Saturday, 22 November 2014

We have Mr Potter's "discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class" - and the left don't like it!

There was a time when the mass of the population – you can call this the ‘working class’ if you like – looked like the crowd at one of those football games from the 1930s. Packed shoulder to shoulder, dressed the same, thin, pinched and unhealthy. Back in those days and through into the 1950s, those ordinary people stayed in the narrow confines of their regular lives – most worked in manual jobs, skilled or unskilled, and their pleasures were limited by the narrowness of their income. Football (as today’s fans keeps telling us) was cheap and the men topped this up with thin beer and stodgy food.

And during this time those men were uncomplaining – we had few if any riots, public drunkenness was rare and levels of crime were low. But looking at those men and women in old photographs, we see that their lives were hard and, by today’s standards, short. Most working class men didn’t live long past retirement age and there were plenty of premature deaths from disease, illness and injury. Despite this hard life, most ordinary men were accepting of their lot. Yes they voted Labour, electing one of their own sort into parliament, but that Labour Party – for all the radicalism of the Attlee government – didn’t want to change the structure of the economy other than to replace private ownership with state ownership.

Then something happened. The success of the economy plus the effectiveness of union campaigns saw wages rise. Those ordinary men – and increasingly the women too – began to cast off the cheap drab and to make a cultural contribution. Some of this – the music of the early sixties, for example – is overplayed as working class culture. The big bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were management not workers but, along with other changes, this music gave the ordinary population a justification to party. And from that time in the sixties right through to the millennium that’s just what we did – we went on a great binge.

We drank more alcohol trying out new drinks like wines and lagers, we ate out more as we embraced the burger, the pizza and lumps of chicken daubed in a secret mix of spices and breadcrumbs. And while we did this, the elite – those who had run everything and liked the old supine working class – grumbled about taste and the bad choices of other people (by which they meant those workers eating burgers and drinking lager). This was the change cursed by Mr. Potter, the scheming old banker in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life” when he said:

A discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class.

We still see echoes of this when – just as that old rentier Potter did – left wing writers like Michael Rosen rail against debt. Borrowing money is fine for the likes of us, say folks like Rosen, but the ordinary people should be stopped from taking on debt because it’s bad for them:

Debt - one of the features of modern capitalism is the level of personal debt - whether through mortgages or loans. To my mind, this is the system's police force. Once we have debt, we have a legal system to terrify us with threats of non-payment. At any given moment in which we might feel that we have to (or want to) challenge the system, there is a voice in our head which says, 'But will this endanger my chances of paying my debts - my mortgage payments and my loan payments…?' This used to be a 'middle class' anxiety and was thought to only affect (or create) the attachment of the middle classes to the system.

The working class must be thrifty, must live within its means and mustn’t take on the trappings of their betters let alone put anything at risk in aspiring for a better future.

So we binged. And while we binged we all carrying on getting richer and piling up wealth. The wealth once held by landlords – state and private - and wealthy capitalists began to spread through society. We bought houses and saved money in pension schemes while enjoying cars, foreign holidays, meals out and central heating. Our lives were immeasurably better that the lives of those men shuffling to work a ten-hour shift and those women spending  80 hours a week feeding him and stopping the house filling up with soot.

From out of this change – this great binge – came a real working class culture. Not the make-believe one idolised by wealthy writers, that sort of Mike Leigh homage to a crap life so typical of how those who have present the culture of those who haven’t. And bits of that culture came as something of a shock to the left – they discovered that the working class is patriotic and that it will display that patriotism with enthusiasm. 

After years of sneering at the idea of loving one’s country, the left couldn’t somehow understand how ‘their people’ still sang the songs and flew the flags, celebrating Britain and, worst of all, England. These left wing folk still struggle – I listened to a Guardian journalist on the radio talking about singing by England fans. This man wanted us to stop singing ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘The Great Escape’ because he was uncomfortable with ‘what they symbolised’.

The cultural elite don’t like this – not just because of the nationalism but because, like draping your house in flags, it all seems just a bit tacky. When we visit my parents at Christmas, we have a little drive round to look at the Christmas decorations – not the state-sponsored and approved ones on the high street but the fantastic displays of kitsch plastic reindeer, flashing lights, gnomes and Santa people put on their homes. North Kent is great for this sort of display and the Isle of Sheppey – as a sort of distillation of everything North Kent – is best. But that cultural elite doesn’t like this sort of display and reserves sort of its best sneering to describe brash Christmas decoration:

“And what can I see from my office in Carnaby Street? I can see a giant, pneumatic, puce-coloured reindeer with white spots suspended from tension wires in space.”

This is from Stephen Bayley described as “…one of Britain's best known cultural commentators.” For which you can read arrogant snob. It is a short step from this to a very wealthy Islington MP tweeting, slightly sneeringly, a photograph of a house draped in England flags. A tweet that got that MP into trouble (although, for the record, her resigning was one of the dafter – if admirable – decisions in recent UK politics). It has though brought out the worst is the left as they set about defending Emily Thornberry:

“I thought that hanging flags with a red cross on a white background out of you house windows was telling the world that you aspired to be a right-wing thug who hated everything from abroad (except lager and curry) and wished that a bunch of ex-National Front neo-Nazis ran the government of Little England.”

This, as much as Ed Miliband’s laboured efforts to look cool and trendy, is Labour’s problem. The people who run the Labour Party – at every level – simply don’t relate to the bloke who flies a big England flag on his house or indeed to that man's neighbour who, as we speak, is putting up Christmas lights, an inflatable snowman and a great big sleigh. The same is true for my party but we’ve an excuse – for much of our recent history, we simply haven’t tried to represent the ordinary worker. I think this needs to change because it’s absolutely plain that the left with its patronising, snobbish and judgemental attitude to people who fly the flag, eat burgers, give their kids a bar of chocolate and like X-Factor has nothing to offer those people. Right now the void – a voice for people with kitsch Christmas displays, great big England flags, white vans, tattoos – is being filled by UKIP, a bunch of people who think the modern world is crap and wish to return to some mythical Elysian past.

This view is the very opposite of aspiration, of the thing that George Bailey offered the ordinary folk of Bedford Falls. Rather than offer people opportunity, choice and a better tomorrow – the things that allowed us to change from a supine, shuffling working class to a brash, in-your-face flag-waving populace – what people are being sold is a comfort blanket, a message of ‘hold onto this and it will all be fine’. Instead of a world of new exciting things to do, see and play with we’re promised safety, security and the oversight of our behaviour by our betters. I don’t think this is what people want and I’m absolutely sure that, whatever people do want, it isn’t snobbish, patronising judgement of their lives, choices and pleasures.


1 comment:

asquith said...

I wouldn't vote for Emily Thornberry, but not because of her views on cultural matters, rather because she would only be the kind of "legal" "justification" for the indignities a Labour government would visit on us with its over-legislation. A bit like whoever replaced Dominic Grieve. You'd better believe I remember the last Labour government, but the coalition are no less authoritarian. And hardly any voices of criticism are raised against.

And it's the sign that our culture is being trivialised that the main "newspapers", rather than air these 1001 valid criticisms, focus on things of no real relevance, whilst the real atroctities go on with their support.

It isn't just the working-class that has changed either. One thinks of the sort of person who in the 50s went to grammar school, scraped through his O Levels, had no real chance of going to university and never particularly wanted to. Effortlessly finding work, he spent his life contentedly the sort of middle-grade job that literally doesn't exist in 2014. Keen for his children and grandchildren to have the "opportunities" he never enjoyed, imagine his disappointment when they went to university and couldn't find jobs at all on graduating!

But that is how it is, the old middle-class jobs are one with Nineveh, Tyre, Hem Heath Colliery and Shelton Bar (where my granddad contentedly spent half of his working life, never thinking to complain about what a foul job it actually was).

Your jobs of the future are being done by a few very highly skilled people. And many of those who spent a lot of time and effort acquiring these skills did so in vain because they still haven't got jobs. But it's even worse for the "squeezed middle", whose prospects are now almost as bad as those of unskilled manual labourers have been for 40 years.

To my mind, I wouldn't want to live in the "good" old days, because in spite of it all life is better than it was in the 50s. I don't suppose people can be blamed if they think otherwise and maybe I've been too quick to slag them off, but I do think the efforts of Lunchtime O'Flynn and his UKIP mates to restore the 50s will only make life worse for us all.

BTW, my granddad dresses just like one of the people in that photo. I wonder whether he still has the same clothes, or whether there's some obscure shop whose handful of customers seek out working-class 1950s "vintage attire". Perhaps soon hipsters will start to walk around ironically wearing it and he'll become trendy, at the age of 85 :)