17 February 2006
Some thoughts on the British working class.
I was chatting to a friend from back home the other day and the conversation turned, as it always does, to the disaster that was the 1980s. My friend asked me if I could think of anything positive that came out of that bewildering, devastating decade. I replied that it was one retreat after another, but now I think I can see one cack-handed gain that we made. It's strange how these things don't seem so obvious until long after the event.
When I was a young man in the 1970s one of the things that truly got on my nerves was the division between skilled and unskilled men. I have commented on this before, in one of my digs at the lad, Eric, but let me return to it again.
I was a cinema projectionist in those days. I can remember meeting people who, after asking what I did for a living, would then demand, always in plonking tones: "Is that a skilled job, or what?"
Now, I did not have an answer to that, and I still don't. The answer I always gave was "who cares?" The problem was that they clearly did. To them the divide was not between labour and capital, it was within the working class. Their enemy was less the employer and more the unkilled and semi-skilled who might encroach upon their position as members of the Aristocracy of Labour. Half the strikes in those days seemed to involve demarkation disputes, as skilled workers demanded that a clear line be kept between them and the general workers below them.
Of course, any sucessful strike weakens the power of the management, but it was still a matter of gritting my teeth and wracking my brains to say something that was positive about gits like this. Especially since I knew that so many of them voted Tory. In fact, so many of them were actually card-carrying members of that party that I sometimes used to role my eyes in despair.
Now, I have to pause here for a moment, because it needs to be stressed that these gits were not really working-class Tories. My father was - I used to tease him that he was the only member of the 8th Army to vote for Churchill in 1945. However, my father was also a committed member of the T&GWU who always went to his union meetings and always stood on the picket line when a strike was called. His objections were to the chargehands and foremen at the factory where he worked as a labourer: he regarded them as "jumped-up buggers who become like Hitler when you give 'em a white coat to wear".
Now, the reader should not think that working-class people like my father did not believe in more holidays, higher pay and strong health and safety measures, because the did - they were trades' unionists, after all. However they also tended to believe in a kind of natural order to society. Men like my father may have known their place, but they expected the rest of society to respect the place where they stood. According to him, the senior management, former army officers to a man, did just that.
I do not accept my father's views, but I do accept their legitimacy as part of a strand of British working class ideology. However, those views are far, far removed from the attitudes of the gits mentioned above. Those tossers were not in the labour movement because they wanted to be there: they were in it because they wanted to use their muscle to keep a clear line between themselves and the rest. In my mother words, they were nothing more than "folk who've got a class above themselves and who think they are summat, but they are nowt a pound".
1983 was a watermark election because in that year the Aristocracy of Labour went over to the Tories in vast numbers. At the same time, both my parents voted Labour for the first time in their lives. They knew that it was a fight between classes and that the battle lines had been drawn. Within a few short years, many members of that old Aristocracy had found that their factories had closed and they looked ahead to years on the dole. It was the end of British gittery and a good thing too. Some have no doubt managed to arse-lick their way into well paying , non-union jobs. The rest have been thorougly proletarianised by the experience.
Visiting the UK these days I see that the old division within the working class no longer exists. Travelling around Manchester, in the districts of Ancoats, Miles Platting and Newton Heath, I don't hear those old idiotic questions being asked. The division now is as it should always have been: between the employer and the cockroaches who support him, and the rest of us.
The bad news is that the British working class is without any organisation, but at least it is far more homogenous in its views than it was thirty years ago. Thanks to dear Margaret Hilda Thatcher the divisions within our ranks are a thing of the past.