- Created: Wednesday, 22 April 2009 11:10
- Written by Susan Davidson
The likes of us: a biography of the white working class, Michael Collins, Granta Books 2005, 274pp, £7.99 pbk
Michael Collins writes about working class life since the 19th century in and around the Elephant and Castle area of the London Borough of Southwark where he grew up. But the purpose of this book is not biography. It is a polemic written to make a political argument in favour of the white working class. Collins asserts that it has become impossible for white working class people to talk about race, ethnic minorities, asylum seekers and refugees without being accused of racism. Those who are responsible for this censorship, Collins claims, are middle-class do-gooders who not only silence the white working class but mock them for their consumerism, cultural standards and racist attitudes.
According to the author, today’s middle class commentators are merely the latest in a tradition of ‘social engineers’ who viewed the working class as an object of interest or a project for social improvement. Wealthy young people like Virginia Woolf and Jessica Mitford came to Southwark in the 1920s and 1930s to ‘slum it’ and experience ‘real’ life. They were snobs and ‘snob-Bolsheviks’ says Collins. But, he boasts, the white working class was untouched by either right or left wing politics. Both the Soviet-inspired Communist Party and the fascism of Italy and Germany were regarded as alien creeds by the English working class and rejected on these grounds. There is no history in this book of the daily struggles of the Dockers’ Union against poverty pay and casualisation, but rather a celebration of Londoners’ love of King and Country and British patriotism. He writes:
‘When Mosley’s Fascist “blackshirts” marched to the Elephant and Castle and into Bermondsey in 1937 singing “the Horst Wessel Lied” and the hymn of Mussolini’s fascist party, they were confronted by communists singing “The Red Flag”. But all these voices were drowned by the collective renditions of “Rule Britannia” and “Land of Hope and Glory” from the majority of those living nearby who had turned out on the streets, or witnessed the event from windows and balconies. The march was diverted because the inhabitants had barricaded the streets with barrows and a water tank from a nearby factory. Eggs, door knobs, shoes, stones and oranges were tossed over the barricades at Oswald’s army.’
At the heart of Michael Collins’ book is Enoch Powell. Powell was a one-time Empire Loyalist who proudly supported the 1948 Nationality Act which granted the right of entry to ‘the motherland’ for all of the Crown’s subjects in the British Empire. Following the independence of India, then Cyprus and the loss of the Suez Canal, Powell changed. He became a rabid supporter of ‘free enterprise’ capitalism. He opposed the trades unions and state intervention like an early Thatcher. His proudest achievement as an MP was the 1957 Rent Bill which ended rent control and the security it offered tenants. Powell boasted that the Conservative Party had set the landlords free from ‘the ultimate evil’ of regulation. This Housing Act adversely affected millions of working class people and was directly responsible for homelessness, overcrowding and a property boom. Yet Powell, like all racists, posed as the wise friend of the white working class.
Collins says that the white working class came to the defence of Enoch Powell after he was dismissed from the Tory Shadow Cabinet. 4,000 dockers downed tools and 800 marched to Westminster, supported by Smithfield porters; while in Wolverhampton factory workers and the Transport and General Workers Union members signed letters of support. This wave of support was ‘not entirely attributable to support for Powell’s opinions, or the manner in which he expressed them, but for his right to air them’.
In fact, the demagogue Powell had jumped onto an already fast-moving bandwagon of racism. The year was 1968 and the place Birmingham when Enoch Powell MP made his infamous speech attacking immigration from the British Commonwealth into Britain. He declared, ‘We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of 50,000 dependants...it is like a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre’. Significantly for today Powell claimed that white people are expected to be silent about their suffering from immigration by those who do not suffer. He said:
‘The discrimination and the deprivation, the sense of alarm and of resentment, lies not with the immigrant population but with those among whom they have come and are still coming...The sense of being a persecuted minority which is growing among ordinary English people in the areas of the country which are affected is something that those without direct experience can hardly imagine’.
This claim about working class sufferance and silencing on the issue of race and immigration has returned to prominence recently. Last year Trevor Phillips of the CRE (Campaign for Racial Equality) and Gordon Brown, Labour Chancellor, spoke of putting ‘Britishness’ back on top of the agenda and dislodging middle class multi-culturalism from its key role. In April 2006 Margaret Hodge, MP for Dagenham in Essex, said that the disaffected white working class may turn to the British National Party in the local elections because the Labour Party ignores them. Next a Sunday Times editorial accused Hodge and her ‘politically correct’ Labour Party of responsibility for demonising the white working class. A spiral of racism took off as media commentators and politicians adopted ever more racist poses in time-honoured fashion.
The white working class was documented by two books, both published in 1957, that have been used, usually wrongly, in today’s discussion. Richard Hoggart’s The uses of literacy: aspects of working class life with special reference to publications and entertainments is famously well-written. The sweep of his story takes in traditions, habits and attitudes inherited by three generations of English working class. Local customs differ in mining villages, dock workers’ communities and factory towns, but Hoggart describes the shared everyday working class experiences of work and unemployment, poverty and better times, women and the household and ‘them’ and ‘us’ .
Family and kinship in East London by Michael Young and Peter Willmott became a highly regarded work of sociology, not least because of its methods of carefully sampled interviews and three years of ‘field work’. It is a study of working class life both in the London Borough of Bethnal Green and a new estate built by London County Council after 1945 in the Essex countryside where many East Enders were rehoused after the war.
What is striking is that the problems of the white working class in 1957 are similar to the concerns of the entire working class today. How to get decent housing, employment, education and health services remain the ever-present problems. Race, immigration and foreigners do not get a single mention in either of these books, but all of today’s working class issues are there.
1957 was a time of uncertainty and change when the working class felt its very identity was under threat from new and alien forces. The changes were certainly real. A postwar boom was taking off that would sweep away many of the old jobs and skills. The mass production and purchase of new consumer goods, furniture, clothing, televisions, refrigerators and cars changed lives. An extensive house-building programme saw the break-up of working class families, like those of Bethnal Green
and the dispersal and the loss of communities. ‘“It’s like a strange land in your own country”, said Mrs Ames on being settled on a new estate’.
Massive expansion of the Welfare State meant that many more children of the working class were needed to stay in education to become nurses, teachers and white collar office workers and passing exams became the key to financial success. Jukeboxes and juvenile delinquents were spin-offs from a revolution in the mass media that introduced a new commercialised youth culture. The working class once again in its history experienced new divisions within itself based on economic privileges as measured by pay, conditions and status.
Like today, sections of the working class felt more or less ‘disaffected’ with the government, even voting out the Welfare State Labour Party of 1945 in the general election of 1951 with those who had benefited most tending to vote Conservative. Almost the entire working class benefited from the gains of the post-war settlement but new upper strata of the working class gained more. Yet this is the period of time, the 1950s, that today’s racist apologists and myth-makers conjure up when they talk of a white working class community living together with extended families and a shared culture before the arrival of mass immigration from the Commonwealth.
The so-called ‘friends’ of the white working class, like Oswald Mosley, Enoch Powell and the author Michael Collins, serve only the interests of the ruling class. In talking about the white working class they give only one side of the equation and this does not make for truth or honesty. For Britain is not just a nation, one among others. It had an Empire and millions of people around the world were British subjects. Over a million Commonwealth subjects had fought for ‘the motherland’ in British military units in the Second World War. Britain was near bankruptcy in 1945 and depended not only on US Marshall Aid but on a massive plan of extortion to wring wealth from its Empire. It was the sweated imports from Africa, Malaya and Indonesia that financed the building of the new British Welfare State. And it was the newcomers who settled in Britain to work in post-war construction who formed a new layer of the working class.
During the war years of WW2 a few hundred Jews arrived in Britain to escape Nazi persecution and about 65,000 Poles had settled by the end of the war. As the camps of Europe were emptied of their prisoners a further 345,000 European nationals were recruited to work camps in Britain for heavy duties. Despite this, the shortage of labour was still so great that Britain turned to the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent to employ workers who were cheap and available to labour in the new industrial sites and to service the new welfare infrastructure.
The labour and lives of these immigrants is inextricably bound up with the history of the white working class. The full story records that over the years of imperial conquest more than a quarter of a billion white people had settled in the European empires, the homelands of the new immigrants. One half of the story is no story: it is racist bigotry. From his 1968 platform in front of a large audience in Birmingham Enoch Powell told about a persecuted old white lady who had excreta pushed through her letter box ‘by grinning picanninies’. This was never substantiated but entered urban myth. Likewise Collins states as fact without footnote or reference, that mugging was a crime almost exclusively carried out by ‘young black males on white victims, who were largely female and frequently elderly’. Racism is a distorting mirror that spirals down into the gutter as well as up to government. It must be resisted and its apologists must be resisted. The white working class cannot be defended by servants of the ruling class who yesterday applauded patriotism to Crown and Empire and today encourage loyalty to British multinationals, British arms manufacturers, privatisation and neo-liberal warmongering.