man, I can treat you how I want’.”

We see how Imran torments her, announcing, “You are a reject. I didn’t want to marry you.” He takes a second wife in Pakistan, and texts her all day in front of Nasirin declaring his love. The sharia court issues a fatwa saying the marriage stands. She doesn’t seem to know this isn’t a court of law. “I can’t ignore what they say,” she cries. “You have to go with what they say.” (emphasis mine)

It’s heartbreaking, and if Williams were to have his way, this kind of Koran-sponsored misogyny may spread even more insidiously. But whilst his argument against this kind of ill-thought-out proposal is persuasive & humane, I don’t feel his solution is one I want to endorse:

These courts highlight in their purest form the problem with multiculturalism. It has become a feel-good doctrine mindlessly celebrating “difference”, without looking at what that difference actually means.

Yet many people feel instinctively uncomfortable when we talk about ditching multiculturalism – for a good reason. The only alternative they are aware of is the old whiter-than-white monoculturalism. This view, voiced most clearly by Enoch Powell and Norman Tebbit, believes that if people are going to live together, they need to look and feel similar, and have a tightly prescribed shared identity. They argue that the number of newcomers should be small, and need to be pressured to assimilate to the 1950s norm of a suburban white family, fast.

Perhaps we’re just arguing over semantics here, but I’m pretty sure there are reasons against ditching ‘multiculturalism’ that don’t amount to a desire to see oneself as superior to the Powells & Tebbits, the Griffins, Irvings & Littlejohns whose small minds and mean spirits clutter up our lives. The first of these is that at its most basic level, multiculturalism is an empirical fact: there are, right now, people from hundreds of nationalities, ethnic groups and religions across every single social class, working together, socialising with each other and, yes, even praying together. If this comes across as naiive and wooly-minded utopianism, that’s because the arguments that were made from the 50’s onwards about the benefits of a Britain rich in multiple cultures have, to a degree, been proved right. It’s not perfect: racism and economic inequalities have conspired to separate some ethnic communities from the rest of us and religion has so often proved to be an equally backwards and divisive wedge between us. I’ll even accept Hari’s argument that the term has become “a feel-good doctrine mindlessly celebrating “difference”, without looking at what that difference actually means.” But does this really mean we should discard the whole idea and admit defeat?

There’s a saying in U.S. politics that you should never accept the way your opponents frame an issue, and I fear this is a crucial error the left has made: mortified by the arguments of pure relativists who daren’t make any moral judgement about cultures different from their own, we have stood by whilst right-wing attack dogs seek to savage multiculturalism, in part as a way of stoking fear and suspicion of Islam and its followers. In our worst moments, in despair and disgust of an ideology that is antithetical to our own values, we have even joined in.

Johann’s solution is for us all to unite under the banner of liberalism, because to be liberal is to embrace the freedom of the individual. Fine, I’ve got no problem with that. But liberals are also those who favour progress and reform, so why not apply those principles to multiculturalism? Why not reappropriate the word, redefine it so it speaks of inclusiveness rather than passivity, shared values rather than dividing each other by cultural difference. Why can’t the word once again speak of a country coloured by multiple cultures, but held together by a rich tradition of freedom and quality?

By refusing to accept the framing of the right, the liberal-left could once again speak of community and cohesion. I reckon it’s a fight worth having…

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