Tim Lott: White, working class – and threatened with extinction

It's the do-gooding liberal middle classes that have betrayed those 'beneath' them
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The Independent Online

What do the words "white working class" conjure in your mind? Knives, binge drinking, fecklessness, hoodies, slags, yobs, povvoes? That would about cover it.

Why do we allow ourselves, even in the privacy of our own heads, to wield such hateful terms towards this particular minority group? The BBC's new White season which began last Friday is unlikely to provide any answers. It lacks a polemic in defence of the white working class. It is a defence long overdue.

My father worked in a greengrocers' shop for 35 years; my mother was a housewife before she committed suicide in 1987. They were both lifelong Labour voters. My mother hanged herself in the house she lived in all her life, in Southall, west London, a town that had changed beyond all recognition. It is today the least white place in the whole of Britain.

She wrote in her suicide note: "I hate Southall, I feel so alone." In case anyone dare accuse her of any racism, she may have hated Southall, but my mother was incapable of hating people. She worked in the last years of her life as a dinner lady in an all-Asian school and was much loved. But she was lost. Her world had disappeared.

Her dilemma is partly the dilemma of the white working class. Although I am middle class now, they still feel like "my" class. And I like them. I think of them as honest, funny, irreverent, vigorous and unpretentious. I also think of them as wilfully ignorant, hedonistic, angry, often racist and, in the case of some builders, plumbers and motor mechanics, verging on the crooked. They tend toward the philistine, and distrust education because they confuse it with the aspiration of the middle classes, which they revile. Because, in fact, they have more animosity for the middle classes than they do for blacks, or Asians, or gays.

This is because they have been traduced by several generations of their so-called "betters", the white liberal middle classes (WLMC). (Incidentally there is also a large liberal working class, but this is rarely mentioned by the WLMC who like to keep a monopoly on morals.) What the WLMC seem to believe is that the "respectable working class", once celebrated – for instance in 1960s' kitchen-sink dramas – have become extinct, leaving a residue of scum (though they would never use that word). And there may be an element of truth in this view. But if it is true, they did not die out: they were assassinated.

By what methods were the white working classes (WWC) despatched? The first development that undermined WWC hopes and morale was the great betrayal in education – the abolition of grammar schools and the retention of private schools.

Grammar schools, in the guilt-ridden WLMC view of things, favoured middle-class children over working-class children. What they actually favoured – or could have favoured, if the tests were designed sufficiently well – was clever children over less clever children. And if you look at the dyna7mism of the post-war grammocracy (Pinter, Dyke, Potter, Jacobson, Sillitoe, Bragg, Bennett and hundreds of others), it provided a crucial injection of WWC sensibility into the wider culture.

Now, in the name of everyone being equal – except for the WLMC who could pay for private schools – no one could be admitted to a school just on the basis that they were clever, which a remarkably large number of working-class people are. The WLMC had it that the WWC are all about as clever as each other (not very, though you had to pretend otherwise) and thus must all go to the same, very big, often rather crappy schools in which maybe dozens of languages are spoken.

The second great betrayal was multiculturalism. This was the creed that said all cultures were as valid as each other (in theory) but that minority cultures were somehow – no one was quite sure how – actually superior to the host white indigenous culture which was axiomatically racist. So even if you happen to come from a culture that endorsed female circumcision and was misogynist and homophobic, it was a given that you were a "victim". And who were the "victimisers"? The WWC who were faced with the profound challenge and stresses of assimilation.

There was a lot of WWC resistance to immigration. This was partly about racism, which, of course, the WLMC are immune to. Something in the organic bread, I think. But it was also about losing housing opportunities, cheap labour taking away jobs, and the simple, profound problem of learning to exist in a new kind of culture, which in some cases overwhelmed and bewildered the indigenous one. The trick of learning to feel ashamed at the same time as everything was being taken away from you was a really hard one to pull off.

Nevertheless, the WWC coped remarkably well, and in many ways remained astoundingly liberal. Yes, there was the National Front in the 1970s, but they were partly defeated by the efforts of the liberal working class (Rock Against Racism, for instance, and Red Wedge). The level of intermarriage among the WWC and ethnic minorities was far higher than in the WLMC. Also, the much reviled skinheads danced to ska and bluebeat and Tamla while their betters were listening to Elgar and Wagner.

The third great betrayal was the WLMC determination to stamp out nationalism – at least if you were English. If you were Scottish, Welsh or Irish, of course, you could celebrate your flag and your culture as loudly and proudly as you liked. But if you were native WWC, to celebrate St George and the English flag was racist. This is because the WWC, despite being stuck down mines and corralled in factories, apparently managed to exploit their colonial brothers and sisters throughout the previous centuries, so they could no longer show pride in their own country, the country that their parents and grandparents died for and suffered for in two world wars – in the second one fighting a racist tyrant. They continue to die in Iraq and Afghanistan. And without complaint, because they have learned to be quiet and to be ashamed of who they are and accept that they aren't "good" like the WLMC, who lived in all-white enclaves and to whom multiculturalism meant a nice Continental deli at the end of the road.

What else? The utopian council estates of the 1960s and 1970s – the WLMC, pursuing their project of bracing architectural piety, uprooted whole WWC communities and put them in ugly, unliveable blocks, leaving them without a sense of place or meaning, while the architects and town planners themselves lived in little Edwardian terraces or Cotswold villages. Since the great council house sell-off of the 1980s – fiercely opposed, of course, by the liberal left – many of the WWC have bettered themselves. But now that the housing stock has run out and run down, those left behind are beached and helpless.

Who can wonder why the white working classes have got themselves a bad name? Who can wonder why they are angry, why they are despairing, why they carry knives, fight and drink themselves into oblivion? BBC2's White season says little in their defence. They are just observed at a distance, like the animals they are perceived to be by the snobs. WLMC academics at this point like to bring in the concept of "The Other". The WLMC know that the WWC hate "The Other" – the blacks, the Asians, the Muslims. But it does not occur to them that they themselves are the greatest Other-haters of all, in their revulsion of the WWC who are too close to themselves for comfort, and whom they use to project upon their own sins, their own real and reverse racism.

Watching the first programme in the White season – the very sad Last Orders set in a working men's club in Bradford – I was driven to the conclusion that the WWC are a deeper, far more intimately connected part of the national family than many of the more recent arrivals. They are us, English, in the way a Farsi-only speaker in a chador can never be – or not without many generations of effort and willing assimilation (the willing part being crucial). To say otherwise is the great multicultural myth. And the WWC feelings of betrayal are valid. This is not about blood or race. It is about roots. It is about identity and culture, all the issues the colonial diaspora has itself understandably agonised about for generations.

Do I look down on the WWC now that I am middle class myself? Probably. But I don't hate them, not in the way I hate the people who destroyed and abandoned them, the ideologues and meddlers that have left them without a meaning and without a home and without an escape. I'll keep voting Left because I can't imagine voting Tory, and the Lib Dems are a wasted vote. But I know that, in the end, I am voting for a double-talking mealy-mouthed enemy of everything they purport to be promoting – equality, opportunity, fairness. They are the living embodiment of Lao Tse's greatest truth and the source of the white working classes tragedy – that "goody goodies are the enemies of virtue".

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