What Future is there for Young Working Class Scotland?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, June 15th 2016

There is something about Scots and class, and in particular about working class identities.

Many Scots define themselves when given a choice as working class, yet in terms of occupations and status, on any definition, a majority would be categorised as middle class. Interestingly, in some surveys, a majority of such middle class people reject this term, and call themselves working class (one survey a decade ago saying that 52% of middle class people identified as working class).

Some of this is history, tradition and culture. It is intertwined with perceptions of where ‘we’ collectively have come from, and where we have ended up – the effect of Thatcherism, huge economic and social changes, and the winners and losers of the last 30 years.

Moreover, this is about in-betweener Scotland. One-third of Scots grew up in what could be called working class backgrounds, and then in terms of jobs, status and income, became middle class – but often not in terms of self-identity. This often expresses itself in a combination of working class roots, centre-left politics, a heightened sense and articulation of difference, and perceiving ‘middle class’ as being associated with ‘selling out’.

There seems to be a fascinating and sensitive series of trip-wires in Scotland on class. A couple of years ago I interviewed as part of my PhD fifty of the country’s leading commentators (including the esteemed editor of Scottish Review). The interviews were in-depth, covering the origins of people’s views and beliefs, including on politics and public life.

At the end of each interview people were asked to give their date of birth, national identity and self-identified class to create an overall picture of the sample. Despite the emerging noise of the indyref, nearly every single person navigated the national identity question without a thought and with ease. Yet, when it came to the class question it was the opposite, proving to be a dangerous mindfield for many.

The fifty people were overwhelmingly middle class in how they saw themselves; although one person identified as upper class, then emailed me to say they had changed their minds. Yet, nearly two-thirds of the sample then launched into explanations about why they were or weren’t middle class. It brought out all kinds of uncomfortable associations for people – of ‘not selling out’, ‘not being Tory’, having ‘socialist ideals’ or ‘caring about poverty and injustice’.

Some kind of wider responsibility was evident in these responses, but so was an unease and even guilt. One person commented: ‘Actually, I’d say ‘stranded’. My tax return says, though, that I’m middle class’; another stated: ‘In Scotland, people want to be working class. I want to be working class but it is bollocks.’

‘Transition’ as a word is on trend at the moment. When I was young, people talked about ‘the transition from capitalism’ – at least in left and Labour circles. Now transition is about personal identity politics, rather than structural change. It is used in discussions on trans people, sexuality and non-binary gender. In another way, transition defines Scotland and the search for non-binary identities – of class, national identities and politics. It is there in a huge swathe of Scotland, but often struggles to find a voice, language, and even, recognition.

Yet, class as a term, what it means, and how it is interpreted is always changing. Just because Scots defined themselves as mostly working class in 1979, and do so today, does not mean that those terms and what flows from them, hasn’t undergone dramatic change.

An element of the inbetweener story is a generational account of working class lives changed for the better. Between 1950-80 a huge number of people moved into council houses across this country. For nearly everyone, for all the problems of Glasgow hi-rises and the estates that emerged, with few community facilities and often increasing problems over time, this was an experience that offered betterment, wider opportunities, and even a sense of liberation.

My parents moved into the Ardler council estate in Dundee in 1968. For them and a whole group of working class people, this was a transformation, compared to where they had grown up as children. This was a world of security: with protected tenancies compared to the uncertain world of private leases. There was still a prevailing ethos of solidarity and inter-connectedness, as people looked out for one another, knew their neighbours and had a concern beyond their front door. Finally, all of this was underpinned by the stability of rising incomes, prosperity and near to full employment.

Writing this, I am invoking a world which has mostly disappeared. It is a lost Scotland that cannot be brought back into existence. Mass municipal housing, the employment and economic structures, and form of managed capitalism of that period, have gone forever. So there is little to gain from engaging in a sentimental nostalgia for a past that cannot – and is not coming back.

Two points spring from this. Firstly, the liberation that council housing gave a whole generation, and the values and opportunities that it nurtured have to be recognised and celebrated. How do we sustain the conditions of security and solidarity in housing and society today? Secondly, as this is a generational perspective, there has to be some cognisance of how different things are for the ‘Generation Rent’ who have grown up since the decline of council housing.

All across Scotland and the UK large numbers of young-ish people have become inadvertently and unwillingly members of what is called the precariat: defined by fragile jobs, employment conditions, pay and prospects. They are often highly educated, articulate and motivated, but managing a portfolio of jobs and projects, or working in an area with no relation to their skills or vocation.

In England, this is made worse by the willful and on-going destruction of council housing by the Tories. To add fuel to the fire, there is the attack on social housing, with right to buy housing association properties and the retreat from any commitment to building social housing.

Scotland isn’t engaged in that outright attack on renting, but that doesn’t mean it is much easier for younger folk. There is a Scotland out there, of twentysomethings and early thirtysomethings, who struggle to make some of the big decisions in life: about starting a family, getting married, thinking about setting up a permanent home.

This Scotland is mostly missing from how we think about our country. This is aided by, indyref apart, this group being less likely to be on the electoral register, less likely to vote, and not a member of, or connected to, a political party or trade union. Overall, their politics tend to be ‘soft’ SNP or Green, but no party or philosophy really talks for or champions them.

Scotland needs to recognise that for all our working class stories and myths, there are many different manifestations of class. The Babyboomer working class generation of my parents defined much of the post-war period. Then there are those of us who grew up as the children of this group and experienced the best of municipal Scotland and its subsequent decline. Both groups I think owe something to the next generation – to not just think of ourselves, or define our identities by the past – but to look at how we best build inter-generational solidarity. There is a big role for the Scottish Government, public bodies and debate here, on issues as varied as housing, land ownership and inheritance tax.

A Scotland where large parts of society baulk at calling themselves middle class isn’t proof we are compassionate and care for others. We have to act on these words and definitions, and address what a 21st century Scotland of security, solidarity and stability – in a world of constant change, flux and adaptability, would look like? Once upon a time young people and the working class were seen as the future, but what kind of future beckons for young working class Scotland, unless we dramatically change course?