Friday, 9 September 2011

I’m Lazy

The quality of Labour MPs is pretty poor these days.  Talking their one talent.  Although it wears them out, it seems, and they are too tired to do much else.  For some even a short article is too long to read.  Thus we have a letter from Denis MacShane attacking Andrew Gamble for nostalgia about a “golden age” of working class culture.[i]  This is precisely what Gamble doesn’t argue, as the MP would know if he read past the first paragraph, where such a position is outlined, only to be heavily qualified a little later.

It is well known in the universities that many professors never read further than the introduction and conclusion of a book.  It appears our MPs never get past the first few sentences of an easy article.  Too tired after filling out their expense forms to read much else.

For Gamble working class discontent, racism and apathy existed decades before the 1980s (the premise, it seems, of the book he is reviewing).  However, these negative traits were part of a wider, more positive culture, which had its own institutions and engendered its own respect – the malcontent and petty criminal lived in the same street as the steelworker and trade union treasurer.  Since the 1970s this culture has fragmented, with the massive contraction of the manufacturing industry; the first two years of the Thatcher government a particularly grim and apocalyptic period.  This has left a relatively isolated and economically depressed community as an object of hate and ridicule; the focus of intense class hatred, particularly in the mainstream media, who use them to flaunt their own superiority.  The coverage of the recent riots making this ever clearer.Writing of an earlier time Bryan Magee captures this culture well:

[It ran between] those who strove to get and keep work, staying out of debt and above all out of prison, not committing crimes, bringing up their sons honestly and their daughters chastely, and generally maintaining their self-respect, and those who tried to live without working, always on the lookout for tricks and fiddles, anything for a few bob, but usually broke; pawning clothes, bedding or furniture when desperate, sending children to school without shoes or breakfast, doing moonlight flits when they could not pay the rent, in and out of petty crime and in and out of prison…

For individuals of spirit and intelligence there might seem at least as much to be said for being rough as for being respectable, and so a high proportion of the ablest in Hoxton ended up on the wrong side of the law.  The life of the respectable poor was essentially a life of repression, a great deal of it self-repression and was no life for anyone with drive and ambition unless he were dedicatedly self disciplined.  (In David Marquand’s Britain Since 1918; The Strange Career of British Democracy)

The social changes since the 1960s, heavily championed by the media, and in large part instigated by them, was an attack on just this culture of what Magee calls the respectable poor.  This cultural transformation making it even harder for working class children to get on; with the temptations greater, the peer pressure more intense; and the social and institutional support much weaker than with their competitors in the middle classes.  The rich always have a second (and third, and fourth) chance.  

Isolated and attacked by powerful sectors of the society, they are the victims of the structural changes to the economy that took place between the 1960s and 1990s; and the long-term unemployment this caused.  Nobody loves them!  On the left the white working class have been junked – they are no longer the strong and proud battalions of the socialist army – in favour of the guerrilla tactics of small groups: feminists, gay men and women, Welsh nationalists and ethnic minorities, to name just a few.[ii] The right hates them of course.  Deflecting our attention from the real causes of their decline.

What does MacShane make of this?

What to do to de-chav society is one big question and I expect Tony Blair and Graham Allen’s argument that tightly focused early-years interventions are the best answer.  David Willetts’ argument that the baby boomer generation have stolen their children’s future also commends itself.

Not the Lehmann Brothers or JP Morgan Chase.  Not Margaret Thatcher selling off BP and BT at knock down prices; effectively giving them away for free to her mates in the City.[iii]  Not Mr MacShane himself, who has pulled many a pound from the public purse: nine laptops in three years, we are told.  And not a single shop window smashed.  We can only assume his mother neglected him as a child.  And do we hear him gleefully proclaim that he is stealing from future generations?  I assume he accepts he’s a baby boomer.  Or is he, the typical politician, going to quibble about the definition; the dates of his birth?

What the MP’s letter shows more clearly than anything else is how homogenous our political class has become, although, like working class thieves and layabouts, there have always been Labour politicians who have held the views he expounds; who hate the people they are meant to represent.

The National Front organized a well-supported march through the streets of Rotherham in the by-election there in 1976, at a time when the steel and coal industries employed thousands of unionized men (no women) in South Yorkshire.

No doubt true.  But racism and a well-structured and stable society can often go together – strong communities often do not like the outsider and the stranger.  Indeed, many (most?) communities don’t like foreigners at all.  We have seen this in Brooklyn and LA, as well as Bradford and Burnley.  Racism was certainly part of that old working class culture; although often held in check by the kind of repression Magee writes about.  It also had many redeeming futures, including its hatred of racism – thus the Welsh miners support of Paul Robeson. 

What is particularly interesting here is the insouciance of MacShane’s attack on the white working class; and the implication that they are all racists. This is from an MP that supposedly represents them…   Because he hasn’t read the article MacShane doesn’t realise that he confirms Gamble’s main point: what was once lionized is now demonized.  The faults that were once overlooked, when this class was hailed with the then conventional pieties, are now targeted with cool precision; smashing its supporters to smithereens.  For now, of course, we know the truth: they were always scum.  Bang them all up!  Out of my way!  Out! Out! You are blocking the entrance to Carluccio’s.

[i] TLS 02/09/2011
[ii] For an interesting example of this see the exchange at the end of my When Conservatives Become Socialists.
[iii] The assets sold were deliberately undervalued, partly to ensure successful sales, and partly… to tempt ‘ordinary people’ into buying shares, fostering ‘popular capitalism’ by offering quick profits…  The net effect of the transactions was a gift from the population…  to the few family members who could afford it…, [of which] nearly half of it was given to them free.  (Colin Leys, Politics in Britain)

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