Our politicians are so obsessed by race that they have forgotten the importance of class. They agonise about racial segregation, while generally ignoring the exclusion of the white working class from our politics.
Lord Bruce-Lockhart, the head of the Local Government Association, this week recommended ethnic quotas for state schools, to end the division of neighbouring schools along ethnic lines. But, while ethnic divisions are certainly deep in some areas, they are nothing like as widespread—and in many respects nothing like as pernicious—as the scornful treatment by our overwhelmingly bourgeois political establishment of the white working class. While a brilliant campaign has been waged against racial prejudice, prejudice against the white working class has flourished as never before.
This prejudice is all the more dangerous for being unselfconscious. Our rulers do not think of themselves as being in the slightest bit prejudiced. They know they are the most open-minded people since records began. That is part of their armour of self-righteousness, which enables them to believe that the world would be perfect if everyone was exactly the same as themselves.
The white working class is an inconvenient relic, and the sooner it ceases to exist, the better. That is the underlying assumption of our political establishment. The white working class is not just expected to seek salvation by acquiring bourgeois virtues: it is blamed for failing to acquire those virtues more quickly.
Dr Gillian Evans, a social anthropologist, has just published a book, Educational Failure and Working-Class White Children in Britain, in which she examines middle-class assumptions about the reasons why white working-class boys do so badly at school. The general belief, as she has put it in an accompanying article, is that boys who fail at school “come from problem families” or are “just good for nothing”.
Dr Evans discovered, on the contrary, that many of these boys are “as good as gold at home”. They go wrong when they seek the freedom to “play out”, where they meet gangs “who rule the closely defined territories of the street with ruthless intimidation and violence”. To succeed in one of these gangs, you must yourself become intimidating, and the place where you can most easily start to do that is in a school where adult authority has broken down. Failing schools are places where the staff spend their time and energy containing gang violence instead of teaching.
The response of the middle classes when they hear tales about gang warfare is to express utter horror, and to resolve to keep their own children firmly insulated from that milieu. Many a middle-class child is driven to school, ballet class and swimming lessons, and is never allowed so much as to walk down the street.
This determined and ruthless segregation of middle-class children is accompanied by an absence of any sense of responsibility for the working class. I do not wish to be unfair to those many readers of this newspaper who accept a wider responsibility for their neighbourhood, and who give their time to all sorts of valuable local enterprises. But, as the father of three young children, I cannot help being struck by the repulsive selfishness of some parents, who care only for the wellbeing of their own little darlings, and could not care less about anyone else.
These bourgeois parents who cheat in order to get their children into good schools, and who cannot see anything wrong in so cheating, set a dismal example to their own progeny. At their dinner parties, they may pay lip service to the importance of social cohesion, but they dedicate their lives to the safer project of social exclusion.
I am not suggesting that any parent should send his or her child to a bad school simply in order to promote social cohesion. But the assumption of moral superiority by a considerable part of the middle class is insufferable. It is as if the kind of intensive drilling and force-feeding—it cannot be dignified by the name of education—to which they subject their children represents a standard of perfection not seen since ancient Greece.
But what of the abandoned white working class? We shall get nowhere if we begin with an ineradicable prejudice against its patriotism, local as well as national, and its attachment to traditional ways of doing things. The answer (though one hesitates to speak of anything so glib as an answer) to gang culture is to set up better gangs, which offer the danger and sense of belonging to an elite that are conferred in such a tawdry way by the street louts.
The Army has always understood this. The loyalty that a working-class lad feels to his regiment, and his knowledge that all other regiments are miserably inferior, replicate what he might feel in a gang. Here he has the chance to use his bravery, physical energy and craving for excitement in a disciplined way, in the service of his country.
The Army offers a useful example, but is too small to offer an answer. What do we give the working class instead? We tell them to give up smoking, we adopt our most puritanical expression when we hear they have been binge drinking, we cheer Jamie Oliver when he tells them what to eat, and we force them into schools where physical energy and a craving for excitement are unnecessary, indeed a severe handicap, if they are to jump through the endless series of easy-peasy hoops which constitute our GCSE system. This compulsory, albeit watered-down, academic education to the age of 16 is a torture and humiliation for a large number of boys.
In our politics, the unions, which used to give the working class a stake in the system, have been crushed. Labour has spent the past decade taking the working class for granted. It has gone after the trendy middle-class vote, with great success. The Government has encouraged mass immigration, a change of which I happen to be in favour, for I believe these newcomers are an asset to our country and will rapidly become British. But no heed has been paid to those members of the indigenous working class who have found their wages undercut by cheap foreign competition, and have difficulty getting council housing.
This newspaper reported yesterday that 100,000 people are being paid incapacity benefit because they are alcoholics or drug addicts. These lost souls can be found during the day sitting listlessly in our pubs. The state gives them enough money for drink and drugs, and has encouraged them to become incapable of work. The rest of us choose to believe that the state is caring for them. They are certainly nothing to do with us. Any sense of a common nationhood which transcends class has disappeared, except perhaps during football tournaments.
If Lord Bruce-Lockhart is worried by the failure of ethnic minorities to integrate themselves into society, he should consider what kind of society we are asking them to join. Are we one nation, or has that nation dissolved?