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17 February 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 4:13pm

Culture is ordinary: why the arts must not become the preserve of the elite

Generations of working-class autodidacts struggled to create space within elite cultures – this tradition must not be swept away by market forces.

By John Merrick

During a recent episode of the BBC’s Politics Live, pollster Deborah Mattinson of Britain Thinks recited a tired stereotype of the working class and its relation to the Labour Party. Paraphrasing a response during a focus group session in Crewe in 2018, she claimed that working-class voters perceived that Labour had gone from a “pie-and-a-pint party to quinoa”. This culinary shorthand suggests that Labour has abandoned its working-class roots and become a party of metropolitan liberals.

Much of the analysis of the 2019 general election seems to echo this view. Labour, it is said, lost its heartlands (or, in the new parlance, its “red wall”) because it went from a party with an organic connection to the northern working class to a party of middle-class protest. And, with beautiful symmetry, one of those heartland seats that Labour lost was the same constituency that the focus group was conducted in, Crewe and Nantwich.

Perhaps the clearest lesson from this is that class is never far from the minds of most British people. As Richard Hoggart, the author of The Uses of Literacy, once observed: “Each decade we shiftily declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty.” It’s now almost clichéd to say that Britain, and England in particular, is the most class-obsessed country. Yet more clichéd still is what class represents in the minds of many.

It is not only quinoa that carries this kind of cultural baggage – repulsive as it may be to every right-thinking working-class person. Since the government announced plans to potentially decriminalise non-payment of the BBC licence fee (or abolish it outright), other commentators have bemoaned the Reithian assumptions that still guide the broadcaster’s commissioning (“to educate, inform and entertain”). Why, they cry, does the BBC fund such elitist institutions as the Proms and insist on forcing ordinary folk to pay for yet another Jonathan Meades documentary on BBC4, when for far less money they could be glued to a Netflix series?

What all of this ultimately elides, though, is the deep and rich history of working-class culture. Jonathan Rose’s masterful book, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class (2001), charts generations of working-class autodidacts, each of whom struggled to create space within the elite cultures of 19th and 20th-century Britain for ordinary people. Rose tracks hundreds of these Jude Fawley-esque figures, those who used the products supposedly reserved for their social betters to, like Hardy’s Jude, write on the college walls: “I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you…”

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This is a culture and a tradition that I know intimately. My own working-class upbringing was one filled with books, and generations of avid readers preceded me. Despite being the first of my family to attend university, I was not the first to find liberation in the library or the theatre – all of this in the supposedly culturally devoid Crewe. And George Orwell may have lumped vegetarians in with nudists and sex maniacs in The Road to Wigan Pier, but vegetarianism is hardly unknown in those working-class redoubts of the North – quinoa and all.

What many cultural commentators miss is that, in the words of Raymond Williams, “culture is ordinary”. The conception of culture such commentators hold to is that of the great tradition. This is the vast collection of meaningful cultural works handed down between generations, and protected by guardians and gatekeepers in the academy or the media. And it is for the learned that they protect it from the masses, masses who are shaped by the rubbish that falls from the production lines of the culture industries. The working class must be limited to soap operas, pulpy romances and Hollywood trash, while our great cultural heritage is left to those who can use it properly.

Yet there is a second conception of culture, and it is one that Williams and Rose both emphasise. That conception is an active and democratic one. People always take their own experiences with them, and through them interpret and reshape everything they come into contact with. Those works are ultimately conditioned by the society around them, but so too is how everyone chooses to interpret them. This isn’t just reserved for Coronation Street, even if the reflection people see back is supposedly a more natural one, but also for the Last Night of the Proms and the art documentaries that are supposedly inaccessible to the working class. Culture is both the great tradition and a creative act of every individual; in Rose’s words, “texts do nothing by themselves”.

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Yet there is an obvious disparity between the culture described by Rose and that of today. In the postwar years, the ready availability of the dole and cheap, state-supported housing, offered a vital lifeline to working-class artists. Several decades later, you’re far less likely to walk into a working-class home and find it filled to brim with Shakespeare and Chaucer’s works. But this does not mean there has been any dumbing down of working-class life. Rather, those changes reflect broader changes to culture and society. The rise of TV and film, and the decline in mass-market publishing is one aspect, the cuts to the funding of libraries and schools another.

Equally to blame is the nature of arts funding, particularly since 1997. Tony Blair, in an attempt to kick-start “creative Britain”, funnelled billions of pounds into the cultural industries. One of Labour’s flagship pledges at the 1997 general election was to reinstate free entry to museums and art galleries – a feat achieved in 2001. Yet alongside this opening of the gates to high culture came a market-driven managerialism, and increasingly punitive welfare policies – no longer could you rely on regular dole payments to support your artistic endeavours. For New Labour, the market was to guide everything, from what and how people view culture, to how producers could access funding. 

The great boom in working-class artists in the post-war period is perhaps attributable as much to universal access to welfare as to any arts-specific policies. The neoliberal revolution cut that umbilical cord at just the moment that the arts, while in theory open to all, were becoming once more London-centric and market-driven.

To reverse this, we must not only fundamentally rethink how we see and fund culture in this country, we must also abandon the patronising view of the working class as an unthinking mass to be conditioned by their social and cultural superiors. If Labour is to win back the North, and reconnect with the working class, seeing them as active, thinking humans involved in a common culture must be the starting point.

John Merrick is an editor at Verso Books