Monday, July 16, 2007

The Changing Face of the Working Class

Every journalist, celebrity and politician worth their salt claims to be of working class origins. In fact there are more claims from this lot to have started life in the bosom of a decent but poor working class family than there are poor, decent working class families. It is now very fashionable and trendy to originate from such stock as it demonstrates one possesses a certain moral fibre and intellect.

Two years ago, Michael Collins wrote a book called 'The Likes of Us', which asked the question,

'Why have the white working class gone from being the salt of the earth to the scum of the earth'?

Matthew Parris writing in the Spectator provides an answer with a must-read article.

Parris starts by describing a visit made by Radio 4 presenter, John Humphrys, to his old neighbourhood in Cardiff.

'Humphrys reflected sadly on the contrast between the lack of self-respect and mutual respect, and of ambition, he encountered this time, and the proud and self-reliant working-class society he remembered from his youth.'

Like Collins, Parris ponders why this should be so.

'And I wonder too whether, perverse as this may sound, the plight of the poorest in modern Britain is a result of, rather than a reproach to, social mobility.'

In other words, in a truly meritocratic society (which all political parties support - in Australia and in the UK), those with get-up-and-go, do just that, and those lacking drive, ambition or wit remain behind in 'sink estates and social housing - concentrated pockets of deprivation.'

Importantly, Parris highlights that the make-up of the classes is vastly different today than in the post-War years,

'Plenty of people in the working class were cleverer and more capable than plenty in the middle or upper classes, and knew it. Your class-affiliation was not a grading of calibre, character or talent. The existence of social barriers (though permeable) to upward mobility sharpened self-definition and a sense of belonging and shared responsibility.

The same, incidentally, could also be said of the upper classes, where even the dimmest and most useless were found a place.....They were not allowed to sink to their natural level, which might have been under the arches at Charing's underclass are neither the equivalent of nor the successors to the old British working class.'

The more encouraging news, though, is that the numbers of this 'underclass' (welfare dependents, the long-term sick, career criminals and drug addicts) are much smaller than those of the traditional working class - perhaps just 5% of the population.