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

DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era