“It’s a really long journey,” said Lewis Hamilton during his acceptance speech at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards, “to do something different, to get out of the slums.”
Although the F1 champion quickly corrected himself (“not the slums, but just [to] come out from somewhere and do something”), this momentary labelling of suburban Stevenage reveals something about how Hamilton views himself, and about how we all allow our own self-identity to cloud reality.
For Hamilton most certainly did not come from a deprived background. Although his parents separated when he was two years old, it appears he had a perfectly comfortable Home Counties upbringing. Even though his father worked three jobs to fund Lewis’ rise to the pinnacle of motor racing, Hamilton attended a voluntary-aided high school followed by a private sixth form college. Why then did he instinctively conflate leafy Hertfordshire with “the slums”?
It could be the pervasive need of everyone from X-Factor finalists to Tony Blair to talk about their “journey” and all the obstacles, real and imagined, which had to be overcome for them to triumph. It could be that he is spending too much time with Americans (as his mid-Atlantic accent attests), who are confused by the apparent juxtaposition of his skin colour and his accent and want to put him in a box, with the result that Hamilton has started to believe he actually hails from the “hood”.
Quite possibly it is the result of a subconscious desire to justify his tremendous wealth: Hamilton has attracted a great deal of criticism over the past decade for his tax exile status, and a life trajectory that takes him from “the slums” to dominate a sport closely associated with affluence makes his vast fortune and 11 years of avoiding British taxes that bit more acceptable.
But Hamilton is far from the only person whose conception of their own life story takes economies with the truth; nor is this kind of identity projection limited to socio-economic realities. The American civil rights activist Rachel Dolezal still maintains that she is black, for instance, as does the theatre director Anthony “Ekundayo” Lennon.
There is a similar trend when it comes to political values: Harvey Weinstein and many other men self-consciously identified as feminists despite their appalling behaviour towards women, which may even have been facilitated by their public avowal of feminism.
Meanwhile, the 2016 British Social Attitudes survey found that people who technically held middle-class jobs but self-identified as working class were more likely to have anti-immigrant views.
All of this raises interesting questions about how we see and define ourselves: is our self-identity usually based on objective realities? Or do we increasingly project not just a false personality but political, class and even racial identities that have no basis in fact and exist only in our heads? Did Hamilton’s slip result from a desire to create an inspiring trajectory – black lad from the slums becomes Formula 1 champion and multi-millionaire – or from his genuine belief that this was his actual story?
These are not just academic questions around the nature of identity in the 21st century, but serious issues for politics, and particularly left-wing politics, in the coming decades.
Marxists used to hold that the “base” of one’s material realities determined an individual’s political-cultural “superstructure”, but nowadays this often appears to be the other way around: people’s ideological, cultural or political identity increasingly determines how they view their socio-economic or ethnic reality.
The Tories have long had success appealing to the “aspirational working class”, and Labour now seems to have its sights set squarely on what might be called the “guilty middle class”: people who are comfortable but sort of resent it, and concern themselves with being allies of less privileged groups in the world such as transgender people or Palestinians. Hence the focus on issues such as tuition fees and Israel, while saying less about early-years education.
This tactic very nearly won the 2017 election: middle-class liberals abandoned Theresa May and her hard Brexit in their droves, and simply didn’t buy Corbyn’s pledge to end freedom of movement, while socially conservative working-class voters were reassured by exactly such pledges, and repelled by the economic neoliberalism of the Tories and Ukip.
While this triangulation might yet bear fruit, Labour should be wary of betting the house on an electoral future underwritten by conservative workers with nowhere else to go and the right-on middle class. The former might yet be won over by a more economically radical Toryism or simply stop voting all together; while the allegiances of the latter are flexible, fleeting and, ultimately, unpredictable.
David Swift is the author of ‘A Left for Itself’ which is published next year by Zero Books
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