‘The Age of Indifference’
The English working class is dead – its traditions and values have been replaced by sentimentality and the false promises of celebrity and credit cards. It’s time the people rediscovered their collective power and sense of pride, argues Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagan.
In the summer of 1976, something happened in our house that challenged my notion of international relations. The English came to stay. Ours wasn’t the kind of house where people came to stay: it was a council house 25 miles from Glasgow full to the brim with noisy boys, unhappy dogs, phantom parents and football gloves. But my father had met this man on a building site in Coventry and rashly – or, one might say, merrily – asked him and his family to come and stay in what he called then, and still calls now, Bonnie Scotland.
The discussions and tears before the visit went on for weeks: my mother immediately christened them “the English” and threatened to go on strike. I remember her saying she hadn’t a clue what to feed the English and where would the English sleep? Did they have cornflakes or porridge for breakfast or did they expect a banquet from Harrods?
I’d like to be able to tell you that when the English turned up – all five of them, tumbling out of a hippy caravanette – everything went well and peace and understanding broke out in the land of Robert Burns. But it didn’t. The English colonised the house exactly as my mother predicted. The kids jumped on the beds and laughed at the three-bar fire. The English daddy never stopped talking in his big English accent and the mammy went straight upstairs for a bath and started smoking in the bathroom. I knew the English were different because the children were doing handstands in the hall up against my mother’s woodchip. My three brothers and I sat silent on a green sofa. My father read the Daily Record. My mother was in the kitchen with smelling salts, and one of the English children sang a rude song that included the word “bastard”.
“Are they Protestants?” I asked my mother.
“Aye, they are,” she said. “And worse!”
Long after the English had gone south, for years actually, my family discussed the horror of that summer invasion, but I found myself wondering about them. Who were these exotic beasts, the English? They seemed to be individualists – at any rate, they weren’t a family in the same way we were. Maybe I was secretly quite pleased that they had muddied my mother’s Anaglypta. Maybe I reckoned they were freer than us. But my first experience of the English left me with the beginnings of a theory – that whereas the Scots and Irish were a people, a definite community, innately together and full of songs and speeches about ourselves, the English were something else: a riot of individualism with no real sense of common purpose and no collective volition as a tribe.
The following summer, the Queen’s silver jubilee brought bunting and arguments to our street. Allegiance wasn’t much of an option round our way, though the Orangemen of the town wouldn’t have agreed, and soon another antithesis floated over the airwaves in the shape of the Sex Pistols, whom my brothers loved to death for singing “God save the Queen / She ain’t no human being”. We went through the motions with the ice cream and jelly on Jubilee Day, but everybody I knew thought the Queen was an English joke. The Sex Pistols sounded more like it, an altogether different kind of Englishness.
There was, and is, an English arrogance which resides in the view that they are naturally dominant within the British Isles. This notion was virulent in 18th-century Britain, when the Scots and the Irish were lampooned in the journals and pictorials of the day. The British Museum holds a great and hot-making archive of English caricatures that show the Scots and the Irish as drunken, hopeless, arse-kissing louts. Dr Johnson baited his friend James Boswell along similar lines, and the Scots got their own back in ways briskly intellectual and industrial. Yet the resentment lasted. My grandparents would bristle at the idea of any supposed English superiority – I remember reading a line of Milton’s, “Let not England forget her precedence of teaching nations how to live”, finding it intolerable and wondering whether or not reading it aloud would give my granny a heart attack.
What drove my forebears to drink wasn’t Dr Johnson, but the Edwardian imperial snobbery of the English that hurt the Irish and undervalued the Scots contribution to the making of the United Kingdom. My people weren’t nationalists, they were socialists, and they disliked the English habit of superiority in what they otherwise considered to be a perfectly sensible union.
The historian Perry Anderson has drawn attention to the “lasting imprint of imperialism on English life, of how deeply acclimatised English culture became to the ambience of empire”. It is an ambience that made a curiously small imprint on modern Scotland, despite the Scots’ energetic cooperation and sometimes aggressive lead in foreign adventures. The Scottish nationalists of today are able to exploit a ridiculous pretension: that their country is an occupied territory, occupied by a devilish England bent on colonisation. Anyone who knows anything about tobacco and cotton will need no convincing about Scotland’s part in exploiting the empire, but England carries the can, and the English seem perfectly willing to do so.
In the winter of 1941, while bombers sped through the dark overhead, George Orwell explored the strange compendium of strictness and laxity that goes towards making up the English character. His essay “England Your England” summons a nation on the brink of its own destruction. Orwell’s England was a place of passionate moralists and inveterate gamblers. The English were a practical people with no worldview: a more or less temperate collection of Blimps and hypocrites, foul speakers and pointless intellectuals, horny-handed sons of toil and blind lovers of legality. He showed a nation of people with no artistic temper and bad teeth; he spoke of an upper class that would easily opt for fascism. He wrote of the clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns and queues outside the Labour Exchanges. It was a world of graded snobberies, each to his own, but where a certain unmistakable gentleness infused the day.
As we have seen in the banking crisis, the English people call for sedation not sedition, and the spirit of the post-empire age has long been one of declinism. The English people today are addicted to the rhythms of their own industrial and imperial valediction: they like saying goodbye to the past, and saying goodbye to the past is the single biggest thing they can’t say goodbye to.
Events in America show the extent to which democracy there is fuelled by populism – Barack Obama’s victory is a manifestation not of Washington’s need for change, but of America’s. That is not how democracy works in England. A good nationalism has to depend on a principle of the common people, on myths of a struggling commonality. It is strange that Scottish nationalism and Irish nationalism and Welsh nationalism – for all their faults – are still seen by a great many as healthy, colourful movements, while English nationalism continues to make people think of football hooligans, Enoch Powell, Oswald Mosley and the BNP. Why?
In The Break-up of Britain (1977, revised 1982), Tom Nairn wrote of a “profound, ambient conservatism which has marked the structure of English society for several centuries”. We see it at work every day in England. And we’ve seen it on the face of every British government since 1951. The Gordon Brown who wrote a biography of the Scottish socialist politician James Maxton would not be electable as British prime minister. He has transformed himself, like Blair, into a simulacrum of Margaret Thatcher. There are individuals in Brown’s cabinet who have long hated the war in Iraq and who privately deplored the abolition of the 10p tax rate, but who stayed silent to save their jobs. Again and again they did it, and they are doing something similar now – everybody knows it. The present government seems unlikely to produce even a token dissident in the mould of Michael Heseltine, Ian Gilmour or Geoffrey Howe.
There is an aversion in England to organised or even personal resistance, a frightening bend towards compromise. There have always been good causes worth fighting for, but seldom, in the modern era, has there been the common volition to fight for them. Perhaps that is why we love the memory of the world wars so much: they are a national heritage exhibition of our least likely selves, a testament to our nature as it might have been. The old wars show us what it was like to be a people willing to resist a vast encroaching power. It is not a posture that comes naturally to the English. Usually, the ordinary people of England only have one word to say to authority, and that word is “yes”. Orwell would not be surprised to see such forces at work over the English, but he might be shocked to see the extent to which the English themselves lacked, as time went on, all political resolve to change it. The populist mode in England is silent paralysis. No to change.
How did this vast and overwhelming numbness of England’s working class come about? Thatcher is said to have been genuinely shocked by the ease with which England rolled over when she entered with her rapier drawn. Most people were willing to see their society lose its unions and its nationalised industries – even its status as a society – without a blink. (Those who fought were often described in the press of the day as outsiders, mindless thugs, totally un-English.) But Thatcher shouldn’t have been surprised at the ease of her revolution: the English working class had been docile and careless for years. People on the left don’t like to say so because in Britain it feels counterintuitive to criticise the working class, but I strongly believe Orwell would have done so. He would have rolled into the towns of England on a Saturday night to examine why the people were so quiescent, so demoralised, so drunk, so fearful of outsiders, so drawn to fantasy and spite and so lacking in purpose as a social group. He would have asked those questions and would have found a way to publish his responses, seeing how the question of the English working class and their culture needs to be at the centre of any notion of a better future in Britain.
By the late 1990s, the working class were no longer a working class – their traditions, habits, jobs, even in some places their speech, were given over to new forms of transcendence offered by celebrity culture and credit cards and the bogus life of the fantasy rich. Woolworth’s was on its way to closing down for ever, as finally it did this week. Depression among the children of the poor, many of them third-generation unemployed, was recorded the other day as being the worst in Europe. And yet, weren’t their lives supposed to be better? Whatever else the credit crunch has done, and there will be many evils to follow, it has brought a generation up against the limits of its own fantasies. The leisured poor were Blair’s gift to Britain, people who craved not values but designer labels and satellite dishes. It gives no one joy to observe that the English underclass, as it has increasingly been called, is now the most conservative force in Britain, in some quarters fascistic, hopped up on vengeance, tabloids, alcopops and sentiment. Those English today are a people as far from the clattering clog-wearers of Orwell’s Lancashire mill towns as it is possible to get without taking a plane to Detroit. And it’s not just Thatcher’s fault: a supreme shock came over the left when the dockers came out marching in 1968 to support their injured warrior, Enoch Powell. What is the anger that lies dormant under so much reputed English decency? If you ask that of the average English person they are likely to lose their temper and remind you of everything England has achieved in the world.
In Mind the Gap (2004), Ferdinand Mount provided a surprising account of the situation of the English working class, coming as it did from the centre right. He wrote that the so-called underclass seem “to me impoverished not simply in relation to the better-off in Britain today but in relation to their own parents and grandparents. And the upper class are uncomfortably aware of it, which is why they show so little respect and affection for the lower classes.” He attacks the notion that England has been progressively (or assertively, as John Major had it) becoming a more classless society. The English working class is, he wrote, “uniquely disinherited, and the most important ways in which it is disinherited are the more crippling because they are largely hidden from us”.
I have spent a dozen or more years, when writing journalism or researching novels, in and out of Britain’s proletarian nooks and crannies, writing from what I believed was the centre of a strange breakdown in the will to common power among what I still think of as my own people. It didn’t always look like a breakdown. It more often looked like an assertion of shared values. But when you really looked at the values being expressed you saw that they were based either on spite or on a desperate, free-floating anger masquerading as moral outrage. I first saw this outside the courthouse at the trial of the youngsters who had killed the Liverpool toddler James Bulger. I saw it again among the mobs who scoured the housing estates of Manchester looking for dodgy priests. I saw it in the fields of Cumberland during the foot-and-mouth outbreak, when farmers were slaughtering their livestock because they couldn’t afford the fuel to take them to the market. It was there in the Mall during the funeral of Diana Spencer – not community, but a dismayed reverse of community, where people seemed able to experience fellow-feeling only in a hyped-up circumstance of disorientation. On each of these occasions, the people spoke in the shrugging, accepting tones of pessimism – of something lost, of a way of life being over, spoken with none of the particularly English sense of pride and worth that was said to be in boom in the years of austerity. Was it not an overweening sense of a decline in Britain’s powers of moral leadership that led to Tony Blair joining George W Bush in Iraq?
William Cobbett felt that men who lost touch with the old, pre-industrial customs also lost touch with themselves. In the 19th century English workers showed at least some resistance – this is the story of the friendly societies, and after them the trade unions, which brought with them the notion of “the social man”, an idea of community and society that is often laughed at today by people under 25. There would scarcely be any point to class organisation in the minds of today’s young men – they don’t believe in collective experience outside of leisure, that’s to say they don’t believe in it outside of sport or text voting. But if you were feeling historical you could show them EP Thompson’s account of country fairs and working habits in The Making of the English Working Class, of rhythms and seasons and ownership and self-worth. It is this collective self-consciousness, Thompson wrote, “with its corresponding theory, institutions, discipline, and community values which distinguishes the 19th-century working class”. But how do we explain the loss of this urge for self-seeking, for change, which had been a feature of the common English Protestant mind? Of the Levellers, the Ranters, the Diggers? In the face of the deep-seated ennui of the English working class today, one can present the first line of Christopher Hill’s famous book about England in the 17th century, The World Turned Upside Down: “Popular revolt,” he wrote, “was for many centuries an essential feature of the English tradition.”
The English working class – including their new ethnic groups, out of Asia, Africa and eastern Europe – are less conscious of themselves as a political class than at any time since the mid-19th century. Even then, the English were too willing to lie down in the face of exploitation – they lacked the revolutionary urge – but today the tendency has become nearly sociopathic. What of those writers who took an interest in the condition of the English? I could write much more about the influence of Cobbett, the radicalism of Hazlitt, the programme of Robert Owen – these writers were all there, spry with their times, but we see almost nothing of their influence on the English today. Who today is prepared to oppose the exploitative relationships that define their lives? No one. There is no objection. There was no real objection during the premier years of fat cattery, still with us despite the crunch, when bosses were taking salaries 75 times higher than their average employee. The working class of England take their deracination completely for granted. Disenchantment is the happy code that informs every byway of the underclass: service jobs, celebrity dreams, Lotto wins, leisured poverty on pre-crunch credit cards, it’s all there, part of the story of an English people whose grandparents never had it so good. The younger ones laugh in the face of diminishment. Or they turn to drugs. They now speak easily of the decline that they inherited. They say “it’s just life”.
Those grandparents are like my parents: they handed down a legacy of disaffection, a rudderless, almost pious attitude about Them & Us. But in England it was allowed to become a creed among the working class. Richard Hoggart, in The Uses of Literacy, was able to tell us what the English working class were like in the mid-50s. There are 10 notable features: they live in districts such as Hunslet in Leeds or Brightside in Sheffield; they live in back-to-back houses or on the new estates; they earn a wage, not a salary, of about £9 a week; they were educated at a secondary modern; they speak with an accent; “There is the cracked but warm-hearted voice, slightly spitting through all-too-regular false teeth, of some women in their 40s”; they have their heart in the right place; you can tell them by their clothes; they like to pay out money in small monthly instalments; they go on the “panel” at the local GPs (ie they take sick leave).
Hoggart’s book is fascinating reading today, in the age of Sky Plus and Nokia for kids, and you get a lot just by reading the chapter headings: “There’s No Place Like Home”, “The Neighbourhood”, “Self Respect”, “Putting Up With Things”, “The Immediate, the Present, the Cheerful” and “Indifferentism”. The last is the point so far as I’m concerned: the English working class are far ahead of every other European lower class in the sheer energy of their indifference. “Most working-class people are not climbing,” writes Hoggart. “They do not quarrel with their general level … the strong sense of the group among working-class people can express itself as a demand for conformity … My contention is that most people [in England] are subjected to a sustained and ever-increasing bombardment of invitations to assume that whatever is, is right, so long as it is widely accepted and can be classed as entertaining.”
The working class of England today have no vision of society beyond the acquisitive – no version of themselves or their habits as anything other than transitional, on their way up or on their way out. The working class, at best, is a waiting room for people who aim to become middle class if possible. As a class in and of itself, it appears to be dead. The aims of society are not part of its ethos any more, the idea is as knackered as the Working Men’s Institutes. If a foreigner asked, what is the moral universe of the English today, to where would you point – the Daily Mail? Jeremy Clarkson? Simon Cowell and the instigators of the bouts of TV gladiatorial combat on a Saturday night, where more young people vote than would ever vote in a general election? Is this the new England?
The hunger for distraction among the English working class is nothing new, but what is new is the need to find a sense of national belonging in that distraction. English national football is famous less for its achievements than for its culture of dislike. The abstraction sits very easily in the English working-class mind: supporting the English team has long since become a synecdoche for patriotic allegiance. Fans are moved to paint their faces red and white not on election day, not even on Armistice Day, but on holiday in Majorca or at international fixtures where 22 men will struggle to score goals. The statistics show that English fans abroad will still turn to violence in this situation faster, and more regularly, than any other football fans in the world.
The English see themselves as being subject to the motions of institutions, but not really party to their evolution. There will always be exceptions, and many very brilliant exceptions, but in general the English live in a miasma of what Isaiah Berlin called “negative liberty”: their collective aim is to be free of interference, not to define the future. “Negative liberty” has become the currency of the dispossessed – “whatever”, say the English today when they’re told something they don’t like, and “whatever” is exactly what they get and what they are ready to accept, so long as everyday life lies undisturbed.
One of the things that fascinated me about England when I was growing up was the way a people who were supposedly so dominant were also so inactive in terms of determining who they were. They were full of “indifferentism” (the term was originally Matthew Arnold’s): tons of sincerity without action. One slant on the English would be to see their dim view of political upheaval as a good thing, a guarantee of the kind of individualism that makes for eccentrics and self-excluders; but silent obedience of the English working-class sort is more often antithetical to eccentricity. It usually comes out as a completely individual conviction that difference is suspect and resistance means trouble. The English don’t say “what can be done?” – they say “what difference does it make?”
When I was a teenager, my sense of the English was deepened – or confirmed, you might say – by watching all those kitchen-sink dramas and films set in the north. Each of them served to underscore both the declinism and the modern sense of political inaction. At the end of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Arthur Seaton throws a stone into the new housing estate and prepares for a life of complete subjugation to all the forces he hates. And in all the others – Billy Liar, This Sporting Life, A Taste of Honey – the main characters either have their freedom snipped or their imaginations curtailed or they run away to London, where inertia at least moves to a musical beat.
During this postwar period, a crude sense of English nationalism prevailed, tied in its new form to racism and xenophobia. In other countries – Scotland, for example – romantic nationalism, despite its many failings and fantasies, did manage to capture the essence of the common people. Robert Burns was in no way a simple nationalist and a wild patriot – he died in the employ of the British Excise – but his work nevertheless captures the essence of Scottish working folk on the brink of the industrial revolution. Wordsworth’s preface to the Lyrical Ballads shows a similar ambition for the English, to embed romantic nationalism in the experience of working life, and to raise a sense of that life’s moral worth in the language and diction of his poems. That impulse in Wordsworth barely survived the French revolution. Perhaps Burns died too early to turn conservative, but Wordsworth lived on, losing faith in romantic nationalism as he’d formerly understood it. He later disavowed his own radicalism while seeming to disavow it for the English people as a whole. “For a multitude of causes,” he wrote, “unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and unfitting it for all voluntary exertion to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor.”
Nicolas Sarkozy, of all people, said recently that he wants to refound capitalism on the basis of ethics and work. Is this not what Barack Obama promises, too, and is it not what Gordon Brown says to himself in the wee hours that exist between his disgruntled political actions? Now that our decline is real, and we are back in recession, will the English working class let go of their long goodbyes and embrace a notion of collective responsibility? It would be an uplifting outcome. Orwell’s view of his England relied on a notion of the innate self-respect of the English working class. He named all the diseases but one, for he believed at base in the transcendent ability of the English to be their gentle selves in the face of adversity. Perhaps he would have been disbelieving to see how the English poor have themselves become conjoined to their own adversity, distanced from their own collective powers and distracted from their best traditions of non-acceptance, dreaming of goods and fame as being great and lasting values. Or maybe he always knew it and wondered why no one was saying it. At the close of Homage to Catalonia, as he arrives back in England, we find this sentence:
And then England – southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world. It is difficult when you pass that way, especially when you are peacefully recovering from sea-sickness with the plush cushions of a boat-train carriage under your bum, to believe that anything is really happening anywhere.
Nothing much has been happening since, except the quiet, invisible business of the people being walked over, and saying nothing, and thinking that’s just the way it is. “Whatever,” murmur the young. “But we are the people of England,” wrote GK Chesterton, “and we have not spoken yet.”
I was in Liverpool in November, watching some of the American election coverage with an old fellow who happened to be sitting in the same bar. There was a black woman on TV and she was talking about the coming election. “We’ve waited for generations,” she said, “and you know something: I think we had forgotten how much power we actually had to make things better.” The old fellow drank his pint and looked over. “That’s the ticket, isn’t it?” he said. “That’s the stuff.”
The above is an edited version of the author’s George Orwell Memorial Lecture.
The article is from The Guardian September 10th 2009.
Main image: John Harris, Orgreave, South Yorkshire (1984).