Fear and Loathing and the Power of Class in Modern Britain
The Scotsman, October 8th 2011
Britain has changed dramatically since 1945. In most accounts of post-war Britain from populisers such as Andrew Marr – the confident tale told is of the forward march of the classless society.
There were the 1950s and ‘you’ve never had it so good’ affluence, the 1960s protest and music, the 1980s individualism and consumerism, and then the noughties and the property and credit card booms.
This is the BBC-Ladybird Book guide to modern Britain heard in phrases such as ‘we are all becoming classless’ and ‘everyone now is middle class’ which were cited by politicians in the boom.
The difficult times of recession, anger at bankers and global pessimism, has undermined this view. Despite this, mainstream politics operates on the assumption that the great British post-war project, of consumption, rising living standards for most, and one jolly long party can be kick-started. Out there in the real world, there is a palpable sense of foreboding and feeling this is delusional, and that the days of endless economic growth, rising incomes and prosperity may be gone for good.
Class tells us something about how we see all this and it still matters. First, class is different from income, wealth and status. Just because Britain is the fourth most unequal country in the developed world and London the most unequal city, does not automatically tell us about class.
Second, class is about something deeper: attitudes, values, ‘them’ and ‘us’, people like us and not like us. Class may have reconfigured in the last 30 years but it is still seen in education, private schools, as parts of Edinburgh know, internships, and access to insiders, which all help to reproduce class attitudes and privilege.
There is the way class is described. The super-rich are envied and feared by many. Whatever people feel of bankers and financiers, the lifestyles of the super-rich are fawned over; in an age of individual expression what is more alluring than the life of conspicuous consumption, super-yachts and multiple luxury properties around the world? Forget the ethical life – this to many is the embodiment of ‘the good life’.
There is the demonisation of the working class, a class whose collective power was once feared by employers and politicians. There is talk everywhere of ‘chavs’, ‘neds’ and ‘jakies’. And of middle class, institutional and professional opinion giving up, feeling exhausted and disillusioned about caring.
Then we have the profound lack of empathy and understanding in our society for how people can relate to those different from themselves. Research by Polly Toynbee a few years ago on the super-rich found them clueless about normal life: there was a widespread feeling that median incomes in Britain, then at about £23,000 were poverty wages. These masters of the universe in reality did inhabit another planet.
The poorest in society have become disconnected from society and labour markets, and condemned as ‘an underclass’, supposedly unlike the rest of us, while ‘the squeezed middle’ fears everyone. There are also interesting American psychology studies which show the fiercest resistance to redistribution is from those on low incomes not wanting to see monies moved to those just above them.
There are cultural issues about how class is portrayed. The clichés and stereotypes of the BBC’s ‘The Scheme’ showed a society where elements have forgotten the importance of compassion and human dignity. This sits in a whole genre of reality programmes going back to ‘Wife Swap’ which have become increasingly voyeuristic about how they portray class.
An important factor in this is the decline of trade unions. In 1980 there were 13 million trade unionists in the UK representing 55% of the workforce; that figure is now down to just seven million representing 23%.
Trade unions were once a powerful force in this land, feared by governments and business. Today the combined forces of Unison, Unite and the GMB holding a national strike in a month’s time is very different.
Class is dead to some. ‘The English working class is dead’ wrote Andrew O’Hagan, replaced by ‘the false promise of celebrity and credit cards’. There is evidence to back this up with a RSA survey showing 24% of English people identify as working class.
This is where Scotland and England part company for 70% plus of Scots identify as working class. Paradoxically, Scots people now identify as more working class than they did 30 years ago.
Working class became a negative term in England in the 1980s: sink estates, bog-standard comprehensives, whereas in Scotland it was associated with anti-Thatcherism, the national question and symbols of resistance.
The same terms thirty years on don’t mean the same thing, but we have to find new languages and terms to describe what is now a bitterly divided, fragile society, and not reduce everything to fear and loathing.
Our political parties don’t help. The Tory Party has never simply represented the rich or as one person said this week ‘the political wing of the City of London’, but it has promoted a view of ‘Britain plc’ for the global elites. The three UK party conferences showed how far British politics has been captured by this perspective, with each of them beholden to corporate interests and corporate groupthink.
George Osborne must think we live in Alice in Wonderland times when he dares to say about the Tories ‘we speak truth to power’, talking about bankers and Vickers. None of the three UK parties represent any more widespread social classes and collectives, but instead engage in one long manipulated focus group exercise to work out how to best package the dogmas they believe.
These are revolutionary times; of the coming economic and political crisis which is the responsibility of the failed model of market fundamentalism. Where are the mainstream voices reflecting the anger of the Occupy Wall Street protests and UK Uncut, and anxiety and worry of millions?
Politics in Britain and elsewhere are over the next decade away to change beyond recognition. Anger and anxiety will find voice and new platforms. Forces on the hard right will play a xenophobic message, but new forces will form to express the realities of class which our mainstream has so conspicuously failed to do. We need a new kind of revolutionary politics, one that involves learning from the past mistakes of every revolution before. What we need to start is a counter-revolution against the masters of the universe and their numerous supporters in all the mainstream parties and public life.