Show Hide image

Jemima Khan meets Nick Clegg: “I’m not a punchbag – I have feelings”

The NS guest editor Jemima Khan talks to the Liberal Democrat leader about life on the far side of power and what it’s like to be a cut-out.

Nick Clegg and I smile genially at each other across the table of a standard-class train carriage. He is on his way to his constituency in Sheffield to talk about manufacturing. Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one – skiing in Davos with his children as the Libyan crisis escalated (for which he was lambasted).

Nick Clegg is the Tim Henman of politics: a decent man for whom Cleggmania represented the peak of his career, his Henman Hill moment. Then he became the Deputy Prime Minister and, shortly after, an effigy.

The carefree, cloud-cuckoo days of opposition, when he had a platform and little criticism, are long gone. At last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference, a fresh-looking and ebullient Clegg had gesticulated and boomed: "We see the same old broken promises. No wonder people feel let down." A year on, he was less combative, more ambivalent. His many critics pointed to his own broken promises and let-down voters.

Clegg concedes that it has been a "very sharp transition". "Of course it has had a dramatic effect on how I'm perceived, the kind of dilemmas I have to face," he says. "I don't even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance. No, we are getting our hands dirty, and inevitably and totally understandably we are being accused of being just like any other politicians."

His point – and it seems a fair one – is that the British public voted, no one party won and that coalition government, by definition, is a compromise. "A whole lot of things are happening that would just never in a month of Sundays have happened without the Lib Dems there," he says. The morning of our meeting, he claims to have "squeezed out of [George] Osborne" a promise of a green investment bank, not simply a fund. "We've done more on liberty and privacy," he adds, "in the past ten months than Labour did in the past 13 years."

All this has done little to dilute the vitriol of his opponents. John Prescott has likened him to Jedward, the risible and tuneless twins from The X Factor. Ed Miliband has called him "a tragic figure", one too toxic to share a platform with ahead of the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Clegg insists that none of this bothers him. "I see it exactly for what it is. [Ed] is a perfectly nice guy but he has a problem, which is that he's not in control of his own party, so he constantly has to keep his troops happy and he thinks that ranting and raving at me is the way to do it."

Since joining the government, and in particular since his U-turn on university tuition fees, Clegg has had dog mess posted through his door and been spat at in the street. It must upset him. "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag – I've of course got feelings."

He pauses. "Actually, the curious thing is that the more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayals that people impose on you . . . I increasingly see these images of me, cardboard cut-outs that get ever more outlandish . . . One thing I've very quickly learned is that if you wake up every morning worrying about what's in the press, you would go completely and utterly potty."

After ten months in government, he has a guardedness that did not exist in the days when he told Piers Morgan he'd had roughly 30 lovers. These days he is tightly managed. I have already had a pre-interview briefing with one adviser, and now Clegg's version of Andy Coulson, who is sitting to his right, is busy taking written notes of our interview, as well as recording it. When Clegg gets sidetracked, he prompts him, head down, pen poised over notebook, deadpan: "You were talking about what you've achieved . . ."

Everyone seems painfully aware that my task as interviewer is to catch him out, to get him to say the wrong thing. Clegg's task, like all politicians, is to rattle off rhetoric, to be evasive and as uncontroversial as possible, and to fill up the tape with unquotable patter.

All of which makes interviewing him excruciating. He continues: "What we've achieved so far . . . I think just having a government with two parties in it is already such a big new thing. I know it has been born in a blaze of controversy because of the difficult economic decisions we've had to take . . . but if we're lucky, people will look back on it in 20 or 30 years' time as quite a normal thing in British politics that politicians can actually agree with each other from time to time.

“That in itself is quite big and radical. In the week or two leading up to the general election, every single newspaper was screaming from the headlines: 'A hung parliament will be a disaster, coalition politics will be a disaster. Nothing will get done.' And the extraordinary thing is that now we're being accused of almost exactly the reverse – of doing too much."

Of doing too much? Or of being too Tory? Clegg's dilemma is that, on the one hand, he is in danger of being seen as too close to David Cameron and the Conservatives, and losing credibility with his party and voters. On the other hand, he can't be too distant, because that would be damaging for the coalition and a gift for the opposition and the press, which is constantly looking for rifts.

Before the election, Clegg let it be known that he had turned down an invitation to dine with the Camerons at their home in Notting Hill. He wanted to maintain a distance. Perhaps wary of looking like he fits too easily into the port-swilling, waistcoat-wearing Bullingdon Club set, he is still keen to present Cameron as more working partner than friend.

“We don't regard each other as mates and actually I don't think it would be a particularly healthy thing if we tried to become personal mates," he says. "I don't think a coalition works unless you have a very careful balance between mutual respect and civility and also a certain hardness, as at the end of the day you are representing different views."

I've heard that they play tennis together. "No, no – well, er, I think we've played one game of tennis. Of course we meet from time to time but it's always basically to talk about what we're doing in government."

Who won?

“Ah no, that's a state secret," he jokes. (Cameron won.)

Earlier, at my pre-interview briefing, Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, characterised being in the coalition as like being in a marriage – you both get to know instinctively which are the no-go areas.

Clegg concedes that there are "some areas where we flatly disagree" with the Tories, such as on Europe ("I think you can't make sense of this world unless you work together with other folk in the European neighbourhood") and taxation ("Our reflexes as Lib Dems are to try to give tax breaks to people on middle or lower incomes, whereas traditionally they are more interested in trickle-down economics"), but denies that there are "no-go areas". "Look, we're on completely opposite sides of the fence on the AV referendum."

He refuses to concede that signing the pledge to vote against an increase in university tuition fees before the election was a mistake. "That would be a cop-out. I did it. And I have a rather old-fashioned belief that you've got to stand by what you've done and take the consequences, good or bad." He insists that it was not one of his main manifesto priorities anyway. "I didn't even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees."

Instead, he says, he spent "every single day and every single interview talking about the four things that were on the front page of the manifesto – namely the pupil premium, two and a half million quid for disadvantaged kids; changing the tax system, so you don't pay tax on your first £10,000; political reform; and sorting out the banks and rebalancing the economy."

That's all very well, but given that the Lib Dems are only ever likely to be in government as part of a coalition, how will he deal with pledges made in future election campaigns? Will there be pledges with caveats, depending on which party he clambers into bed with next? "I think that we need to be clearer about what are the really big, big priorities."

After his capitulation on tuition fees, there are many who now fear that nothing is sacred for the Lib Dems. He denies this. "If the Conservatives wanted to become as authoritarian as Blair and New Labour, I wouldn't have it – but it wouldn't happen, as it couldn't happen with us in [the coalition]."

Clegg is emphatic that he will not allow the Tories to disempower the Lib Dems' much-loved European Court of Human Rights. The problem with being in a coalition government is that it acts as a gag. There are times in the interview when Clegg looks so pained as to remind me of Colin Firth in the opening scenes of The King's Speech, particularly when issues of Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking come up. I know what he'd have said if he were in opposition. The Lib Dems were always very critical of the Cameron-Murdoch cabal. Some Lib Dem MPs were victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World.

“My thoughts are," he begins haltingly, "that it has all come out much more into the open since the police investigation . . . and I think, you know, since those days it is becoming much more out there, and quite rightly. I've always said that the police have got to investigate and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] have got to take action. Look, I don't follow every twist and turn . . ." His press secretary looks up for the first time.

What of those, such as the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, who believe that the Murdochs have too much power and influence over politicians? There's a long pause. "I think that the days when newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone," he says.

Clegg is exceptionally loyal to David Cameron – I expect he is a loyal man by nature, not design – but there's a fine line between being loyal and sounding plain disingenuous. So, what does he think of the dinner party hosted over Christmas by News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, at her Cotswolds home, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch?

“I don't know anything about Oxfordshire dinner parties," he says. Of course he does. Everyone in politics knows about the get-together of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's son, and most agree that the timing of it was inappropriate, given that there was a criminal investigation under way over phone-hacking in the Murdoch empire, as well as ongoing negotiations with the regulatory authorities over the ownership of BSkyB.

“Well, I'm assuming that they weren't sitting there talking about News International issues," says Clegg. "Look, you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave. I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It's not my world. It's never going to be my world."

He looks pained. I feel sorry for him and I can't help telling him so. I was married to a politician and I remember the constant self-censorship and, in my case, the gaffes. I get the impression that Nick Clegg is an honest, straightforward man in a dishonest, unstraightforward world, in which nobody can say what they really think.

An interruption offers some blessed relief. A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: "I couldn't resist such a unique opportunity to say, 'Stick With It!' The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it's tough but it's very necessary. All the best."

The press secretary looks triumphant. Clegg looks momentarily less beleaguered. He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, "as if it's a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg". He should watch those slips into the third person – an early sign that a person is losing touch with reality.

Clegg was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and for that he earned many supporters. His backing of the "surge" and British forces' continued presence in Afghan­istan is therefore surprising. There are rumours, which he denies, that he wanted to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops but that the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, an ex-marine, persuaded him not to.

“In a sense," Clegg says, "we have brought our ambition to a much more realistic level. We've now got an exit date, which we didn't have before, and a much better set of weapons on the ground. And crucially you've got the British government saying to [President Hamid] Karzai – who I had dinner with recently – this cannot be won militarily. Once you're in that far and you've had that many people die and be maimed, I think it would be morally questionable to cut and run overnight."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we continue to pour money into a war with no clear goals – and continue to line the roads of Wootton Bassett – is so that those in power will be able to keep on claiming that "they did not die in vain".

“Look, it's never perfect. It's not a neat world," says Clegg. He is above all a pragmatist for whom coalition, foreign policy and life are a balancing act. He accepts that there are moral problems with supporting Karzai's government, which has no authority outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and which, according to the Transparency International corruption index, was last year the second most corrupt in the world. "Exactly – that's where it gets messy and imperfect."

Clegg is pleased to have "got more balance into the debate on Israel in the party". While he is "undimmed" in his criticism of Israel's illegal settlement activity and his "absolute horror of what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza", he stresses that "Israel has legitimate security issues in a region where there is a threat to its existence".

He denies that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the west's rhetoric about democracy and our need for oil. "Do we have vital economic self-interest to keep lights on? Yes. Do I think that should be won at the cost of always being on the side of people who want to express themselves and want democracy? No."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he thinks it was bad timing for Cameron to tour the Middle East on a "UK trade mission"- a euphemism for peddling arms to despots – at a time when there are widespread protests in favour of democracy in the region. He will say, though, that the business of selling arms represents "a horrendous dilemma".

That we have sold arms to repressive regimes – tear gas grenades to Bahrain, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, crowd-control ammunition to Libya – is "of course wrong", he agrees. "That's why we've suspended scores and scores of export licences. What guarantee do you have when you export product X to country Y, who seem totally hunky-dory, totally peaceful, and what happens when the country goes belly up? What we're doing is pragmatic rather than pure."

Even the language Clegg uses is moderate and qualified, interspersed with phrases such as "kind of" and "on the other hand" as well as rhetorical questions and unfinished sentences. He's unhyperbolic and ambiguous in a way that must be alien to most Tories. Whereas Cameron strikes me as a man with almost no self-doubt, Clegg seems more self-questioning and less bombastic. I suspect that he is as accom­modating and good at compromise in his marriage as he has been politically.

He smiles for the first time when he tells me that his Spanish wife, Miriam, has "got wonderfully strong opinions". It's clear for a start who chose the names for their three children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel Clegg. They are being brought up as Roman Catholics, even though Clegg has said he is an atheist. The children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English fluently.

At one point, it was assumed that Miriam would be the one with the big career and he would be the thinker and take care of their children. After his eldest son was born, Clegg says: "Miriam was in a particularly intense period of her career and I was in a particularly relaxed period of mine . . . coming to the end of my time as an MEP, so I was very, very involved. I wasn't the primary parent – Miriam would get very annoyed if she were to read that – but I was very involved and you carry that on with you."

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, "to create a firewall" between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'"

Clegg refuses "to play politics" with his children, or to say whether or not they will go to a private school. While he's not "ideologically opposed to fee-paying schools existing", he is offended by the notion that it would be his decision alone, rather than one he would reach with Miriam. "I go: hang on a minute – what century are we living in?"

The same applies to what he might do in the future. He certainly does not want to be in politics all his life. "I think that's deeply unhealthy. I look at those people that got into politics when they were 16 and are still at it in their late sixties and think, 'My heavens above!'" Judging by the most recent opinion polls, he may not have the luxury of choice. Either way, he says, Miriam has made "masses of sacrifices putting up with me and politics" and this will be something they decide on together. He'd like to think, though, that he would go into education.

He is besotted by his "three lovely boys" and is most proud "by a long shot" of the family life he has created with Miriam. They manage to lead a relatively normal life, "not in a bunker in Westminster", and he tries to pick his children up from school and put them to bed at night at least two or three times a week.

He regrets that sometimes he doesn't always get the balance right, which makes him "quite miserable" and unable to do his job properly.Sometimes he has to tell them white lies if he is stuck in a meeting. At home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and says he "cries regularly to music."

I receive a snapshot of his family life when, after the interview is over, I am invited to dine with other journalists at Chevening, the grace- and-favour house in Kent that Clegg shares with William Hague. Clegg arrives two hours late – he's been in protracted discussions over Libya – and looks corpse-like with exhaustion. The contrast with his vibrant, pretty wife, with her big bawdy laugh, could not be more stark. His children seem delightful – and delightfully normal.

Clegg has been accused of selling out, of providing a yellow fig leaf for the Tories' less attractive bits. But I expect that he would see opting out of the coalition or leaving politics altogether as the biggest cop-out of all. He is not consumed by politics – he has a fulfilling life away from Westminster – but he seems to have an old-fashioned sense of duty and believes that, without him there in the cabinet, the Tories would be up to far more of their old tricks. He might well be right – but will he be so easily forgiven by the voters?

“I have a faintly romantic belief that if over five years I just keep steadily trying to do the best I can, with all the difficult dilemmas we face, with not very much money, all those kinds of things . . . we will kind of come through. I think if people see that someone is trying to do the right thing and maybe they're not entirely succeeding, they kind of will go with you. And that's all you can do."

He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

Later that evening, I get a text from his press secretary, offering me "a full copy of the note that lady passed on the train". He thought I might like it for my piece, "in case it needs some colour".

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

Grammar school in 1962. Getty
Show Hide image

What I learned about class after my twin brother and I were separated by the 11-plus

When my twin brother went into a secondary modern school, and I went to a grammar, something more than a private rift opened up: we were assigned to different social classes. 

The cultural schism exposed by Brexit in Britain and the election of Donald Trump in the United States has been a long time in the making. It goes deep, and for many it has been not only a bleak social ­phenomenon, but also a profound personal experience.

When my twin brother went into the C stream of a secondary modern school in the 1950s, and I passed the examination for Northampton Grammar School, something more than a private rift opened up: we were assigned to different social classes. Apprenticed to a carpenter at 15, he did national service, while I remained at school until I went up to Cambridge University. By this time, the breach had become irreparable. Our separate lives were emblematic of divisions in Britain which have only recently been officially acknowledged. My brother made a success of his life restoring historic buildings, but many others did not, consigned to failure at 11, or subsequently ejected from employment that they had imagined would last a lifetime – work scornfully dismissed now as “jobs for life”, as though heavy manual labour were an idle sinecure.

 

****

Why do we recognise the true nature of the society we live in only when it is on the verge of dissolution? Perhaps its passing shows up its certainties for the brief, shadowy arrangements that they are. Yet while it remains, it is life itself, the only possible way for human beings to be. No society is exempt from the cycle of ascent, momentary stability and decay, and this is as true in Britain of the industrial era as it was of a declining agrarian society in the 18th century.

In An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), Thomas Malthus, echoing the French physiocrats, declared that manufacturing would never increase the wealth of the nation because food production was its primary economic purpose. The industrial worker “will have added nothing to the gross produce of the land: he has consumed a portion of this gross product, and has left a bit of lace in return; and though he may sell this bit of lace for three times the quantity of provisions he has consumed whilst he was making it . . . he cannot be considered as having added by his labour to any essential part of the riches of the state”.

Rarely can such predictions have been so swiftly disconfirmed. Industry was already sweeping up people in its compulsions, as Oliver Goldsmith had lamented of a wasting rural life in his poem “The Deserted Village” (1770): “Far, far away, thy children leave the land.” Industry effaced the sensibility of country people and remade it in the image of the rigid discipline of manufacturing, mining and mill. A new kind of human being came into existence: the industrial worker, whose disposition, mutinous and refractory, was observed by the rich with suspicion, as they could not assess its potential for disaffection and tumult. Little was known of the “alien” mentality of the people; as little, perhaps, as that revealed to an astonished establishment by the unanticipated result of the EU referendum.

No wonder the working class became a central preoccupation of governments, reformers and politicians. There was controversy from the beginning over the “true” temper of the worker, then predominantly male, engaged in the making of things, useful and necessary to the prosperity of Britain. Did the workers want a fairer share of the wealth of the country? Did they seek to overthrow the established order? What was simmering in their mysterious, impenetrable communities of poverty?

Researchers ventured into darkest England – to places frequently likened to sites of imperial conquest – and returned with lurid tales of squalor and discontent; at the same time, trade unions and friendly and burial societies were growing, the co-operative movement evolved, and eventually a Labour party emerged which at last appeared to be a definitive expression of the psyche of the working class.

Strengthened as the 20th century dawned, but weakened by war and the Depression, Labour gained new vigour after the defeat of Nazism. With the coming of peace in 1945, both the spread of communism and the dissolution of the European empires made it timely, just and prudent for ruling elites to make concessions to the working class. Hence the marriage of unequals between capitalism and welfare, which at the time promised to be a permanent settlement.

What was regarded as the enduring sensibility of the industrial worker was doomed to follow its agricultural predecessor. It, too, became fully defined only when close to disintegration. When E P Thompson published his splendid Making of the English Working Class in 1963, signs of its decomposition were already detectable. Similarly, The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart’s tender depiction of working-class culture (first published 60 years ago this year), was based on his experiences as a child in the 1920s and 1930s. The historians Eric Hobsbawm and Raymond Williams also framed what looked like a definitive version of the ­working class even as workers from the Caribbean and south Asia, recruited for a waning textile industry and transport and health systems, were transforming it.

Similarly, the consolation that the gritty north was the true source of Britain’s wealth, in contrast to a soft, self-indulgent south, left a long afterglow; it persisted long after the factories had collapsed in clouds of brick dust and splinters of glass and the south, with its financial services and advanced technologies, had become the principal generator of wealth.

 

****

Social class was always inflected by individual circumstances. There were other elements involved in the separation from my twin. Our mother’s husband was diagnosed with tertiary syphilis in 1939; at the time, this was curable only by prolonged treatment with injections of arsenic and mercury. Our mother, who looked after the butcher’s shop that we lived above, realised that there would be no children in the marriage. A strong and resourceful woman, she met an engineer working on a construction site near the butcher’s shop she ran while her husband drove his lorry, carrying timber, bricks and glass all over the Midlands. He also carried more tender cargoes, with whom he spent nights in the back of the truck under a tarpaulin intended to protect merchandise from the rain. From one of these cargoes he contracted the disease, the sibilant syllables of which struck terror into those touched by it, much as HIV/Aids was to do half a century later.

Our mother became pregnant with my brother and me. Perhaps it was a fear that the two men in her life might gang up on her that impelled her to keep me and my brother apart, distributing roles that would ensure we never learned truly to know one another, even though we lived in the same house, with its frozen atmosphere, numb with secrets, for the first 18 years of our lives. My brother was practical and good-looking, docile and sweet-tempered; I was clever and fat, demanding and devious. Our schooling played a secondary role, but it did succeed in driving us further apart. Class was only one element in the hidden geometry of kinship.

 

****

Even in the 1950s, when the effect of ­prosperity on the working class was discussed in The Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith and The Status Seekers by Vance Packard, it was difficult to sustain belief in the existence of a homogeneous class. In 1959, after three consecutive Conservative electoral victories, even the Daily Mirror doubted whether a Labour party had a future.

Writing In Pursuit of the English in 1960, Doris Lessing described her “search” for the working class as “a platonic image, a grail, a quintessence, and by definition, unattainable”. Having been assured in her native Southern Africa that black workers were “not working class in the true sense”, she came to Britain, where, after encounters with the Communist Party (“not typical”), miners and dockworkers (“very specialised” labour) and workers in a new town (“tainted by capitalism”), she was advised that the true working class could be discovered only somewhere like South Africa, where “the black masses are not yet corrupted by industrialism”.

The erosion of identity of the working class, as it existed between the mid-19th century and the end of the Second World War, went largely unrecognised by its defenders and representatives. It was certainly apparent in Blackburn in 1969, when, for my book City Close-Up, I recorded a torrent of racism and prejudice in working-class areas: this was the outrage of people who had never been consulted on the social and economic mutation of their world. Barbara Castle, the energetic and radical MP for the town, suggested I play down race, because “in a few years it will burn itself out”.

 

****

Class itself was already in flux as a result of the unprecedented affluence of the time, and class consciousness was dissolving in the mild acid of consumerism. The differences between my twin and me appeared to be influenced by culture rather than class, because he was economically more successful than I was. This faltering of a sense of class was perhaps a symptom of the triumph of market-based relationships over those that are socially determined; and perceptions of the world had shifted in accordance with this reality.

 

****

Distance grew between the way people actually were and an embalmed version of the working class which continued to animate the left. In 1977, I published What Went Wrong?, subtitled Working People and the Ideals of the Labour Movement. In the US the subtitle was presciently amended to Why Hasn’t Having More Made People Happier? – in that advanced country, ideals and the labour movement had become unintelligible concepts.

I interviewed hundreds of elderly Labour activists who, looking at a world changed beyond recognition, spoke of their younger selves with the sad detachment with which people usually speak of the dead; their tone bore the melancholy regret of In memoriam notices.

It was clear four decades ago that the northern industrial towns were “wanting in purpose, looking for the meaning they once derived from their role in producing goods”. In the 1970s the feeling was that immigrants from Asia had somehow usurped the people’s way of life: they lived in houses lately vacated by millworkers; they had a strong sense of family and neighbourhood, as well as powerful cultural and religious traditions – all characteristics supposed to “belong” to Lancashire.

During the economic restructuring in the 1980s, I compared (in my book Unemployment) the experience of being out of work in those days with that of the 1930s, with its poignant tales of officials from the ­Unemployment Assistance Board, sitting in the balcony at the Rialto Cinema to see who was in the stalls when they should have been pounding the pavement looking for work; or Means Test men compelling families to sell an upright piano or a wedding ring before they could receive a penny of state charity. In the 1930s, no one doubted work would return; in the 1980s, industrial work was vanishing.

It seemed the working class in Britain had attained quietus after the miners’ strike in 1984. High unemployment was said to be “frictional” as we moved between epochs, a “creative imbalance” that would one day make us all richer and happier, though not quite yet. The working class was eliminated from the very history that, in some versions of prophecy, was to have ensured its ultimate triumph. Had the working classes died and gone to a heaven shaped in the image of expropriated socialist utopias? Had they been drowned in prosperity or assimilated into an expanding middle class? Whatever their fate, they were no longer of any account in the version of society disseminated by the media. This was reinforced by the collapse of the USSR, and there ceased to be any interest in what might be happening to them. Their sometime heroic role had been unceremoniously annulled.

In the absence of the working class, the rich were transformed: employers no longer exploiters of labour, but philanthropic providers of work. Those amassing fortunes became authors of the doctrines of wealth creationism. The working class, far from the gravedigger of capitalism, was merely a transient irritant. The class reached its zenith, faltered and fell back; and the ­liberatory power once attributed to it was appropriated by the warriors of wealth, who assumed the mantle of destiny of those they had displaced.

The working class was fragmented and dispersed, like the migrants who now constituted such a significant segment of it. New generations grew, not as citizens of this or that town, with its place in a national division of labour, but as dependants of a global market. If “globalisation” is to the 21st century what industrialisation was to the 19th, its significance lies in its disarming of people, no longer able to answer basic needs in the places where they live, but compelled to buy in what they need from countries whose names are only a vague echo of forgotten geography lessons. As the market colonises society, we become subjects of a curiously dematerialising topography: Theresa May could not have expressed it better when she said that “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere” – although this was not her ­intended meaning.

As the (welfare) state shrank, the market dilated, invasive and predatory. Our lives are so penetrated by its “values” that these now appear in our most intimate relationships – we speak of emotional investment and interrogate our deepest attachments, asking what returns we will get; should we cut our losses; what are our best assets; are we in the market for a new relationship; shall we take a gamble; what is to be gained out of profitless attachments; will it pay dividends; what will it yield? Just as “human nature” serves as a cover for the nature of capitalism, so society provides an alibi for market-induced disorders – obesity and pathologies around eating, unquiet addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling, celebrity, sex, food; all facilitated by what money, in its own right the most addictive substance known to humanity, can buy.

No wonder this age is characterised by nostalgia for coherence and purpose. It focuses on the recent manufacturing era, even if this was shadowed by grim institutions of factory, chapel, pub, workhouse, cinema and cemetery and the oppression of women and children – just as the Industrial Age directed its yearnings towards a past of sunlit field and flower-filled hedgerow, despite the omnipresence then of overseer, magistrate, bailiff and parish pay-table.

 

****

Despite a sense of continuous change, the wounds of social class continued to influence even those to whom it no longer appeared as a force in their lives. My twin brother paid for his early membership of the working class with his death 12 years ago from mesothelioma: his early construction work had exposed him to the baleful effects of asbestos.

 

****

The disorientation is profound: demolition of the old workplaces also suppressed the way of life and sensibility that accompanied them. Progressives, no less alarmed by these developments than the reactionaries, applauded them, turning to the growing diversity and pluralism of the labour force. They welcomed the shifting composition of the working population, in which women, ethnic minorities and LGBT people were moulded into a fragile coalition for social progress. That such an alliance contained factions and some incompatible objectives (say, respect for same-sex relationships, at odds with many Muslims and evangelical black churches) was not its greatest failing. This lay in the elevation of social equalities over economic equality, which continued to get worse, even for most of those in the groups favoured by progressives. Moreover, “mobility” was interpreted as a one-way street; few considered the downwardly mobile, many of whom proudly acknowledged their working-class roots. Poverty, too, was redefined: no longer concerned with unanswered need, it was now measured against unattainable wealth.

 

****

Personal relationships – which for most people are now more powerful than any sense of social influence – also help to conceal patterns of class and what in 1993 Richard Sennett called its “hidden injuries”. Our mother revealed to my brother and me the secret of our paternity only when both men were dead. This also exposed unsuspected inherited features: my brother had acquired from our biological father his love of restoring buildings, while I had the questionable gift of his radicalism. He had been a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s.

 

****

The fluid nature of class complicates the re-emergence of a working class in its new, emancipatory alliance with the super-wealthy – Trump and the funders of Brexit. Its sudden resurrection is attended not by the solidarities of belonging, but by those of a graveyard ideology of hatreds thought to have been conquered. This is a gift to demagogues and “strongmen”, as it enables them to perceive once more the “true” nature of a class whose heart still beats to rhythms of imperial nostalgia and aggressive nationalism.

Perhaps, following the precedents of agrarian and industrial cultures, the cult of the market is finally being acknowledged, just as it, too, is on the point of eclipse. Beneath the chaos of a culture where even truth has become a kind of consumer choice, new patterns of resistance are forming: commitment to a more just distribution of the goods of the Earth and respect for a planet ransacked by an omnivorous market; a rejection of robotics displacing humanity; a rediscovery of our capacity to do and make things freely for ourselves and each other.

But the savage regressions of our time may be not just a momentary disturbance, any more than agrarian and industrial society were. The cycle may have to play itself out, in who knows what ugly and distressing scenes, before the time for remorse comes round once more; then, appalled by our destructiveness, we shall repeat the constantly broken resolution: Never Again.

The great Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives, whose influence helped shape the Elizabethan poor law, wrote, in On Assistance to the Poor (1526): “. . . the poor are cast out of the churches and wander over the land; they do not receive the sacraments and they hear no sermons. We do not know by what law they live, nor what [are] their practices and beliefs.” After five centuries of upheaval and driven change, and in a radically altered context, his words still have a haunting, prophetic relevance.

Jeremy Seabrook’s most recent book is “The Song of the Shirt”, published in India by Navayana and in the UK by Hurst

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

0800 7318496