Mind the Gap
The New Class Divide in Britain
Retail Price (Softback): 8.99
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First Published: 2010
http://www.waterstones.com/waterstonesweb/displayProductDetailsZoom.do?sku=3660747', 'ProductZoom', 400, 425);"" target="_blank">Ken Giles writes:
Closing the gap - how to mend a 'broken society'?
Have you wondered where David Cameron, leader of the UK Conservative Party, might be coming from with his 'Big Society' idea - one of his main thrusts in the current UK parliamentary election campaign? Well, the chances are he's read 'Mind the Gap', authored by his titled relative, Ferdinand Mount, who also authored Margaret Thatcher's 1983 manifesto. (If you wish to trace the familial links, then a question to 'Ask Jeeves' will give you this information.) That said, according to a recent newspaper article, it would seem that another member of the Cameron team is credited with the policy. Did he too read this book?
All the more surprising then given Mount's upper class background that his 'polemical essay' about the British (English?) obsession with the taboo subject of social class should be a defence of the 'Downers', as he terms the present lower class; and a by no means friendly scrutiny of the attitudes of the 'Uppers' towards the 'Downers' during the 19th and 20th centuries. It's not original research, being largely dependent on secondary sources, among them the broadsheets, and personal insight; but it's no worse for that, given his intention and obvious passion to uncover the question of class and its effects - 'Britain's dirty little secret' (p119).
He begins by addressing the belief that social class no longer counts nowadays. Indeed, it's obvious that long gone are the nineteenth century 'Punch' cartoons, viciously lampooning servants and the poor/working class. We can hardly imagine applying the epithet 'temporary gentlemen' to rankers promoted to officers during the First World War - they died just as quickly as the public schoolboys who were automatically officers and gentlemen. Accent no longer erects formidable class barriers or determines life chances and we tend to dress more similarly, including the tie-less shirt. ll such class markers have not totally disappeared, in Mounts' words, '[They] have become taboo' (p36). That said, chapter II is a field guide for the uninitiated to Upper-Downer spotting in modern Britain.
Nonetheless, social class has recently risen up the national agenda. Cameron's social origins and those of his shadow cabinet are an issue. At the other end of the scale, the popular press constantly remind us about feral youth , teenage pregnancy, NEETs (not in education, employment or training) and other failings of what has become known as the 'underclass' . And then there's Cameron's 'broken Britain' and anguished debates about the stalling of social mobility, the chasm between rich and poor, whether it's getting worse and what should be done about it. Indeed, class divisions seem to be deepening on that reckoning. And along with the malign effects of economic change has come a lack of respect and dignity.
Mount notes that economic equality ceased to be a prime objective after 1980. As for the goal since World War II of equality of opportunity - a chance to get on and careers open to talent - that too seems to have foundered; thus '...school inequalities have remained remarkably stable...over 40 years' (P63) (quoting Halsey, Heath and Ridge (1980)). According to Mount, not much has changed since that date: social class, aided by the 'postcode' lottery', still determines educational success; school leavers from unskilled backgrounds are five times less likely to enter Higher Education than those from a professional background.
According to Mount, housing inequalities are worse today than 50 years ago as geographical and social polarisation has hardened. Yet such separate lives - the flight to the suburbs and the gated community are symptomatic - come at a cost to the Uppers since they lead to one fear in their otherwise pleasant existence - the Downers, whom they rarely meet. But ironically, it's the latter who are twice losers, as they are the ones most likely to be the victims of crime - and that at a time when overall crime is actually going down! Such distorted views of the Downers is amplified, according to Mount, by their portrayal in the so-called 'gritty realism' and 'bleak emotional landscape' (p106) of the soap operas. They are painted as ill-tempered, bad -mannered, miserable, whingeing and defeated.
In chapter IV and V , drawing on the likes of Disraeli, Marx, Bagehot, Salisbury and Trevelyan, Mount recounts the 'invention of the masses' and the historical approach to class that saw the 'making of the working class' and the supposed division of society into two opposing classes - bourgeoisie and proletariat - as a product of industrialisation. And writers such as Virginia Woolf, EM Forster, TS Eliot and George Gissing exemplify the fear and loathing engendered by the masses in the early 20th century. The remedy for this helpless, demoralised yet terrifying force (otherwise, the poor), could only come from state intervention. Things had to be done to and for them.
In contra-distinction, Mount details the 'hidden civilisation' of the working classes and refutes the calumnies under which they suffered. They did get married; they had low illegitimacy rates; they set up their own non-conformist churches and chapels; and provided their own schooling (and literacy rates were high even before Forster's 1870 Education Act). He instances the mechanics' institutes, the Sunday schools, the mutual improvement societies, the voluntary schools, the friendly societies and the trade unions as evidence of self-help and lack of passivity. Indeed, Mount in unequivocal: 'It is not too much to say that the lower classes in Britain between 1800 and 1940 had created a remarkable civilisation of their own which it was hard to parallel in human history' (p212).
Alas, it's all downhill from there onwards: the destruction of such working-class institutions, the attacks and sneering of the likes of Mathew Arnold in 'Culture and Anarchy' and the effects (albeit sometimes unintended) of state intervention. In the case of schooling, working class provision could not compete against the subsidised state-sponsored 1870 Board Schools and withered away. The end result of such destructive forces was the 'the erosion of lower class cultural independence' (p232) at the hands of the State (both left and right) and the rise of dependency. Mount particularly instances the spectacular growth of public housing and the creation of one-class estates on the fringes of conurbations, built without consultation with those who would live in them. And the 'housing list' encourages a stay-put attitude and discourages mobility. Mount holds both major political parties guilty of undue state intervention - both the left and the right. He ends this section with a ringing plea: 'Powers of choice and decision-making have been systematically removed from the poor over the past century and must be given back to them' (p238).
According to Mount, the dumbing down of the mass media has had a malign, infantilising effect on working class culture, as has, he believes, the sneering of the intelligentsia at patriotism and the monarchy. Whereas one can readily accept the case against the mass media, the latter two seem somewhat unrealistic targets. The strident nationalism of the popular press must more than cancel out any case against media that the lower class are likely to consider outside their purview; and similarly with anti-monarchical sentiments, republicanism anyway being a long-standing vein of popular discourse from the likes of the Levellers and Thomas Paine onwards.
The malign effect of the decline of the institution of marriage is a major theme in Cameron's campaigning. Mount has much to say about the change and the need for remediation (pp. 264-271 and 317-319). 'Never have people at the bottom put more into family life, and sadly never has it been more difficult to maintain that family life intact...' (p265) Modern marriage he sees as impermanent, insecure and provisional - part of a zeitgeist of personal fulfilment, but also the result of easier divorce and the removal of incentives such as tax advantages. But the willingness of the State to pick up the pieces has proved a further disincentive. Then there's the malign effect of a changing economy: the 'indifference of capitalism' in the drive for flexibility and the resulting deskilling and impermanence of employment means that 'Male pride and sense of usefulness diminishes accordingly' (p252), particularly with the demise of heavy industry. '... [T]he disappearance of any serious role for young lower-class men has had catastrophic results, which are easily measured in the statistics for drug abuse and civil disorder' (p271). Indeed, one cannot help but agree that the decision of young women with limited life chances to become single mothers reflects a need for something positive in their lives, the men in their lives having little to offer.
The foregoing indicates that Mount is well aware of economic effects on the lives of the poorer class (Chapter VIII). 'The shortage of cash permeates the lives of the poor, shrivels their expectations and cripples their spirit' (p272). In spite of a general rise in living standards since the 1970s, relative poverty has increased and the statutory minimum wage has not kept pace, and neither has the tax threshold - both of which Mount would remedy. Indeed, he would have the tax threshold return to pre-war levels where such tax was paid only by the middle and upper classes. However, for Mount, much worse is cultural impoverishment leading to social breakdown and surly demoralisation - a socio-cultural problem rather than primarily an economic one. Managing the lower classes has become an issue requiring a whole army of officials and providers of services over which the Downers have no control. The overall cultural impoverishment is the end product of 'a sustained programme of social contempt and institutional erosion which has persisted through many different governments and several political fashions' (p287).
Mount now begins to pull together the threads of his argument, contrasting a helpless 'proletariat' lacking empowerment, whose aspirations can only be realised through the State, to his goal of a sturdy self-reliant citizenry. The remedy for what he sees as half a century of failure: 'Only a wholehearted, even reckless opening up of genuine, substantial power to the bottom classes is likely to improve either their self-esteem or the view which the managing classes take of them - which is what makes the managing classes so reluctant to effect any such transfer' (p297). As his is, in his own word, a 'polemical essay', he intends '... to throw out a wild scatter of ideas, many of which readers will find either absurd or repellent' (p298). His solution is to 'unlock and allot' as opposed to 'allocate and allow' and 'de-massify the masses' in order to restore self-confidence and a sense of responsibility. Thus there would be vouchers for health and education, wide land ownership to unlock frozen landscapes, the encouragements of co-operatives like the John Lewis Partnership and Mondragon in Spain, stakeholding in companies, local police control as in the USA, an increased role for the churches in welfare, an encouragement of marriage and a common national conversation to boost allegiance and patriotism.
I suspect few would argue with the major thrust of Mount's thesis that, to coin a phrase, we can't go on like this - something needs to be done.
Whether that something would echo the suggestions in the above paragraph will be for the reader to judge. Obvious questions arising are: What's in it for the Uppers? Will the upshot be a diminished State role but eventually at the expense of the Downers? Will localism open the way to those with sharp elbows who shout the loudest? And will the politicians be able to stand back and let go if the outcomes are not what they would wish (and that the Treasury will allow)? Finally, what might be the effect of continuing economic change on the life chances of the poor? Think of the need for up-skilling, the increased role for the knowledge economy and so on, all of which is likely to see a diminution of the need for unskilled and semi-skilled labour. That said, I think Mount has written a timely book that is thought-provoking in the best sense of the word. Read it and stimulate your thinking about a problem which politicians of all stripes and indeed ordinary citizens need urgently to address.