Hideously middle-class

The BBC's White Season equates working-class culture with racism and the BNP, and exposes unsavoury

"The white working class in Britain is put under the spotlight this winter on BBC2," says the press release for the BBC's much-trailed White Season. What, all of it, all at once, for the rest of us to look at? One big pale lump, like a ball of lard, with nary an individual face to be seen nor opinion to be heard? Hmm, thought so. "White Season" - even the name makes it sound like a trip to the zoo.

Roly Keating, controller of BBC2, feels so ashamed at having ignored this group, insofar as it requested his attention en masse, that he has commissioned an entire season of programmes about white working-class people that stops just short of saying, "No wonder they all vote BNP."

It includes a film about a declining working men's club in racially divided Bradford; a documentary that asks, nakedly and without shame, "Was Enoch right?"; a drama about a girl living in (again) racially divided Bradford; and a Story ville essay about multiracial Barking, east London, which has a large handful of British National Party councillors.

The clear intention is to distance the BBC from the idea and practice of multiculturalism, and to make itself look as though it is engaging with contemporary issues, while being highly selective about the way it chooses to do so. The innumerable challenges of being working-class in a liberalised economy - never mind the challenges of being working-class full stop - are reduced, in this season, to race and immigration alone, with those (and only those) who are white cast as passive victims of policies they didn't choose.

But here is the news: deindustrialisation, deregulation, poor pay and prospects, low educational standards, bad or insecure housing, pressured living environments and lack of control disproportionately disadvantage working-class people, whether they are white or not. Not that you would know it from watching any of these programmes.

People such as Dave from All White in Barking, who declares he would rather drown himself than be followed from Barking to Canvey Island by "the Africans", haven't been "forgotten" by a changing world: they have deliberately turned their backs on change. Others, like the secretary of the club featured in Henry Singer's film Last Orders, have become overwhelmed by self-pity, which leads them to regard voting for fascists (we are led to believe he has done so, though he does not state this on film) as a noble vote of protest.

The BBC's dedicated website for the season asks, "Is white working-class Britain becoming invisible?" - a suggestion as extraordinary as it is disingenuous. British culture is underpinned by working-class tastes, comforts, vocabulary and prejudices: popular television; football; Greggs the baker; multimillion-selling tabloids; talent contests; sportswear labels; big settees; "real-life" magazines; slimming clubs; package holidays; "us" and "them".

Can it truly be said that any of these common features of working-class life has been affected in any way by non-white immigration or by the mores of a metropolitan liberal elite? No, because it's the other way around. You can find working-class people of all races queuing for steak bakes, buying the Sun for the sport, wearing tracksuits or football tops, and moaning about foreigners and the opposite sex. Most middle-class people wouldn't be seen dead doing the same. The only people who regard such activities as "invisible" are those who spend their lives running a mile from them. For everyone else, they are so normal that they scarcely imagine others might find their lives worthy of a TV series. Working-class lives in Britain are invisible only insofar as they have almost always been invisible to those who comprise the country's power base.

There have been few points in our history at which working people have been regarded as "the backbone of the nation"; their contribution, in the form of blood, sweat, toil and vastly shortened lifespans, to the affluence brought about by the Industrial Revolution was ignored until they were asked to fight in 1914 and were found, in many cases, to be too physically depleted to do so.

Lloyd George offered "homes fit for heroes" after the Great War and built the first huge council estates, thereby cementing class segregation into the landscape. For a brief period during and after the Second World War, the desires and needs of working-class people were taken into account - that is, until they became inconvenient. Voters asked for houses with gardens to be built, but millions got flats nonetheless.

Along similar lines, it has now become commonplace to point out that working-class voters did not "ask" for immigration from the old British empire. Nor did they ask for the empire in the first place, but few marched against it in the same way as dockers, meat porters and factory workers did in support of Enoch Powell following his calculatedly vile "rivers of blood" speech.

Denys Blakeway's film of the same name is trailed as the first serious examination of the speech's content, 40 years after it was made. Blakeway, as writer, producer and director, describes the speech as being one of the most misquoted in history. There is no evidence in his film to suggest that it has ever been misquoted, misunderstood or misrepresented. It is clear that Powell meant every word.

Fragments of footage taken from his address to a group of Conservative businessmen at the Midland Hotel in Birmingham in April 1968 are interspersed with commentary by Roy Hattersley, Baroness Young and the sociologist Stuart Hall, among others, all of whom eloquently undermine Blakeway's take on events. His thesis is that Edward Heath's sacking of Powell from the shadow cabinet, and the subsequent passage of the Race Relations Act, led to the pursuit of multiculturalism as a policy: a disaster, in his eyes.

As Singer does in Last Orders, Blakeway inserts footage of riots as if giving proof of Powell's prescience. Both are wrong to do so: the primary motivator for all the riots that have taken place on the British mainland since 1981, even those with triggers based on race, as in Oldham in 2001, has been the poverty, frustration and persistent disadvantage that comes with being trapped in an increasingly marginalised working class. (Few recall the many riots on largely white council estates in 1991 and 1992 as readily as those in Brixton and Toxteth.)

Last Orders makes tentative acknowledgement of this fact, showing how working patterns in mill towns such as Bradford went some way towards causing the lives of white and non-white workers to be lived in parallel, rather than together. The racist son of one of the Wibsey club regulars, coiled with spite and resentment, has not "been made" racist by any slow process of estrangement from wider change; it is because his generation of working-class Bradfordians has grown up almost totally segregated by race.

During the long postwar boom, night shifts were filled by immigrant workers because the existing white workers moved to the day shift as soon as pay and circumstances allowed them to do so. Structural unemployment affected workers from the Commonwealth just as it did white British workers, albeit in different sectors of industry. Both parties, whose children now struggle to overcome a sense of uselessness and despair, are regarded as forming an unemployable "underclass". They suffer from the consequences of the free market in the same ways, whether they are white, black or Asian.

The BBC has made a grave error in locating the problems of Britain's poorest and most pressurised people in race rather than class. Yes, there are working-class people who are white. If they believe themselves to be hard done by, then they are, considering their relative health, social status, pay and longevity, generally right to do so. If they believe they are hard done by because of the presence of other working-class people who happen not to be white, or British-born, they are wrong on every count I can think of.

The only fictional film in the season, White Girl, shows a teenage girl (played by a newcomer, Holly Kenny) finding refuge in her next-door neighbours' home after her violent stepfather follows her mother to the new family house in a heavily Asian part of Bradford. Her neighbours are Muslim: she equates the sense of peace and order in their house with the strength of their faith, and starts to pray with them. This story has already been upheld by apologists for white racism as an example of the BBC equating white and poor with "bad" and Muslim with "good". I see the story of a child making choices beyond those prescribed for her.

It is not an especially good film: Anna Maxwell Martin, the actress who plays the girl's frightened and miserable mother, simply cannot make herself believable in the role of a working-class woman. That piece of casting gives away the real problem at the heart of the BBC's season: the institution is not only still "hideously white", but hideously middle-class.

The White Season is on BBC2 from 7 March. More details from: http://www.bbc.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How Hillary did it