A reader sends in this op-ed from a teacher, writing in The Guardian about the death of white working-class culture for British kids. The author, a white man, was raised working class, and focuses on a new think tank report showing that white working-class youth are at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to educational achievement. The writer blames Thatcherism for breaking the unions in the 1980s. Excerpts:
It is simply that a specific part of their [white working class] culture has been destroyed. A culture based on work, rising wages, strict unspoken rules against disorder, obligatory collaboration and mutual aid. It all had to go, and the means of destroying it was the long-term unemployment millions of people had to suffer in the 1980s.
Thatcherite culture celebrated the chancers and the semi-crooks: people who had been shunned in the solidaristic working-class towns became the economic heroes of the new model – the security-firm operators, the contract-cleaning slave drivers; the outright hoodlums operating in plain sight as the cops concentrated on breaking strikes.
We thought we could ride the punches. But the great discovery of the modern right was that you only have to do this once. Suppress paternalism and solidarity for one generation and you create multigenerational ignorance and poverty. Convert Labour to the idea that wealth will trickle down, and to attacks on the undeserving poor, and you remove the means even to acknowledge the problem, let alone solve it.
Thatcherism didn’t just crush unions: alone that would not have been enough to produce this spectacular mismatch between aspiration and delivery in the education system. It crushed a story.
And what the most successful Chinese, Indian and white Irish children probably have – although you would need more research than offered here to give this assertion rigour – is a clear and compelling story.
In my first week at university, myself and a few other working-class kids on our course were quizzed by our middle-class peers: “You must be exceptionally bright to get here, against these odds,” was the theme. We were incredulous. We had been headed for university since we picked up Ladybird books. Without solidarity and knowledge, we are just scum, is the lesson trade unionism and social democracy taught the working-class kids of the 1960s; and Methodism and Catholicism taught the same.
To put right the injustice revealed by the CentreForum report requires us to put aside racist fantasies about “preferential treatment” for ethnic minorities; if their kids are preferentially treated, it is by their parents and their communities – who arm them with narratives and skills for overcoming economic disadvantage.
If these metrics are right, the present school system is failing to boost social mobility among white working-class kids. But educational reforms alone will barely scratch the surface. We have to find a form of economics that – without nostalgia or racism – allows the working population to define, once again, its own values, its own aspirations, its own story.
I am not in a position to comment knowledgeably on the writer’s pinning this on Thatcherism. The trade unions had brought Britain to an economic standstill by the late 1970s, and that’s the kind of thing Thatcher was elected to stop. I find it hard to believe that all would be well if Britain had been governed by Old Labour instead of the Tories during the 1980s, or New Labour in the 1990s. But I’m willing to hear that case.
That said, just as in this country the Trump campaign has forced many of us to reconsider the destructive social effects of free trade deals — so popular with Republicans and Clinton Democrats — on the white working class in the US, it’s worth considering the social effect of neoliberal economics on the British white working class. Whatever the validity of this left-wing author’s take on Thatcherism, I’m less interested in that than in his contention that the white working class lost a narrative that gave them pride and helped them make sense of their lives in a constructive way. Economic liberals tend to say that there’s nothing wrong with the working class (of whatever race) that high-paying jobs wouldn’t fix. Maybe. But how do you give a “tribe” back its story, its myth?
You know what this sounds like? Native Americans, their worldview shattered by being conquered by alien Euro-American culture, sinking into chronic despair.
(Readers, please be patient with my approving comments today. I’m traveling to the Canadian Rockies to hang out with Lutheran pastors for the week, and talk Benedict Option.)