Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Spare me the tears over the white working class

Even those who claim to speak for immigrants flock to indulge them

Monday 05 January 2009 01:00 GMT

Maybe it's because I'm a foreigner that I rage so when witnessing attacks on immigrants. Something stirs deep inside, not bloodlines, not tribal kinships, not even the politics of race, but a wakeful sense of history and lived experience.

The same defensive emotions rise within white working-class writers when their culture is threatened. Their kith and kin, it seems, have turned against incomers as self pity overwhelms them.

A new government report finds that they feel "betrayed" and abandoned. Ruined by "ethnic minorities" they cry into their antimacassars and threaten to vote for fascists. The British working classes include people of every shade. But only white grievances matter. Nobody seeks to find out what life is like for the incomers living in the fog of nativist bitterness.

Parliamentarians, the media, even the people who claim to speak for immigrants – such as Baroness Warsi and Trevor Phillips – are flocking to indulge the always-wretched and complaining classes. And so it becomes a matter of honour for me to oppose them. Once again. A foolhardy step. You saw the rush to defend Karen Matthews when her daughter went missing. It was class prejudice, they trilled, until the woman was found guilty of kidnapping her own daughter.

We are thankfully free to question Muslim, Asian, Arab, African, Caribbean, Polish, Lithuanian, Russian behaviour in Britain. And some behave abominably. The British middle and upper classes are rightly fair game. But not the white working classes.

Criticise them and they, who detest PC, bring down the wrath of Alf Garnett on your head. Their culture is proud; they are noble; what they believe – however stupid or vicious – must be awesome. Oh, and they are never to be called racist, not even the scum who drop shit and firebombs through letter boxes of asylum-seekers on estates.

Michael Collins's The Likes of Us is testimony to this self justification. Collins is superb on the tender history of his own family in south London, but then, as the broadcaster Laurie Taylor noted, this "poetic hooligan ... puts up his fists, looking around for someone to clout". And true to class he hits on blacks and Asians, even proffering an intellectual alibi for the killers of Stephen Lawrence.

One writer, Liz Jones, of white working-class stock, sees through the cultural protectionism. Responding to beer-swilling blokes in Wibsey Working Men's Club, in Bradford, who said on television that they had lost their place as the backbone of the nation because Asians were overtaking them, she wrote: "A snail with special needs would overtake this lot ... It is patronising and not remotely useful to treat the white working class as though they are all helpless, giant toddlers in need of conservation."

Defenders of this faith claim they are never allowed to speak on immigration. They have done little else since the first boats sailed in from the Caribbean. Whenever times were hard, immigrants were the natural scapegoats. At boom times, they were brutally envied: too rich, too hardworking, taking jobs and gals from British men, or scroungers on benefits.

You couldn't win then; even less so today. Working-class white men provoked race riots through the Fifties and Sixties; they kept "darkies" out of pubs and clubs and work canteens. Who were the supporters of Oswald Mosley and Enoch Powell? The disempowered have used us to vent their natural-born hatred against the powerful.

We ordinary immigrants didn't cause the credit crunch. We didn't privatise the nation's assets and pay ourselves shockingly high bonuses. We did not outsource jobs and bring down wages. We didn't cut back on public housing and run down the infrastructure. We didn't make the British choose benefits over work. We are blameless citizens and residents.

There is a remarkable side to this story that has been erased by the culture of intolerable complaint. White "lower" class women were more accepting of "coloureds" than the men. They fell in love, had families, faced down bigots. Despite racism in some trades unions, schools, health services and local authorities, genuine co-operation evolved as people grew to trust one another. Britain is a more integrated place than was in the Sixties, and many of us would not live elsewhere.

Like others who came to stay, I hope one day we can truly belong, our rights and responsibilities no different from those who arrived and laid claims long before us on these mongrel, oft-invaded isles. Perhaps there will be brief respite when Britain will not blame the outsider for all its woes. Alas not yet, certainly not over this hard and cold coming year.


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