Michael Collins, The Critic, July/August 2020
In the opening years of this century I wrote a book, The Likes Of Us, on the white working class. Several newspapers bid to run an excerpt. I opted for the Guardian as it was those on the left from the middle class upwards that were the most disparaging about this particular tribe. They mocked them and demonised them. Currently they order them to check their “privilege”; to kowtow to the false narratives of the Black Lives Matter cult. Yet this class remains the cornerstone of a silent majority whose angry silence makes itself known via the polling booth, rather than toxic riots.
The Likes Of Us won the Orwell Book Prize. The runner-up, Andrew Marr, wrote in his Telegraph column the next day the win was a testament to Blair’s meritocratic Britain. (In short, I was an interloper, a jumped-up pantry boy who never knew his place.) I’d used my experience growing up in south-east London as the springboard for the story of an urban class over centuries. It was by no means a comprehensive or academic study, yet my pedigree gave me an authority on the topic.
Judging by the correspondence I received, my experience chimed with readers far beyond this postcode. When the praise for the book was good it was great (“an anatomist of England to dwarf almost all others”). Criticism was fuelled by class-based barbs (“a poetic hooligan”) and hackneyed charges of racism (“an intellectual outrider for the BNP”). The further left the organ peddling the review, the more extreme the insults. When it got to the “revolutionary communists” I was compared to Oswald Mosley and heading towards Hitler.
My crime was twofold. First, I assigned this urban tribe the status of an ethnic group. Second, I implied they’d been demonised by the loftiest champions of the proletariat. I broke with the official narrative that the British working class are what has been risibly described as “a rainbow of diversity”. In the years since the publication of The Likes Of Us, the demonisation of the white working class has become more overt, and despite their numbers you could believe they were extinct. Their past is being rewritten and they are increasingly airbrushed from the present. Television and film fixate on an historic ethnic diversity that’s the stuff of fiction. The results annoy whites, patronise blacks and leave almost everyone else, whatever their creed or colour, reaching for the remote or heading for the exit.
“To me, ‘white working class’ is like the word ‘coolie’ — created by imperialists to impose an identity on the people they wanted to rule.” This was the journalist Paul Mason interviewed by Idler magazine last year. “Michael Collins started using the term in the early 2000s with The Likes of Us and what he describes is real: the antipathy towards modernity and the white flight from the inner city to places like Essex. But it is driven by a disappointment and nostalgia for the many good parts of that world that has gone.”
If the term is created by the ruling class they are those on the left who control the narrative on race, faith and class: those who, paradoxically, claim the white working class doesn’t exist while casting them as the fall guy. When they dominate a demographic they are a blot on the landscape of diversity; when they leave they are advancing white flight.
It’s a given that the working class has changed, and is currently a more disparate demographic. But within this citizenry every sub-group is allowed its proud tribalism — except one. The white working class are only acknowledged when part of a shared experience that casts this rainbow collective as the duped victims of capitalism. They are allotted the status of an ethnic group when singled out as racist.
Otherwise, they’re lumped in with their number from all classes, as beneficiaries of “white privilege”. But their ethnicity is relevant here because the urban white working class had a different experience to other ethnic groups. Equally, the experience of the white working class was different to that of other classes. Particularly in relation to immigration.
As I point out in The Likes Of Us, they didn’t have the luxury of viewing immigrants exclusively as victims of racism or symbols of exotica. They quickly had to accept the news — that still eludes so many on the left — that sometimes people with brown skins do bad things. In the flow of newcomers we saw the good, the bad, and the ugly. In short, ourselves.
I recently attended the funeral of a relative who had rented a home in the same south-east London street since their marriage at the beginning of the 1950s. They were the last of the original cast from the postwar years. The street market where they worked is peppered with halal butchers and West Indian take-aways. The sound of drilling, digging and accents from other classes reveals how gentrification is colonising the wider area. Homes at cloud level are owned by absent, super-rich foreigners. On the ground, poorer factions co-exist in separate enclaves.
Returning for the funeral I was reminded of Trinidadian author Sam Selvon writing of the city as an immigrant in The Lonely Londoners (1956): “It divide up in little worlds, and you stay in the world you belong to and you don’t know anything about what happening in the other ones except what you read in the papers.” For me, the funeral marked the end of a historical connection with the neighbourhood, and the street where I once lived. I’d returned to a place I’d never completely left. Now I’m writing about a subject I never expected to return to.
“Nobody can be said to know London who does not know a true cockney.” So begins Virginia Woolf in her 1931 essay “A Portrait of a Londoner”. In writing of the fate of a Mrs Crowe, the novelist is anticipating the fate of the city breed the character was part of: “Mrs Crowe is dead, and London — no, though London still exists, London will never be the same city again.” A few decades earlier two other writers, the American author Jack London and the social reformer Charles Masterman, each of whom had temporarily settled in poor London neighbourhoods, predicted the tribe would be obsolete within a generation, partly because of the impact of migrants from the countryside who were stronger and healthier, but chiefly because the polluted city air would bring these lives to an end.
Yet this London native survived until the twenty-first century. They were not wiped out. Many migrated to the suburbs, the coast and elsewhere, while the elders left behind appear landlocked in a landscape altered beyond recognition by immigration and redevelopment. They are the “somewheres” that David Goodhart has described. At least they are more representative of them than generations that followed. Historically, the working class were stymied by their economic circumstances, and the need to live and work in the same vicinity. The street was an extension of the home, the neighbourhood an extension of the street, and the country an extension of that.
In that still-familiar neighbourhood a funeral was staged at a church consecrated in the 1860s. The vicar delivered a eulogy for a man he never knew, a figure like that in Eliot’s poem whose death went unmentioned in The Times. We have seen weddings, baptisms and funerals there over the years. Generations of us attended the attached primary school, a throwback to the unique tribe that existed there, and the post-industrial, Victorian backdrop that evolved to accommodate their needs.
The infrastructure of this neighbourhood has been transformed three times in my half-century. The industrial heritage of tenements, tabernacles and workhouses was replaced by brutalist housing estates that had half the lifespan of the homes they replaced. Now a Gotham City-style compound has materialised as gentrification has put this postcode — the stretch of turf between Elephant & Castle and Old Kent Road — on the prospector’s map.
At the south London library where I wrote much of my book, you find remaining white working-class locals along with those that have left and those that return, as we mourners do. They pore over old maps and photographs, tracing ancestors, excavating their pasts, not in the name of nostalgia but history. Alongside them are black schoolchildren looking at similar documents, connecting themselves with the history they have inherited by making this home. It’s a shared experience from which no one is alienated, and without the need to fictionalise the past or the present.
Those of us that made the voyage out and live like expats with ambivalent memories of the old country, seek out familiar relics on return trips for funerals, among other things — again not in the name of nostalgia but history, to remind ourselves we once existed on streets we now walk as ghosts. (Which is apt in a city silenced by a global pandemic.) We seek out those red-brick monoliths that recall the civic nature of the neighbourhood — town halls, libraries, welfare centres, the living past in the shadowed present.
Our experience mirrors that of others making similar sojourns elsewhere. “I don’t know what determines meaning in the city any better than these old people with their attenuating memories,” wrote the American Charles D’Ambrosio in his essay collection Loitering. “I went away and in my absence things have sprung up. Good things. It’s a new place, but there’s an old silence bothering me.”
Other mourners at the funeral were returning to the streets that once housed them, the descendants of that tribe that arrived with industrialisation: a new breed of urban working class. At the end of the nineteenth century Charles Masterman moved to the area to work at the university settlement, Cambridge House. The experience inspired The Condition of England, published in 1909. In the book he addresses the question Matthew Arnold posed the century before, when he coined the term “populace”. Masterman, like Orwell some years later, was taking an audit of the nation at a time of unprecedented change. (“And the diversity of it, the chaos!” exclaimed Orwell.)
He wonders where the nation now resides, an issue that didn’t exist a few generations before when it was clearly the population of the countryside: “Is England to be discovered in the manufacturing cities? The Capital? The new plutocracy — the middle classes. The artisan populations — the broken poor?”
Throughout, the author breaks down the tribes that occupied the nation (The Suburbans, The Multitude, etc). The “Condition of England” question could be posed in the present climate, as the country redefines itself in the wake of Brexit, and during the shore leave of a national lockdown. Equally, the tribes that occupy it may be in line for reclassification, notably the working class.
There is pressure from elsewhere to reclassify the working class as terms like “traditional” and “heartlands” now have “racist” connotations, while shifting focus to the “white working class” means neglecting the needs of the ethnic minorities that will one day outnumber them. These are findings from reports in recent years compiled by outmoded quangos and hoary academics, those proposing that the white working class are a construct, a political fiction.
The Runnymede Trust and think tanks such as the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS) have talked of “white self-interest”, while academics write of “methodological whiteness”. I think it was the sociologist Stuart Hall who once said — and I’m paraphrasing wildly — the white working class needs to be won over to a new idea of itself. I’d argue it’s those of the left, along with the quangos, the academics and the race lobby, that need to be won over to a new idea of the white working class. In this instance, a modernised classification would be a smart move.
Their interpretation of this tribe belongs to another age. It’s as much a cliché as the cartoon cockney or the cloth-capped northerner the left once championed before he displayed that reputed “antipathy towards modernity”. The insularity, the folksy localism, the “marrying-in” was suddenly deemed objectionable, even though it was applauded when practised in other ethnic “communities” in the name of multiculturalism.
If they also harboured “a disappointment and nostalgia” for a lost Eden they didn’t struggle to hold on to it. No marches. No unrest. No riots. Ultimately, their active prejudice was no greater than that of any other ethnic group confronted with similar changes. (In the early 1960s the urban sociologist Ruth Glass referred to this as the “benevolent prejudice” that was acceptable if it didn’t manifest as violence.)
They were the guinea pigs for multiculturalism long before the fissures and the failures appeared, and led to the rebranding of the concept with the word “diversity”. We lived on those streets. We went to those schools. Some of us “married out”. Some of us took black boyfriends home and into our homosexual hearts when we were barely out of our teens. We contributed to that modernity.
These days the white working class is a disparate group. And the diversity of it, the chaos! They own homes. They rent homes. Some have second homes. Some are unemployed. Some have trades. Some own businesses. Class is not where you end up but where you start out. This has always been an issue for the left. While pushing to bring the working class out of poverty, there was an implication that they had to stay poor to remain moral. The left prefers it when education rather than money takes the workers into the middle class, in the hopes that the politics picked up at the student bar will accompany them into middle age. Anything short of this is “embourgeoisement” or “white flight”.
There has always been a problem as to how to define the working class that move up and out, yet remain affiliated to the culture and the place that spurned them. In the aftermath of the referendum, with so many opting for leaving the EU, they were finally given a name: ill-educated. The absence of a degree, or O-levels, made them unworthy of a vote or an opinion. (Despite an impressive résumé, and being described, oddly, by Nick Cohen as a rare example of a working-class intellectual, my lack of school exams and a university education relegate me to this category.) These attitudes to the white working class were reminiscent of the nineteenth century when Matthew Arnold coined the term “populace”: “That vast portion . . . of the working-class which, raw and half-developed, has long lain half-hidden amidst its poverty and squalor, and is now issuing from its hiding-place,” he wrote in Culture and Anarchy (1869). What’s more, these recent views were expressed by those lofty, left-wing champions of the proletariat.
Despite the concerns about the “ill-educated” working class, little has been done to address the poor academic performance of working-class white boys. I wrote about this more than a decade ago, and set about addressing it in a small way by working with a Westminster think tank to establish a supplementary school. The setting was my old neighbourhood in south-east London. The Cambridge House settlement where Masterman pitched up more than a century before was the venue. Little has changed. A recent report from the National Education Opportunity Network revealed that the white working class are the most under-represented group in higher education. This year the Conservative MP Ben Bradley convened a debate in parliament to address the issue. “Imagine the legitimate public outcry there would be if a set of statistics showed that disadvantaged black boys or Asian girls were way behind their white counterparts at school,” he wrote. “Heads would roll. Yet this is precisely what is happening to white boys from disadvantaged backgrounds, and modern society is ignoring their plight.”
Despite this trend the white working class are a lot more savvy and more informed than their detractors would have you believe. The evolution of social media in the last 15 years has contributed to this, as has the identitarian politics that has found its way into the spotlight, where it is stranded and floundering.
So when it comes to knowledge, what do they know? They know that “racism” will forever change its skin and widen its remit to prop up the lucrative industry that needs it to survive. They know that nebulous “hate crime” legislation suppresses opinions and will eventually silence them completely. They know black lives matter when those that extinguish them are white. They know the crimes of grooming gangs are deracialised when the rapists are not. They know an equality of opportunity that would benefit them has been supplanted by an equality of outcome that won’t. They know all of this has brought the left to the impasse that saw the red wall of the north turn blue in the last election.
The rumours that the white working class are in crisis in the face of change and that ever-expanding “rainbow of diversity” are premature. They are pulling up a chair and watching as the competitive victimhood of the intersectional Olympics causes the left to implode. Like Brexit, the election landslide was a cri de coeur on behalf of the silent majority. Cultural conservatism? Or a radical challenge to the reactionary state that currently passes as progressive and radical?
When I set out to write this essay I intended to seek the voices of the white working class now, beginning with my old stomping ground and travelling to the places that switched allegiances from Labour to the Tories, from Bolsover to Sedgefield. An itinerary was planned; expenses were promised. A global pandemic and the subsequent national lockdown put the block on it. If there was a positive to take from the quarantine, it was the possibility that the excesses of identitarianism, and the anti-white tropes that dominate academia, politics and social media would dissipate. The shared values that Masterman and Orwell went in search of would surface, define us and when necessary bring us all together. Instead, in the wake of protests and riots across Britain, Twitter’s King Mob doubled down on the excesses, inflamed the hysteria, and created a division that will deepen the anger of the silent majority.
I left London. A relative had died, and the urban tribe they were part of, that was once synonymous with the capital, as Virginia Woolf wrote, has disappeared too, long after Charles Masterman and Jack London predicted their demise. And London — no, though London still exists, London will never be the same city again.