In which I write to the english voter, lovingly praised by sundry Labour MPs, Gurified peers, left wing journalists and others, who argue that liberal (or worse, neo-liberal) elitists don’t understand the true soul of England, or have betrayed the interests of the English working class, in favour of deracinated cosmopolitan elitism and so forth:
Over the next few weeks, you’ll be hearing a lot from my friends on the left who think you’ve been ignored.
They say we need to recognise your concerns, and acknowledge the legitimacy of what you’re worried about, and make sure we raise up some unsullied representatives of the English working classes to high office in order to give voice to your needs and wants and desires.
Well, sure, yes. In theory. But not in practise. You see, the reason that the established political parties don’t tend to implement what they imagine to be the authentic views of the English working class is because they also imagine said authentic working class political demands to be pretty much total bollocks.
What do they think you want? Politically, the agenda can be summarised like this: An end to immigration totally, or as near as dammit. To remove Britain from the European Union. To crack down on scroungers, and cheats, and unending praise for the english worker whose word is his bond, does a fair days work and expects only a fair days pay.
To which I say this. If they’re right, and the soul of Englishness is like this, we have a problem, because that agenda is self-destructive. No amount of middle class cultural cringe, no apologia from elitists for their desire for coffee served with frothed milk will alter the basic problem that this agenda either won’t work, or will cause active harm.
Want to leave the EU, end immigration, and cut the welfare budget by half? Well, then the people who will suffer will be.. the English working class, who rely on foreign investment for jobs, get most working age benefits, and who rely more than anyone else on disability and state pensions.
End immigration, or cut it to purely high skilled workers? Well, the only way we could do that is by leaving the EU. Right now, our immigration issue isn’t one of asylum seekers or economic migrants from developing countries. It’s workers from other EU states. Cut them off, and they would cut us off. Would that be a problem? Yes, because we need businesses to invest in the UK, and we need to access the EU market to do that.
But let’s say the Anti-Europeans are right, and there would be no immediate economic cost to leaving the EU. Even if Nigel Farage negotiated the most incredible deal, and we could ban all EU migrants and still get free trade, it’d still be a terrible idea.
Why? Because those young Poles who work hard here aren’t going to go away if we don’t let them in.
They’ll just be working hard in Poland, or Germany, or France, or Holland. They’ll be making those economies stronger, paying taxes there, making businesses invest there. Sure, we’d be cohesive. But we’d be cohesively heading for the scrapheap.
The good jobs are going to go to the well-educated, the literate, the mobile, the skilled and adaptable, wherever they are. With them will go the good housing, the good schools, and the chance for future growth.
That’s where success will be. That’s how we’ll make life better.
If we’ve failed the English working class, it’s by the patronising attitude that they can’t or don’t seek these essential qualities, or that attaining them is somehow un-English or inauthentic.
You hear this in the political slogans that imply that all you want to do is ‘work hard and play by the rules’.
Stuff that. If we want to prosper, just working hard isn’t going to do it. We have to be smart, and get our kids to be smarter too. Government can help with that, but it can’t wish away the need for it to happen.
If you’re concerned about immigration, you’re not bigots, and you’re not racists, but your children with have to compete with bright young kids from all over the world whatever governments do with borders.No-one can stop that, not a latte-sipping elitist or a beer swilling populist (Not craft beer, though. and it’s fine to like instant coffee in a mug. The iconography of class is complicated)
Want it in slogan form? Instead of trying to hide our children behind a wall, we have to build a platform for them to stand out. That’s harder in the short-term, but the only answer in the long terms
Some of my leftish friends don’t think you really want to stop immigration, or at least they don’t think it’s the wellspring of your discontent. They see these political demands as an expression of a sort of cultural neglect.
You want us to recognise the importance of ‘identity’ and ‘community’. Translated from pompous, this ends up meaning one of two things. Socially, it leads to a desire to wrap the country in an infinite Diamond Jubilee, with compulsory Morris Dancing and Union Jack tea towels.
You know what we do when we want to appeal to ‘England’, to show how in touch we are with the spirit of Englishness? We organise a fete, and invite the cameras to record politicians in some suburban street, feigning enthusiasm for coronation chicken. The good politicians feign with shameless alacrity, the bad ones with a hunted, fearful look. The latter are at least honest.
Alternatively, it means giving more powers to local bodies to decide things. Said local bodies being more in touch and somehow authentic. But don’t get too excited, because if you want to, say, deny all local hospital and schools services to immigrants, that wouldn’t be allowed.
This analysis, I think, relies on a fundamental oddness. It creates a definition of authentic Englishness that is deeply fearful, and can’t be given its head because it’s outcrops are wrong and dangerous, but also demands cultural obeisance from the guilty privileged elite.
This defines a defensive, pessimistic and insecure social class, and then attempts to assuage it by bunting, English lessons, talk of our finest hour and endless meetings in parish halls. It ends up being the same thing, hammy praise to a fake Englishness, all chips and pearly queens and bullshit.
I think my friends are patronising the hell out of you. No created cultural identity will protect you. No local devolution will make your voice only a very little louder, mostly because most people barely bother to speak now. Yes, Immigrants can be taught English, but almost all of them want to anyway, precisely because that’s the way to succeed. The ones who don’t who can’t are the elderly and the home-based. They’re not your competition.
There’s one last component to how we’ll patronise you. We’ll tell you that not enough of the working class are insufficiently represented in our elites. That’s right.
But we’ll propose, instead of equipping more working class people with the tools to succeed, a sort of pickled industrial working class authenticity, where only if your grandparents were miners, or you left school as soon as you could, or you retain your accent, do you qualify as a true voice of the people, and a number of these should be given prominence in our national debate. Not enough to win a victory, of course, but enough to be placated on a narrow point, a sort of informal Miner’s bench in the House of Lords.
Naturally, the people writing this stuff don’t tend to desire such dead-end authenticity themselves. They make sure their kids get a good education, and they push like hell to get them into university and the professions, because they know that’s the ticket to success. They write for newspapers with their own coffee shops, and they support leaders whose idea of career development is a year at the Kennedy school of Government.
Look at our politicians and polemicists. Can you imagine any of them being delighted if their kids left school as soon as they could? Can you imagine them advising a daughter of a friend to stay in the same town for their entire career? I want a society where every child gets the chances of a Toynbee, or a Miliband, or a Cameron, or a Johnson, or a Dromey, or a Benn.
The tragedy of the last half-century is that we paid so little respect to our citizens that we dared not be honest to them about what the decline of the industrial society meant for being working class.
We’ve offered to worship at the altar of a declining industrial working-classishness, instead of devoting enough resources, money and effort to giving our citizens the skills needed to succeed in a post-manual labour world even our elites are a little afraid of.
The problem is not that there are too many latte-sipping elitists, but too few, and those there are so nervous and guilty about defending their gains they have little interest in sharing the spoils of what is, basically the ticket to a better, easier, less laborious and drudge-filled life.
I want to end this.
I’m a social democrat. I believe in the ability of every citizen. I’m also a realist. I don’t believe that the state can protect you from everything bad and unknown and risky about a changing world. But I do believe we can prepare your children better than we have.
If you want an apology it should be for our failure to do that.
I’m sorry, not for immigration, but that we didn’t make British emigrants feared in Europe for their skills and inventiveness.
I’m sorry, not that Romanians are taking fruit picking jobs, but that any British citizens should want such jobs.
I’m sorry, not for not listening to ‘England’ but for pickling England in brine.
I’m sorry, not because there aren’t enough working class voices in parliament, but that we’ve not given enough working class children the chance to decide for themselves what a modern working class voice should sound like.
We can change that. But not by telling you that you don’t have to adapt to a changing world. We all will.
Today’s metropolitan elitists are the ones who got the chance to adapt most easily.
That’s what’s unfair. That’s what’s wrong.