White

by Chris Bertram on March 5, 2008

Well here’s an interesting, and worrying, development. BBC2 is about to screen a series of programmes under the general title “White”, which purport to document the fact that the white working class in Britain (or just England?) feels embattled, with its “culture” under threat, and so on. The series includes a film re-examining Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech, and it looks pretty clear that other documentaries will feature not a few blokes beginning sentences “I’m not racist, but ….”

There’s an oddity about the addition of the modifier “white” to “working class”, in the British context. Historically, Britain has been a country where class has trumped ethnicity as the key dimension of social stratification for politics. Class solidarity, and Labour politics, appealed across ethnic and national divisions. Of course ethnicity mattered, but, in the end it was class that structured the institutions in an through which political compromise and conflict happened. Perhaps the prominence given to “white working-class culture” by these film-makers merely reflects the fact that class has been or is being replaced by ethnic balkanization on American lines.

The other thing worth noticing is how various people who position themselves as vaguely transgressive leftists (who spend all their time criticizing “the left”) are anticipating this series. (I’m thinking, of course, of people on the fringes of the Euston Manifesto crowd.) So, for example, John Lloyd (I’m assuming it is the same John Lloyd) has a piece in the FT making sympathetic noises, and Andrew Anthony (a kind of Nick Cohen-lite) had an article in last Sunday’s Observer. Given their leftist background, most “decents” have promoted either a class-based solidarity or an abstract universalism of citizenship in opposition to multiculturalism (which their blogs incessantly attack). But these pieces suggest something new. One possibility is that they are being drawn to the promotion of “my culture too!”, a resentment-driven demand for recognition within a multicultural system; another is that they are pushing the ethnos in the demos. Maybe they haven’t worked it out themselves yet. Either way, it gives me the creeps.

{ 2 trackbacks }

Dublin Opinion » Blog Archive » In England’s ‘White’ and Pleasant Land
03.05.08 at 3:14 pm
Two other families and a man juggling eels « Max Dunbar
03.08.08 at 2:05 pm

{ 68 comments }

1

dsquared 03.05.08 at 10:07 am

I think it’s basically “having a go at the Muslims”, not out of a racist motive for doing so but because it’s a way of continuing a proxy war against their real enemies and “having a go at other people on the left who don’t want to have a go at the Muslims”. I think the idea is a sort of “the worse, the better” Leninism – if they can persuade us that “multiculturalism” means that Enoch Powell has to be regarded as a valid community representative alongside Bernie Grant (who we all of course revere), then maybe we’ll give up and all adopt someone’s warped version of a French-style monoculturalism.

2

jw 03.05.08 at 10:19 am

I dunno. Maybe I’m just a transgressive leftist, but something about putting brackets around the word “culture” when discussing working-class whites seems creepy, too.

3

dsquared 03.05.08 at 10:23 am

I’d also add that if you actually wanted to make a documentary about white working class culture in the UK since the 1970s, surely your main theme would be how it had been completely cross-pollinated and integrated with black and asian culture in about a million ways. To take white people who don’t want to live near non-white people as representative (or who don’t like Eastern European immigrants) is weird. And of course it’s doubly odd for someone like John Lloyd or Andrew Anthony, who are the first to notice when the BBC mistakenly starts treating extremists and weirdoes as the “authentic” voice of the Muslim community, to not notice that the same shell game is at work.

Also slightly gets my goat that the only way to be “white working class” is to be poor, have a declining standard of living, work in a sunset industry (preferably in the North of England), etc. Basically manufacturing-fetishism of the 1970s vintage. The kids who pack the trains in to Liverpool Street to work in the back office at Deutsche Bank are white, and they’re working class, but they’re never gonna get their documentary made. I mean, working men’s clubs in Bradford are interesting and worth documenting, but the fact that they are in decline doesn’t actually mean that the white working class is, or that they represent something worth preserving.

4

abb1 03.05.08 at 10:41 am

Lenin’s tomb post here. Not by Richard Seymour, though, and thus not nearly provocative enough.

5

neil 03.05.08 at 11:22 am

Many regrets for the shameless plug, but I wrote something pretty similar on my blog:

As someone who enthusiastically welcomes a debate on class, poverty and equality in this country, it’s so deeply dispiriting when the emphasis is placed on the quarrels and street skirmishes between different groups of poor people, rather than one of the many more important areas that affect all of these groups: unemployment, crime, education and the barriers erected by segregated religious schools, drugs, social housing, gang culture and our destructive youth, sexual health, health in general.

Nowadays, there is practically no discussion of some of the issues that had previously been a preserve of the British left (I’ll admit Johann Hari as an admirable exception). You can attribute many reasons to this, but one is certainly this obsession with ‘muscular liberalism’ and bashing those factions of the left they believe to be subservient to far-right Islamism. For all the Galloways and SWPs and their assorted hysterical bretheren may have dismayed & discredited the left, they have, at least, never lost touch with the fact that there are many problems affecting working class communities that need to be addressed. The ‘decents’, it seems, have either forgotten all about this or (in the case of Andrew Anthony) completely misdiagnose the problems.

6

Dave 03.05.08 at 11:25 am

#2: interesting, and suggestive of one of the problems that this ‘season’ may feel it is addressing. dsquared may feel that such individuals don’t “represent something worth preserving”, but clearly said individuals feel that they do. Now, every other ‘culture’ that feels this has been accorded special treatment – heaven knows, there are people who still get het-up at the extinction of Cornish, and on the imposition of Welsh much could be said. But the population that used to be the labouring class of manufacturing industry has been passed by, in a multi-generational process of herding their more recalcitrant elements into sink-estates, where much is now made of the ‘culture’ of dependency, gangs, etc that reigns.

That all sucks, many of the opinions of such people suck even more profoundly, being as they are, as so many people are when you scratch the surface, prejudiced in various ways. They are, for all its horrors, what the Victorians identified, and shuddered at, as the residuum.

But to dismiss them in advance as a non-problem, and to suggest that giving their fate/aspirations a little documentary coverage is a ‘shell game’ that gives you the ‘creeps’: well, that’s just silly.

Talk about how the recent Lab conference shifted an old slogan ‘New Labour, New Britain’ to ‘New Labour, YOUR Britain’, then you might have critical mileage.

7

dsquared 03.05.08 at 11:38 am

But the population that used to be the labouring class of manufacturing industry has been passed by, in a multi-generational process of herding their more recalcitrant elements into sink-estates, where much is now made of the ‘culture’ of dependency, gangs, etc that reigns.

This is absolutely not true. The vast majority of that population has moved into other industries, remains in employment and has in general seen an improvement in its standard of living. Poor white English people living in “sink-estates” are really very not typical of the white working class.

By the way, speed-reading alert:

dsquared may feel that such individuals don’t “represent something worth preserving”,

I might or might not feel that, but a look at the sentence I actually wrote reveals that the predicate “does not represent something worth preserving” refers back to the subject “working mens’ clubs in Bradford”. Get this right please.

8

Aidan Kehoe 03.05.08 at 11:45 am

I think quite a lot of the reason for the lack of traction of race-based solutions to black social problems in the US is that the problems are properly those of socio-economic class; lack of value placed on education, acceptance of teen pregnancy, minimal aspirations outside of success as a rap star or basketball player—there’s nothing specific to the colour of one’s skin about these social pathologies, and you see them equally in the English working class (though with football instead of basketball, and no exact rap star equivalent).

If black community leaders in the US think this, but don’t want to acknowledge it, I can understand, given how little the place cares about the poorest whites. They will probably continue to get more attention and funding framing it as being primarily about discrimination against the community based on the colour of their skin.

I don’t think it’s particularly invalid to treat the white working class separately in .uk; British people of differing background have significantly different experiences in the labour market. Ignoring this and drawing more inaccurate broad-brush conclusions doesn’t necessarily help.

9

chris armstrong 03.05.08 at 11:58 am

A lot of valid points are made above, but surely whatever ‘white, working class culture’ turns out to be, it’s a legitimate topic of inquiry? And if white working-class people, whoever they turn out to be, feel embattled, surely examining that fact doesn’t amount to sympathising with them? It’s going to be sociologically important, and politically interesting, even if we think ‘their’ sense of embattled-ness is a product of a distorting media culture, let’s say?

And on the topic of cross-cutting identities, and so on (see 7’s last point, a perfectly valid one), perhaps this is something that we might expect to emerge from these programmes, and maybe usefully so? If the conclusion is that there’s no one white working-class culture, more to the good, right? We haven’t seen the pieces yet, right? (we have seen the newspaper articles Chris B cites, and they may be worrying – I’m talking about the BBC output only!)

10

Dave 03.05.08 at 12:05 pm

#6: sorry, when you used the word ‘represent’ I, perhaps foolishly, assumed that you meant it, and that said clubs were being taken as representative of a wider culture. If, in fact, you used the word ‘represent’ when you meant ‘are’, my apologies.

Incidentally, I would suggest that your statement “Poor white English people living in “sink-estates” are really very not typical of the white working class” is itself factually inaccurate. They are probably the only group to whom outsiders would routinely apply the label ‘working-class’, which has become in common usage a culture-based, rather than socioeconomic, tag. Whether that tagging is at some level – ethical, political, ‘scientific’ – wrong is another question.

Meanwhile, any thoughts on the UK govt’s only semi-covert adoption of a ‘Britain for the British’ rhetorical strategy?

11

Nick L 03.05.08 at 12:08 pm

The programme and the reactions to it from both ‘muscular liberalis’ and ‘muscular multiculturalists’ is an utterly depressing sign of the times that demostrates how split and clueless the left has become. Regarding the decents, to use discussion of the white working class as a stick to beat Muslims with is truly scrapping the barrel. Rehabilitating Powell is a sick joke. But to advocate state sponsored multiculutralism and then to get into hysterics when the white working class starts seeing itself (or starts being seen by others) as a distinct ethnic group is absurd.

D2, two points:
Surely the working class that EP Thompson describes has shrunk if not disappeared with the decline of manufacturing, and many of those who could not adapt to Britain’s post industrial economy have fallen into conditions that dave describes? Also: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v26/n20/lanc01_.html

In addition, when did France become the new bogeyman? What exactly is so awful about the 5th Republic? You might not agree with its integration strategies and it is depressing that the fascists always make a good showing in elections, but it’s hardly Burma.

12

Chris Bertram 03.05.08 at 12:15 pm

#8 Well, yes, of course it is a “legitimate topic of inquiry.” But then so are lots of things that aren’t getting documentary coverage, having dramas written about them etc. So why _this_? and why _now_? seem reasonable questions to ask.

I’d also question the presupposition in your comment that film-making of this type, however good, constitutes a mode of inquiry. OK, there may be some documentaries and even dramas that would merit this description, but more usually they are a way of representing a society (or a part of it) to itself (and others) for some purpose. (For example, neither Sicko nor Cathy Come Come really count as “inquiries”).

13

Martin Wisse 03.05.08 at 12:21 pm

You haven’t even mentioned the BNP style ad used to promote this series and what that means. Why is the BBC suddenly so concerned about a group of people they’re happy to write off the rest of the years as chavs or horrible examples for middle class asperationalism to overcome?

14

Chris Bertram 03.05.08 at 12:35 pm

I’d recommend googling

“David Klein”+BBC

by the way. If there’s one thing worse that political correctness, it is people who take themselves to have a mission to oppose political correctness.

15

dsquared 03.05.08 at 12:36 pm

Surely the working class that EP Thompson describes has shrunk if not disappeared with the decline of manufacturing, and many of those who could not adapt to Britain’s post industrial economy have fallen into conditions that dave describes?

The simple fact of technological progress more or less ensures that “the working class that [anyone from more than thirty years ago] described has shrunk if not disappeared. But “those who could not adapt to Britain’s post industrial economy” describes a pretty small and not very representative fraction of the working class. Things have got better for the working class in the last twenty years, not worse.

Everyone accepts this when we look at “rural communities” – they have a a lot of genuine problems, but it’s pretty generally accepted that their problems aren’t particularly representative of Britain as a whole. It’s the same with that gerrymandered subset of white working class people that Dave and several others on this thread have determined to be the only ones allowed to have a culture. Welsh nationalist politics went through all of this in the 1970s and 80s when it was trying to define what was authentically Welsh, and my god didn’t things get better for them when they gave up on the attempt.

16

dsquared 03.05.08 at 12:43 pm

Actually, even better than that, consider the condition of the Irish working class. There are some appalling pockets of poverty and bigotry in Ireland still to this day. But I think it’s quite obvious that if you had a season of documentaries about “Irish culture” and filmed nothing but toothless peasants, forced pregnancies, alcoholics railing about 1916 and housing estates with horses living in them, someone would say that you’d missed the big picture.

17

Tracy W 03.05.08 at 12:53 pm

There’s an oddity about the addition of the modifier “white” to “working class”, in the British context. Historically, Britain has been a country where class has trumped ethnicity as the key dimension of social stratification for politics.

What’s the oddity?

Assuming for the moment that class is “the key dimension of social stratification for politics” – surely that does not mean that it’s the only dimension, or that politics is the only important aspect about life? There’s more to life than which political party you vote for.

18

abb1 03.05.08 at 12:57 pm

A lot of valid points are made above, but surely whatever ‘white, working class culture’ turns out to be, it’s a legitimate topic of inquiry?

Only if such distinct culture really does exist. Otherwise, why not ‘culture of the left-handed accountants’?

19

Hoover 03.05.08 at 12:59 pm

But there is a problem. The cultural elites have indeed given disproportionate attention to other cultures, and have tended to avoid criticism. In contrast, white working class culture is either neglected or patronised or criticised.

Reading all the commenters above trying to intellectualise the problem away is interesting.

I have a mental picture of you holding your sophisticated noses as you watch the programmes.

20

Matthew 03.05.08 at 1:03 pm

They clearly don’t mean the ‘white working class’ as that is clearly) a much larger number of people who have a social life outside of working men’s clubs.

They mean the ‘white very poor’, and the argument (as far as I can see) for making a big thing of the ‘white’ bit is the allegation that government mostly, but also the media, pay them less attention than the ‘non-white very poor’.

Michael Young’s last book “The new East End : kinship, race and conflict”, gave a bit of credence to this in a limited context, but I’m sceptical it’s a major factor – I would have thought the ‘non-white very poor’ don’t get a very good deal either (or any media coverage).

21

chris armstrong 03.05.08 at 1:54 pm

I suppose it depends on what you mean by distinct, and what we mean by ‘white, working class culture.’ A charitable reading is that the series might simply be interested to investigate what cultural norms, practices, etc people who happen to be white and working class happen to share – and a conclusion to that could be that they share very little that’s distinct from other cross-cutting groups. That’s certainly the conclusion I’d expect. And it would be interesting in itself, to many people. Given Billy Bragg(he’s involved in the series, right?)’s not-always-very-articulate arguments to the effect that the English are a mongrel nation, that we’re all ‘half-English’ and need to redefine what it means to be English in the twenty-first century, I kind of assumed that hybridity and intersectionality was going to be part of the story being told. But like I said, I haven’t seen the programmes yet.

22

ajay 03.05.08 at 1:56 pm

But I think it’s quite obvious that if you had a season of documentaries about “Irish culture” and filmed nothing but toothless peasants, forced pregnancies, alcoholics railing about 1916 and housing estates with horses living in them, someone would say that you’d missed the big picture.

Mind you, the rebroadcast rights in the US would be worth millions. Get Daniel Day-Lewis to do the commentary and sell it to the networks as the backbone of their Ould Sod Week.

More seriously, I think that the kids D2 cited in 3 – working class kids at Deutsche Bank or whatever – will probably be classed as not truly working class, owing to their inability to be poor and otherwise “keep it real”.

23

Steven Poole 03.05.08 at 1:58 pm

What kind of problems could “white” working-class people have over and above the problems of working-class people as a whole, by virtue of being “white”, which might make the “white working class” into a meaningful category of people deserving of a pundit’s sympathy?

I can’t actually think of any, beyond fear and hatred of all those brown people flooding the country.

24

soru 03.05.08 at 2:00 pm

The kids who pack the trains in to Liverpool Street to work in the back office at Deutsche Bank are white, and they’re working class, but they’re never gonna get their documentary made..

Actually, according to http://www.db.com/careers/en/index.html:

Deutsche Bank don’t, outside exceptional circumstances, recruit non-graduates in the UK. Also, given London demographics, unless they totally bullshitting about diversity policy and faking the group photos on their web-site, it would be pretty unlikely for anyone working there to find themselves in an all-white environment.

The ‘white’ bit is partly just controversialism, but also a matter of what London-based journalists see.

These days, the real dimension of social stratification in the UK is London and suburbs versus the rest of the UK. If UK gdp per capita is really now above that of the US, London must be breathing down on Luxembourg’s neck.

25

Alex 03.05.08 at 2:25 pm

Who said an all-white environment was necessary?

Anyway, my alternative theory is that the whole Decent Left phenomenon is just that those centre-left commentators with an unusually high social authoritarianism index finally got external validation sufficient to get their auth on.

26

Tracy W 03.05.08 at 2:32 pm

I can’t actually think of any, beyond fear and hatred of all those brown people flooding the country.

Well why don’t you watch the programme then? If they do identify any kinds of problems you’ll learn something. If they don’t, you’ll get some confirmation of your views. Either way, you win.

27

Steven Poole 03.05.08 at 2:44 pm

Well why don’t you watch the programme then?
I won’t be able to. But my question was meant to express scepticism in principle about what sort of extra problems (apart from racist paranoia) could exist for “white” working-class people qua “white”.

Perhaps indeed the programme will shockingly uncover a systematic campaign of anti-“white” discrimination around Britain. But I rather doubt it. (Given that, eg, according to the statistics linked by aidan kehoe above, “white” people have the lowest levels of unemployment of any grouping identified by levels of dermal melanin/geographic location of ancestors.)

28

Seth Gordon 03.05.08 at 2:45 pm

Question from an ignorant Yank: do England, Scotland, and Wales have a common “working-class culture” (with or without the “white” modifier)?

29

John M 03.05.08 at 2:48 pm

“What kind of problems could “white” working-class people have over and above the problems of working-class people as a whole, by virtue of being “white””

I guess that is one of the things the programme will be looking at, lthough they don’t actually say (do they?) that their intent is to identify problems. If the problems exist, though, I would guess that they are similar to, but different from, the particular problems faced by black working class people, you know, discriminatory behaviour, denigration in the media, negative sterotypes, that sort of thing. Hard for to say, though.

30

ajay 03.05.08 at 2:51 pm

24: non sequitur. Just because someone has a university degree doesn’t mean that they’re not from a working class background.
You’re quite right that (at least in my experience) DB’s back office is fairly multiracial.

31

John M 03.05.08 at 2:52 pm

“Perhaps indeed the programme will shockingly uncover a systematic campaign of anti-”white” discrimination around Britain. But I rather doubt it. “

I doubt it too, but discrimination needn’t be ‘systmatic’ to be painful to the people suffering from it. I think that most anti-black discrimination that is experienced is equally unsystematic but very often unpleasant for all that. Think of things like negative sterotyping in the media. It is very easy when you don’t belong to a victimised group to insist that these things are trivial, but they often don’t seem trivial to those experiencing them.

32

Barry 03.05.08 at 2:55 pm

Yes. In fact ‘Scotlan’, ‘Wales’ and ‘Northern Ireland’ were terms created during the Christmas season, 1941, as a practical joke on the Yanks expected to be coming over during the next few years :)

33

magistra 03.05.08 at 2:56 pm

Looking at the programmes listed on the BBC website, one obvious gap is anything much looking at contemporary white working-class cultural products. All they have is something on a working men’s club (which judging from the title, Last Orders, is about the decline of that as a cultural centre). Why don’t they have something about white working-class music (or is there no longer any distinctively WWC music?)

34

vanya 03.05.08 at 2:56 pm

Is there really no anti-white working class discrimination in Britain? My impression is that for most entry-level or menial jobs a British employer would be more likely to hire a South Asian or an Eastern European, as the stereotype is that the ethnic English and Scottish working class are thick lazy drunken louts. I can imagine that a white Briton with no education might be at a disadvantage in the job market, although still probably better off than someone of Caribbean descent.

35

Steven Poole 03.05.08 at 3:00 pm

I haven’t lived in England for a few years: did I miss the part where “white” suddenly stopped being the default identity, and where people identified as “white” suddenly stopped enjoying all the unexamined structural advantages that had hitherto accrued to them? If so, you’re right: we should indeed carefully and sensitively treat “whites” as a grouping as vulnerable to “negative stereotyping” as any other.

36

Steven Poole 03.05.08 at 3:06 pm

Is there really no anti-white working class discrimination in Britain?

There might be some, but the unemployment statistics would tend to strongly imply that there is considerably less of it than against any other group. Which gives the lie to the whole “multiculturalism has gone too far, we’ve over-compensated, the only racism left is against whites!!111, etc” shtick.

37

dsquared 03.05.08 at 3:48 pm

Deutsche Bank don’t, outside exceptional circumstances, recruit non-graduates in the UK.

rilly? Every single secretary in Deutsche Bank has a degree? Every single IT guy? Every single Prime Brokerage Equity Nostro Process Manager? (in case anyone can’t be bothered clicking, that goes to a job ad requiring A-levels). You’ve reached the page of their graduate recruitment site; that’s the tip of the iceberg of the financial services industry.

Also, given London demographics, unless they totally bullshitting about diversity policy and faking the group photos on their web-site, it would be pretty unlikely for anyone working there to find themselves in an all-white environment

Is this another membership criterion for the “white working class”?

38

soru 03.05.08 at 3:54 pm

Just because someone has a university degree doesn’t mean that they’re not from a working class background.

You don’t think it is in any way relevant that the Deutsche Bank recruitment page has two links called ‘School Leavers’ and ‘Apprentices’, both of which point to stubs saying ‘see German-language version of this site’?

39

reuben 03.05.08 at 4:04 pm

My impression is that for most entry-level or menial jobs a British employer would be more likely to hire a South Asian or an Eastern European, as the stereotype is that the ethnic English and Scottish working class are thick lazy drunken louts.

One anecdote, one data point and one question:
1. I once overheard two English builders saying of a Polish coworker, “he’s a good bloke, but we’ve got to teach him not to work so hard.” they were joking, but also serious.

2. among individuals who complete certain types of apprenticeships (apprenticeships of course do not lead to menial jobs, so we’re not talking about exactly same thing), the statistics show that whites are 50% more likely to soon find themselves employed than are nonwhites.

3. at what point will it be acceptable in the UK to stop referring to the white nonworking class as the white working class?

40

Matthew 03.05.08 at 4:16 pm

I find it more relevan that they are advertising jobs that don’t need a degree.

More generally though, is your point that you can’t be working-class and work in the financial services industry?

41

Jim S. 03.05.08 at 4:16 pm

Well if people want to avoid “balkinization” then they should start talking about class and social issues, instead of always group and identity issues. The American Left has ruined chances for progressive change by just that approach, slighting the working class and constantly pushing women, homosexuals, racial minorities, etc.

It seems that people here are just as much into “ethnicities” as their opponents, only they push the racial groups instead of the non-racial ones.

42

Marc Mulholland 03.05.08 at 4:33 pm

The Decents’ Dude, Christopher Hitchens, has already pointed out that the extreme right are the only voices outside Decent ranks to properly identify the Islamist challenge to civilisation:

“When I read Sam Harris’s irresponsible remark that only fascists seemed to have the right line, I murmured to myself: “Not while I’m alive, they won’t.”

So, yer racist white worker has the correct ‘decent instinct’.

43

larettj 03.05.08 at 4:36 pm

“What kind of problems could “white” working-class people have over and above the problems of working-class people as a whole, by virtue of being “white””

This is not exactly the right question to be asking. It is not problems over and above “working class people” that make this documentary important. Examining the experiences of the white working class is unlikely to shed light on race in the UK, but can perhaps shed light on class. If you examine the discrimination faced by minorities in the working class, it will likely be impossible to distinguish which of their experiences can be attributed to race vs. class. By examining the experiences of the white working class, the documentary could shed light on issues particular to class that cannot be isolated by examining the plight of working class minorities. I am not saying that it will do that, simply that it could. While whites may attribute their problems to people of color in “I’m not racist, but” statements, a critical watcher could discern the ways in which the working class are pitted against each other and the real causes of problems for the working class.

44

John M 03.05.08 at 4:46 pm

“I haven’t lived in England for a few years: did I miss the part where “white” suddenly stopped being the default identity, and where people identified as “white” suddenly stopped enjoying all the unexamined structural advantages that had hitherto accrued to them?”

White has never been the ‘default identity’ (if I understand this odd phrase rightly) for anyone but white people. Black people round here default to black, Asian people to Asian etc, etc. But the larger point is that we are not talking about all white people all together but a subsection who report a sense of alienation and victimisation that is, in their view, partly a consequence of their racial or ethnic identity or desigation. It is a view that seems to be, at first sight, supported by some anecdotal evidence such as the willingness of the bourgeois presss to use insulting words like ‘chav’ where they would not use insulting words like ‘paki’. To deny that ‘chav’ (for example) implies ‘white’ strikes me as perverse. Even clearer is the increasing tendency to talk about ‘white trash’ when referring to the poorest white people. I cannot imagine a Guardian journalist dismissing a section of the community as ‘black trash’, simply because they dressed in a certain way, survived on benefits or lived in particular places. This seems to me to be something worth investigating, at least.

45

Charlie Whitaker 03.05.08 at 4:50 pm

I mean, working men’s clubs in Bradford are interesting and worth documenting, but the fact that they are in decline doesn’t actually mean that the white working class is, or that they represent something worth preserving.

Tsk. The second ‘they’ is ambiguous. But we know what you mean.

46

Martin Wisse 03.05.08 at 4:56 pm

There is one group of largely working class, largely “white” (or at least stereotypically portrayed as white) people who face discrimination in the UK: the socalled chavs.

Which is anybody young and out on the street not fitting in the straightjacket of school > job > acceptable hobby.

47

dsquared 03.05.08 at 4:57 pm

I cannot imagine a Guardian journalist dismissing a section of the community as ‘black trash’, simply because they dressed in a certain way, survived on benefits or lived in particular places. This seems to me to be something worth investigating, at least.

You say it’s “worth investigating”, but revealed preference suggests that you didn’t take the trouble to find out whether there were any examples of the Guardian referring pejoratively to working class British people as “white trash”. In fact, a quick trawl of the site search facility reveals, basically all of the 100 mentions of the phrase are either:

1) film reviewers’ lazy uses of the term to describe American cultural icons (mainly the late Anna Nicole Smith).

2) opinion columnists saying “apparently it’s acceptable to refer to ‘white trash'” in exactly the way you do.

3) the fact that a character in Coronation Street used the phrase, or Jermaine Jackson did while on Celebrity Big Brother.

4) references to Lynndie England, mainly in the context of Gary Yonge’s article suggesting that she was being made a scapegoat.

It is a view that seems to be, at first sight, supported by some anecdotal evidence such as the willingness of the bourgeois presss to use insulting words like ‘chav’ where they would not use insulting words like ‘paki’.

I was not previously aware that the Sun was part of the bourgeois press.

48

Steven Poole 03.05.08 at 5:05 pm

White has never been the ‘default identity’ (if I understand this odd phrase rightly) for anyone but white people.

Erm, that was sort of my point.

I agree that “chav” and “white trash” (the latter coming from the US?) are interesting usages. In the case of the latter, I might guess that originally there was simple, old-fashioned racist prejudice behind it, in the sense that one didn’t even need to say that poor people with darker skins were “trash” — that was just a given; but the other case was surprising and offensive to notions of white superiority: “These trashy people are … white! A disgrace to the rest of us!” etc.

we are not talking about all white people all together but a subsection who report a sense of alienation and victimisation that is, in their view, partly a consequence of their racial or ethnic identity or desigation

Oh, well in that case the phrase “white working class” won’t do, will it?

49

Steven Poole 03.05.08 at 5:11 pm

By examining the experiences of the white working class, the documentary could shed light on issues particular to class that cannot be isolated by examining the plight of working class minorities.

Why is it forced to focus exclusively on one colour/”ethnicity” or another?

50

asarwate 03.05.08 at 5:24 pm

class has trumped ethnicity

From what I’ve read of him, Paul Gilroy might take issue with that statement. Of course, maybe I’m taking your definition of “trumping” to imply some sort of solidarity…

51

soru 03.05.08 at 5:39 pm


I find it more relevant that they are advertising jobs that don’t need a degree.

Only for those with multiple years of very specific experience, which currently can’t easily be acquired as a school leaver.

Of course, DB is currently unusual in that it only does high finance, has no network of regional branches in the UK. On the other hand, that just makes it ahead of the trend:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2007/jan/19/business.accounts


More generally though, is your point that you can’t be working-class and work in the financial services industry?

For non-heritable definitions of class, that’s pretty much true. The lowliest financial service jobs are C1 (Supervisory or clerical and junior managerial, administrative or professional), which is traditionally lower middle class.

I don’t think there are many skilled manual workers in the sector, and the unskilled ones like cleaners are almost certainly not employees these days. I’d be surprised if there are many offices where the cleaners and other staff regularly socialise together: it’s a social class boundary, not just an economic one.

The trend to centralisation and automation of many of those jobs is on top of that, tending to replace C1 clerks in Manchester with B graduates in London.

52

Chris Bertram 03.05.08 at 6:21 pm

#51 Well I don’t know what Paul Gilroy would say, but mine is a fairly straightforward point, namely that politics in Britain in the 20th century was largely organized around the class divide, and it was under that description that people were organized, appealed to, confronted, compromised with etc. Of course being black could be important, but one of the was it was important was to pre-sort you into one half of the class system. Appealing to ethnicity, as a cross-class thing, just wasn’t that successful as a political strategy most of the time. Powell failed, miserably, as did the NF in the 1970s.

53

Anthony 03.05.08 at 6:40 pm

#3, #34, #40 – Since when are (non-jewish) eastern europeans “non-white”?

Larretj @44 has a good point regarding studying the white working class vs the non-white working class to tease out the differences between class and race as influences on people’s conditions, but if Chris is reading the blurbs right, that’s not what this series will be about.

There is something to be said about changes to working class culture which are being driven by changes made by the political class of the country – in this sense, even if immigration were restricted to EU residents, it makes sense to draw a contrast between the “native” and “immigrant”. Cultural changes resulting from mass immigration aren’t always positive – most immigrants from the “third world” have far less egalitarian attitudes towards gender relationships than even the working classes of western countries, and fatalism in the face of government corruption or oppression is not necessarily a positive change in the existing culture.

54

anon 03.05.08 at 7:06 pm

I am one of these “white working class” people working for a big American investment bank’s back office.

I don’t have a degree. A great many of the people I work with also lack any sort of degree. Although the job I applied for was advertised as needing a degree, this is just boiler plate put on by HR and in reality they don’t particularly give a damn about what you did at university as long as you can show you can do the job required. Myself, I did this by studying industriously with a couple of books for a few months and blagging my way into an entry level position. Not really that hard you know.

Also, I think many working class people have degrees or HNDs these days. There’s a very high proportion of people in the UK that go to university these days and many of them would be quite surprised to learn that doing so stops them from being working class. Here in Glasgow, JPMorgan, Morgan Stanley, RBS, NAB and the rest all hire plenty of people from Strathclyde University, Paisley University, and even colleges where people have received HNDs (eg Stow College).

In the last decade or so the Clyde, which used to be lined with 30-odd shipyards, instead has many thousands of people working for the back and sometimes middle offices of major financial institutions. But the direct ancestors of most of the people working in these offices did work in those shipyards and I would say consider themselves to be a continuation of that culture.

55

Rich B. 03.05.08 at 8:07 pm

There’s an oddity about the addition of the modifier “white” to “working class”, in the British context. Historically, Britain has been a country where class has trumped ethnicity as the key dimension of social stratification for politics.

Immediately, “Nestor” from Ulysses popped into my head.

— I just wanted to say, he said. Ireland, they say, has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the jews. Do you know that? No. And do you know why?

He frowned sternly on the bright air.

— Why, sir? Stephen asked, beginning to smile.

— Because she never let them in, Mr Deasy said solemnly.

“Historically,” less than 5% of England defined themselves as non-White. Today, 10% do. I don’t see why it should be considered “odd” that race was never much of a factor back in the old days when almost everyone was the same race!

56

soru 03.05.08 at 8:17 pm

Although the job I applied for was advertised as needing a degree, this is just boiler plate put on by HR and in reality they don’t particularly give a damn about what you did at university as long as you can show you can do the job required.

So the recruitment ads put up an artificial class-based barrier not required to do the job, and they haven’t been sued?

There’s a very high proportion of people in the UK that go to university these days and many of them would be quite surprised to learn that doing so stops them from being working class.

Yes, things have changed quite noticeably over the last 2 decades, towards a much more US-style class structure, with a big internally-meritocratic educated middle class dominating the numbers. For various reasons, including a focus on race and religion, that fact has not really passed out from specialist academic studies into popular perception.

57

anon 03.05.08 at 11:30 pm

It isn’t a deliberately constructed barrier. In isn’t a barrier at all as – at least in IT – almost all of these jobs advertised as needing a degree can in fact be got by people without a degree but the skills to do the work. In fact generally in employment if a post mentions a degree at all it is an entry level position – nobody at my Big Bank mentioned a degree (except in the advertisement) and after I was employed there they were surprised but not upset that I don’t have one.

I’m not sure the thousands of people who come our of places like the University of Strathclyde, University of Paisley, or various colleges, and end up working for the vast back offices in glasgow could be classified as “middle class”. Seems to me like a direct continuation of the skilled working classes who built big ships or maintained complex steam engines in days gone by.

The Clyde nowadays echoes to the sound of fingers pitter-pattering on keyboards building and maintaining financial systems rather than heavy machinery, cranes and the like building and maintaining ships, but the employees of the former are largely the offspring of the employees of the latter and their broad function is the same.

I agree with daniel, the BBC is focussing on working men’s clubs with a greyhound fetish and flat caps. That’s a caricature – the working class has changed as much as any other class in Britain and the BBC excludes the bulk of today’s working class in its programme.

58

LogicGuru 03.06.08 at 12:34 am

Y’know what? I don’t like working class people and I don’t care what color they are. They’re ignorant, boring, sexist and just plain unpleasant. Let’s face it: that’s the elephant in the room.

In the US color is a marker of class: racial prejudice and anti-immigrant sentiment are essentially class prejudice, motivated in particular by a perfectly legitimate distaste for the behavior of young working class males. I value my privacy in public and I don’t want to have to run the gauntlet every time I go to a convenience store where these jerks are hanging out. I also don’t want to live in a neighborhood where families sit on stoops or on beach chairs in the street because I don’t like having to walk through other people’s living rooms.

According to the received wisdom the US has been trashed by corporations, crooked politicians and plutocrats. Last time I looked the US was still a democracy and it was voters who installed the current regime. What we have now is the dictatorship of the proletariat: it’s the proles who constitute the Republican “base,” the proles who wanted war with Iraq at least initially, the proles who want creationism taught in the public schools, the proles who constitute the bulk of the religious right, and the proles who who support every benighted policy that progressives detest.

It’s a pity that race goes proxy for class, particularly since a significant percentage of minorities are middle class and have to prove themselves in order to get decent treatment. I’d hope that we could get down to brass tacks, stop worrying about Muslims, immigrants and people of color. This is class warfare and the enemy is the working class–white, black or brown, immigrants or native born.

59

nick s 03.06.08 at 1:19 am

Ah, yes, expect the focus on people who moved out to three-bedroomed suburban semis (albeit estate semis) in the 1980s, and now see the darkies living in the down-town terraces where they (or their own parents) grew up, and — the nerve — turning disused churches into mosques. Throw in a dash of ‘well, we didn’t keep ourselves separate or talk a funny language’, usually followed by discussions of the Italian ice-cream man and the Catholic club.

I’ll go further than dsquared, because I’m part of that demographic the series appears to be highlighting: It’s a curious mixture of bullshit nostalgia and prolier-than-thou class guilt, and I’d assumed we had enough of that on the BBC with Gene Hunt.

There are aspects of working-class-town culture that are fading away, and industrial towns have a short enough history for people to make a false conflation between ‘keeping our heritage’ and the particular siting of those cultural and structural trappings in the time before non-white immigration. But the continuity between a white immigrant culture and a non-white one is obvious to the people who still live in the terraces, and the accent is equally broad on the second generation.

Plus, with the arrival of Poles and others from the eastern EU, the circle is turning again. My dad, whose casual racism is typical of his peers, speaks highly of the Polish tradesmen he’s worked with, and I don’t quite know what to make of that. Perhaps it’s an intersection of race and class, to the extent that the skilled trades remain very white.

60

seth edenbaum 03.06.08 at 4:04 am

” Given their leftist background, most “decents” have promoted either a class-based solidarity or an abstract universalism of citizenship in opposition to multiculturalism (which their blogs incessantly attack). But these pieces suggest something new. One possibility is that they are being drawn to the promotion of ‘my culture too!’ “

So it’s another example of the vogue for multiculturalism. If the default were citizenship to begin with then the whole series wouldn’t be necessary (in the sense of inevitable).
There’s only one culture I defend and it’s democratic culture. We’ve long had a problem in my country with working class catholics who follow their Mullah’s. They vote for the person who promises to take care of them. In NY it’s given us more than a few mayors. The thought that someone would vote that logic I find offensive. But it’s still common, even in many non catholics.
I vote for the person who is most likely to do as I would wish: that’s the philosophy of democracy.

The problem with multiculturalism as theory is that it treats it as a cause rather than merely the desired result. A multicultural democracy is a democracy where every other cultural value has become aestheticized to the point of being politically neutral.
Multiculturalism as a plan is the invention of liberal planners (that is: idiots). Multiculturalism as a result is my neighborhood, where everyone gets along fine because they’re living alongside each other and the all want to live “the american dream” or at least make enough money to go back home and retire. And [this is the kicker] they’ve all had the opportunity to thrive, because my country is more about money than community. You can come her and take jobs from those exhausted grandchildren of immigrants who weren’t strong enough to “get out.” No one likes a loser. What’s interesting is that recent generations haven’t bought into the american dream as past generations have. They are actually part of a change and represent part of the beginnings of social democracy in the US. European social democracy has exclude the immigrants in many ways. But immigrants here, many of whom would rather be back home, or maybe in Europe (and also since travel is easy) are keeping some old habits. But the new habit that does not go away is democracy, which by the way they do NOT associate with the US. The US they associate only with $$$$.
I know very few born americans who are as skeptical about this country as its immigrants are. And yet its immigrants are successful. That’s why I’m optimistic about this country.
Got me?

61

seth edenbaum 03.06.08 at 4:16 am

I should add one thing since I insulted “liberal planners.”
As far as democracy is concerned I defend the necessity of indoctrination. Liberals don’t.

62

Borwnie 03.06.08 at 11:06 am

The other thing worth noticing is how various people who position themselves as vaguely transgressive leftists (who spend all their time criticizing “the left”) are anticipating this series.

“Various” being John Lloyd and Andrew Anthony (who he?).

(If anybody actually bothers to read John Lloyd’s piece, they’ll find a fact-based analysis of the series content and accounts of various interviews with the protagonists. There’s very little – if any – narrative or subjectivity, so quite how Chris has decided this informs opinion about how “decents” are receiving the series is anybody’s guess.)

Let’s face it, Chris, you could write a post on how to bake the perfect cheesecake and you’d find some way to shoehorn in oblique criticism of “decents”. Your slip is showing.

I’m impressed, however, at both your and Daniel’s ability to critique a series of programs that don’t in fact begin broadcasting until tomorrow night. Unlike John Lloyd, for example, I doubt very much you’re in possession of a critic’s preview DVD. Still, since when did blind ignorance prevent you guys from holding court?

63

Chris Bertram 03.06.08 at 11:20 am

I hadn’t realised that “receiving” is a synonym of “anticipating” until now, Brownie. Thanks for broadening my appreciation of English.

Anyone who has been following the way the BBC has been promoting the series (on R5 for example) can’t be in much of a state of suspense about what the contents will be like. See also, btw, this piece in the New Statesman

http://www.newstatesman.com/200803060032

64

Chris Bertram 03.06.08 at 11:26 am

Oh and Brownie, before writing “Andrew Anthony (who he?)” you might have entered the phrase “Andrew Anthony” into the search box on the group blog to which you are a contributor. You’ll find his views warmly endorsed multiple times – don’t you guys read one another’s posts?

65

Borwnie 03.06.08 at 12:10 pm

Chris,

The power of Google is not something that has escaped my attention this last decade, however, unlike some online commentators, I don’t have any inclination to deliberately overstate my already vast knowledge by pretending I know someone/something I actually don’t. Hovering over your Andrew Anthony link was sufficient to let me know he’s a Guardian columnist, but in the pantheon of decentism he’s hardly the first name to come to mind. My point was that armed only with an entirely objective piece by John Lloyd and something by some bloke called ‘Andrew Anthony’, you were somewhat overstretching with your entirely contrived attack on what and whoever you believe to be “decent” on this 6th day in the month of March, 2008. Like that’s a shock.

I hadn’t realised that “receiving” is a synonym of “anticipating” until now, Brownie. Thanks for broadening my appreciation of English.

Oh, I’m quite certain that any objective reader would quickly come to the conclusion that there’s a great deal more “assumption” than “anticipation” occuring on this thread.

You’ll find his views warmly endorsed multiple times – don’t you guys read one another’s posts?

I’ll take your word. And if I read every post DavidT wrote, my children would wonder who that guy was sitting in corner behind a keyboard.

66

soru 03.06.08 at 2:41 pm

the employees of the former are largely the offspring of the employees of the latter

Interestingly, for that to be relevant, you have to be using an ethnic, not socioeconomic, definition of ‘working class’. What you are, what you feel, where you came from, not what you do or know.

I suspect things may be different in Scotland to some extent. But in my experience, software development is an almost archetypical example of the modern middle class semi-professional. Whether the relationship is formalised to the taxman or not, a developer is sole proprietor of their career. They are expected to invest in it by unpaid overtime and study, almost certainly aren’t in a union that actually moves their salary from market equilibria. Nevertheless they get good money: more than teachers, less than doctors, and moving upwards based on individual performance, not collective bargaining.

Working in a call center is fundamentally different, even if you would be hard pressed to tell from a photo which office was which.

67

gobineau 03.06.08 at 2:44 pm

n ntrstng nd t tht lnkd Nw Sttsmn stry

<> th nstttn s nt nly stll “hdsly wht”, bt hdsly mddl-clss.

Nt, th *nt nly stll “hdsly wht”. t rlly s strng tht n ssyst cn cmpln bt th rhblttn f nch (s f 7/7 dd nt prv hm rght fr th 110th tm), bt cn slr wht flk tht wy. t s ls strng tht smhw BBC cld hv n ntr “sn Ntwrk” (tlk bt ‘cnstrctd dntty”
, wtht dstrbng th h s dlct snsblts f n Chrs Brtrm. Fnlly, ‘d gr wth n rlr cmmnttr tht dnyng wht wrkng clss cltr s n tslf n ct f grssn gnst th wht wrkng clss. Srly n my vst t Mnz’s P nd Msh cpl f wks g, sw th blgrd wht wrkng clss nggng n rtl nfrcng thr wn dntty. vryn n th shp, whch ws dng brsk trd, ws wht. Grndms, rsy chkd sndy hrd lds, cln-scrbbd yng mms pshng prms wth pnk bbs. Qt dfyng ndd. hp ths ppl fght bck — s rwll sd, th nly hp s wth th prls.

BTW, t Nck S. ndd th sklld trds r ‘hddsly wht’ (nglsh, rsh, st rpn). Th sn dvrsn t rl wrk (mkng stff, bldng stff, grwng stff) s cmmnly knwn — ts n f th rsns thy mmgrt (‘v n dbt tht cld b cnfrmd by sclgcl mns). s fr th ‘fr-Crbbns’ , thy sm bst std fr prpng p Kn’s dctrl cty-stt, wlkng rnd gvng prkng cttns, sttng n thr rmps s ntrnc scrty fr mlt-ntnl crprt bldngs (n prt t grd gnst thr c-thncs), rsng th crm rt, nd gnrlly sckng p tx dllrs frm th nglsh s mplys f gvrnmnt ‘rc-rltns’ qngs . gn, t shldn’t b hrd t ddc th pprprt sttstcs t cnfrm ths ‘rcst’ pnns. Fcts r dmn hrd thngs.

68

LIttle Richardjohn 03.10.08 at 2:04 pm

The trailer for this series is a piece of racist trash and a disgrace to the BBC.
If there was any evidence that the trailer was designed to attract the BNP sucker vote, and put them straight, as is the responsibility of a public service broadcaster, then there is some excuse.
But we are now well into the ‘season’ and it is as dire as the overt message of the trailer predicted. There is nothing clever going on here. No ‘Irony’.
Market-driven alienation and class division is being endorsed and pandered to by the teenage public schoolboys at BBC.

Comments on this entry are closed.