I have had a long term interest in the history of what might be called ‘working class studies’ and I’m always intrigued when someone comes up with a new angle or a different approach to the subject. Selina Todd’s excellent study, The People: The rise and fall of the working class 1910-2010 is just that and I found it to be an enjoyable, informative and valuable book – not least because in recent years the popular perception that social class is no longer relevant has been allowed to develop in a way that I think is detrimental to modern political debate.
Like Todd, I too come from a traditional working class background and I was born in the first half of the 1950s – so much of what she has to say about the way working class lives like mine were shaped feels accurate and authentic. My brother and I were the first generation of my family to go to university and the experience was not wholly a positive one. The book talks convincingly about the issues of identity that a working class student faced in institutions traditionally geared to the middle class and upper middle class values of its ‘normal’ intake. Like Todd I had to confront the issue of my invisible cultural identity in the university curriculum and its social structures and I too was forced to ask myself the question, where is my story and those of my friends and contemporaries who also shared a working class heritage? I have felt ever since that I’ve been trying to tell that story in just about every job I’ve had.
I have always resisted the idea that any sense of social progression required me to somehow be incorporated into the middle class – I have consistently argued that I can be well educated, reasonably paid, have access to decent housing and still be working class. The constant linking of working class culture with deficit models of social status is not only insulting to my heritage but a denial of the extraordinary achievements of the working class. I think Todd’s book is entirely right to see the fortunes of the working class as a parabola – from its peak of cultural and social influence in the late 1950s and 1960s it has become, once again, the focus of vilification and even demonization by the establishment. The danger for me is that we see this as, in some way, evolutionary or ‘natural’ when it most certainly is not.
Todd identifies what she sees as the zenith of working class influence as a sort of social fashion – there was a time when being working class or pretending to subscribe to working class gritty authenticity was seen as ‘cool’. But that time has passed and what we have been witnessing in more recent times is a concerted middle-class fight-back – most conspicuously in the rise of the Blair generation of politicians who have colonised the British establishment and whose legacy has found new energy in the ‘posh politics’ of David Cameron, George Osbourne and Boris Johnson. Perversely this middle class resurgence of confidence has been given added momentum by the recent crisis of capitalism – seizing on what Naomi Klein describes as ‘disaster capitalism’ the middle class establishment have entered into a sort of naked class warfare prefigured by the Thatcher revolution a generation earlier.
Todd’s conclusion that we’ve seen the forward march of working class culture halted and to some extent reversed is something that I find hard to accept – although I acknowledge the strength of her description and analysis. Ultimately, the state of constant conflict that class politics must generate makes winners and loser as the battle for power ebbs and flows. We are certainly in a time when the values of the working class are under real pressure but I’m old enough to know that this will change again at some point and I like to believe that what we’re witnessing is a temporary dip in what is otherwise an inevitable journey towards equality and ultimate power and influence. I believe this because ultimately one thing hasn’t changed, the working class have the logic of democracy on their side and the poet Shelley was right when he said that ultimately this cannot be resisted because ‘ye are many and they are few’.
(This review was first published on www.letterpressproject.co.uk in September 2015 )