Not so satanic: a Bradford mill, now a Unesco heritage site. However it is a myth that most working-class Britons worked in industry. Photo: Getty
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We’re not all middle-class now: Owen Jones on class in Cameron’s Britain

The author of Chavs discusses Selina Todd’s “impassioned, much-needed” new book The People, noting how most Brits still stubbornly self-identify as working class. 

The People: the Rise and Fall of the Working Class (1910-2010)
Selina Todd
John Murray, 464pp, £25

Everyone is talking about class these days: even Tory modernisers excitedly debate how their party can woo working-class Britain. It is easy to forget that until all too recently it was consigned to the fringes of the national conversation. “Class is a communist concept,” Margaret Thatcher declared in 1992, with typical stridency; John Major hailed “the classless society”; Prescott and Blair announced that “we’re all middle class now”. Pretending class was no longer an issue was convenient, helping to shut down scrutiny of how wealth and power are distributed in modern Britain. That is why Selina Todd’s impassioned, comprehensive history is a much-needed contribution to the revival of thinking about class in Cameron’s Britain.

At first, the title worried me: it seemed to suggest that the working class has left the stage of history. But Todd’s argument hinges on two watershed years: 1945, when a transformative Labour government marked the political and social arrival of the working class after decades of struggle, and 1979, when the rise of Thatcherism led to “the fall of the working class as an economic and political force”, a judgement that is difficult to quibble with. This is an avowedly partisan book. Inspired by her parents’ background, Todd is on a mission to paint the working class back on to the historical canvas.

Her rejection of class as identity politics, or as something that is to be romanticised, is particularly welcome. It is, she says, “produced by exploitation in a country where a tiny elite has possessed the majority of the wealth”. She is clearly influenced by E P Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class, which holds that class is not a static label but a dynamic process, marked by shared experiences and collective interests that collide with each other.

Todd slays long-established myths. Received wisdom has often treated the industrial working class as synonymous with the working class as a whole, and thus the closing of coal mines, steelworks and factories fuelled the myth that Britain had become a classless society. But Todd points out that, even as late as 1923, servants represented the largest single group of working people: the era of the industrial working class was relatively fleeting. The chapter on servants is a highlight, as she explores how employers were perturbed by their increasingly unruly staff. Maids are often portrayed as deferential underlings; far from it, they became symbols of a stridently independent, “potentially insurrectionary working class”.

There is an unsettling sense of plus ça change. In the 1926 General Strike, workers who downed tools were depicted as supporting “sectional interests” and as a “stubborn minority” holding the country to ransom: the late Bob Crow would have smirked in recognition of such a portrait. Amid the sprawling dole queues of the “Hungry Thirties”, the Conservative-led government implied that the unemployed were partly responsible for their own hardship, and that state benefits dissuaded the jobless from seeking work. How depressing that we have returned to this endemic poor-blaming.

What brings the story to life is the testimony of working-class people – such as Viv Nicholson, who won the Pools in 1961, and schoolmates of Todd – as they reflect on experiencing wrenching change. “We didn’t intend going back to how it was,” reminisces one East Ender about the postwar election, summing up the almost desperate appetite for change that gave Clement Attlee’s Labour Party its 1945 landslide victory. This was a hopeful time, when lives were transformed by universal social security, education and health care and collective bargaining rights. In the 1950s, the Conservative and Labour Parties were competing over who could build more council houses: though the Tories scrimped on quality, Churchill’s postwar government was building 300,000 homes a year, or roughly twice the rate today.

For some, sadly, optimism gave way to triumphalism. In 1951, the social researcher and philanthropist Seebohm Rowntree said that the postwar settlement had “all but . . . eradicated” poverty. Anthony Crosland, the standard-bearer of Labour’s social-democratic right, announced in 1956 that “the worst economic abuses and inefficiencies of modern society have been corrected”. I wonder how they would react to the news that, six decades later, a million Britons are dependent on food banks. But it was a time of surging incomes: between 1960 and 1970, most workers enjoyed a doubling of their pay packet, in contrast to now, when we are experiencing the longest fall in living standards since the Victorian era.

The left is often accused of looking at the postwar settlement through rose-tinted goggles. Todd rightly points out that the wealthy elite always retained the whip hand, and that although education reforms abolished secondary school fees, school selection wrote off 80 per cent of children – mostly from working-class backgrounds – who were packed off to second-rate secondary moderns. In a rebuke to those hankering after the return of selection, Todd points out that less than a fifth of manual workers’ children made it to grammar school.

Todd shows clearly that the working class has never been homogeneous, but what the book could have explored further is the phenomenon of working-class Toryism. It has a long tradition: in the 19th century, Disraeli hailed the workers courted by his party as “angels in marble”. Some of this complexity emerges; Todd recalls the proud, “patriotic” strike-breakers of 1926 and gives a platform to working-class voters who initially welcomed Thatcher’s triumph. But writers on the left, including myself, need to examine the appeal of conservatism as much as we celebrate what makes people radical.

Although the conclusion of The People captures the bleakness of the Thatcherite era, it is nonetheless illuminated by what Tony Benn described as the precondition of social change: the burning flame of anger at injustice, and the burning flame of hope for a better world. Yes, dog-eat-dog individualism has gnawed away at the sense that working-class people organising together can transform society; anger at people’s plight is often redirected at the unemployed and immigrants, rather than the real villains at the top. But most people still stubbornly self-identify as working class, Todd notes, and most reject inequality.

“In learning from their history, we can begin to imagine a different future,” she writes. This compelling book underlines how the fight for emancipation is not easy, obvious or linear: it is simply driven by necessity. In our country of food banks, legal loan sharks and zero-hours contracts, it is a necessity that burns.

Owen Jones is the author of “Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class” (Verso, £9.99)

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

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David Keenan's new novel is a dizzying recall of adolescence

This Is Memorial Device vividly recalls the teen years of the post-punk generation. I'm just not sure I wanted to remember.

Imagine dropping down the ­metaphysical wormhole to the scene of your adolescent self, with all your mates; with all that immortal music, sex, drugs, madness and tempestuousness. For some of us it’s a place we would rather not revisit. For the post-punk generation, David Keenan’s debut novel sends us plunging into that era anyway – violently, viscerally, surreally – in this “Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978-1986”. Keenan’s real-life west coast Scotland is the home of a fictional dissonant, radical group called Memorial Device, whose underground misadventures are transmitted through a constellation of eyewitness accounts and psychedelic reveries from the damaged, delirious misfits in and around a band that sounded, as the narrator Ross Raymond describes it, “like Airdrie, like a black fucking hole”.

Such were the post-punk provinces across the UK, vividly realised here, populated by John Peel apostles transcending dead-end reality in bedsits wallpapered with pages from the NME and Sounds, romantic young minds consumed by Johnny Thunders and Iggy Pop, Jack Kerouac and H P Lovecraft. These are murky everytowns where, as Ross writes, “music deformed my life rather than just changed it”.

Keenan – an author, journalist, jazz critic, obsessive scholar of psych-folk – has a febrile imagination and his fiction debut is a fantastical meander in intense, magical-realist prose. Much like in youth itself, you’ve no idea what’s happening, or where you’re going, each chapter a crunching gear change of new characters who fizz in, dazzle, disappear and reappear. The chapter headings are filled with unfathomable imagery:

 

22. Ships Rising Up and Passing Through the Water Full of Sunlight and Memory the Tricks That It Plays: Bruce Cook on Autonomic Dreaming with Lucas and Vanity and all the baggage that comes back to haunt you like ghostly ships at the bottom of the ocean in a graveyard beneath the sea breaking free and rising to the surface.

 

This is the breathless style that dominates the book. Full stops are sporadically abandoned for chaotic streams of consciousness (Paul Morley’s sentences are tweets in comparison), like being trapped inside the amphetamine-boggled brain of Spud in the celebrated job-interview scene from Trainspotting (a struggle at times, with none of the daft jokes). With each new voice comes more forensic musical analysis, lurid recollections – of a barbaric scalping, of wanking on acid, of porn, puke, piss – and densely packed rushes of salty information. Ross’s co-author Johnny McLaughlin recalls his sexual exploits as a 17-year-old: he was “a collector . . . a gourmet, a pussy-eater (a body-gorger) (a piss-drinker, a shit-lapper), a woman-lover, a tit-biter, an auto-asphyxiator (an ass-lover, a panty-smotherer), a heel-worshipper (a hose-hugger)”. There’s as much sex here, it turns out, as music.

There are inevitable echoes of those fellow countrymen of Keenan’s, the literary dark lords Irvine Welsh and John Niven, yet little hilarity. But, mercifully, there are also passages of surrealist beauty: through prison bars, a main character is hypnotised by the moon, bathed in its “strange silver glow that made it seem like it was on fire, like ice on fire”, feeling “like a crystal ­being cleansed”. The last chapter is stunning, a soaring, existentialist, cosmic crescendo.

Memorial Device’s lead singer, the charismatic, amnesia-blighted, journal-writing Lucas, has his writing described as “a walking frame or a wheelchair, a crutch, which when you think about it is what most writing is, something to support the figure of the writer, so that he doesn’t fall back in the primordial soup of everyone else, which is no one”. Ultimately, This Is Memorial Device uses post-punk merely as its skeleton frame. It is a meditation on memory and perspective, on the magical forces of language, on the absurdity of existence and the dreadful thoughts bubbling like toxic fluid below the fragile surface of every human brain. Despite its black-humour set pieces (and a comically colossal, micro-detailed appendix, the undertaking of a madman), it’s a serious, disturbing book, free-form literary jazz for agonised over-thinkers, perhaps like the minds of intense young men.

In these creatively risk-averse times, it’s heroically bizarre, if more admirable than lovable. By the end, you’re exhausted, and happy to file it away for ever, along with the young life you no longer wish to live.

Sylvia Patterson is the author of “I’m Not With the Band” (Sphere)

This Is Memorial Device by David Keenan is published by Faber & Faber (298pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times