An England Lost

Apr 4, 2014 10:25:01 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

“Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA International Education's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

In this month's column, he delves into the theme of class rather than race as a way for students to understand England as the country it is today.

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"The achievements of Labour in the years after the Second World War should never be underestimated, but they are now history." - Bob Crow

"Anyone from abroad will tell you that it is the class system that really lies at the root of our problems, economic and industrial." - Tony Benn

"There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families." - Margaret Thatcher

You cannot begin to understand England without knowing something about the nature of class and the ways in which it has shaped the past, and impacts upon the present-future. American students studying in these islands often make the assumption that race is a key issue; that assumption is understandable given the pre-eminent role that race plays in the USA, and the multi-ethnic nature of the population of our major cities. In reality, it is impossible properly to grasp the dynamics of this country through racial lenses. In August 2011, extensive riots in London did not, for example, divide along racial lines but were formed out of a complex synthesis of distorted individualism and misplaced envy. They were a form of perverse entrepreneurship.

Photo: 2011 student protests by Chris Beckett

Class is the default distinction in the United Kingdom (which is fractured and not, in reality, very united).

The politics of class were brought into focus by two deaths in March of this year. On March 11th Bob Crow, the Socialist leader of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, died suddenly at the age of 52. Crow was a vilified figure in many respects, especially by some Londoners (including many of the staff and students of CAPA) who suffered the impact of transport strikes in London that crippled the underground system. He was a very traditional Trade Union leader: the son of a dock worker, left school at 16, and effectively represented his members through a combination of militancy and persuasion. His Unions’ motto, “Agitate, Educate, Organise” might stand as the defining statement of his professional life.

On March 14th Anthony Neil Wedgewood Benn died at the age of 88. Better known as Tony Benn, he was educated at a major private (“Public”) school, Westminster, and studied at New College Oxford. As a serving Member of Parliament in 1960, he was forced to resign when, on the death of his father, he inherited the title of Lord Stansgate and was, consequently, barred from serving in the House of Commons. In a successful campaign to reform constitutional law, Lord Stansgate was able to renounce his peerage and, as a commoner, Tony Benn, returned as an elected Member of Parliament for the Labour Party in 1963.

Photo: A tribute to Bob Crow at Caledonian Road Underground station by Yuriy Akopov

Crow and Benn are at opposite ends of a class spectrum.

They nevertheless shared a profound commitment to radical politics and, at various times, were both pilloried in the mass media. They were characterised as treacherous and subversive, undermining the values of consensus politics. Both had a profound commitment to Socialist reform and challenged the status quo in ways that were seen as unpatriotic and destabilising. Benn and Crow were as much a nuisance to their Labour Party allies as they were to their Conservative enemies.

They both belonged to long traditions of political radicalism. Crow came from what he called a “Communist-Socialist” tradition in England and Benn from a religious heritage of Dissent, a kind of radicalised puritanism. From opposite ends of the class divide and from quite different traditions of political thought, they arrived at the same ideological position. At one point Crow suggested that Benn should be President of a British Republic.

They represent a lost ideological and philosophical alignment with notions of working class collectivism in which the whole is greater than its parts and where values of community, as a tool of political and social reform, are diametrically opposed to individualism and entrepreneurial aspiration. Those values are rooted in “us” not in a preoccupation with “me”. Their ideas were in direct conflict with Margaret Thatcher’s notion of self-reliance and individualism in which, “there is no such thing as society.” In the late twentieth century a collectivist vision, based upon concepts of working class solidarity, was progressively undermined by a combination of political policy and the decline of traditional industries.

Photo: Islington, London - 1985 by Julian Stallabrass

The Miners’ Strike in 1984-5 may be seen as a pivotal moment in the struggle between individualism and collectivism. The defeat of the Miners destroyed coal mining in England, eradicated communities, and signalled the ideological triumph of individualist “ethics”.

The working class in England has lost identity and has become in the view of Owen Jones “demonised”:

Thatcher’s assumption of power in 1979 marked the beginning of an all-out assault on the pillars of working-class Britain. Its institutions were dismantled, its industries trashed…and its values, like solidarity and collective aspiration, were swept away in favour of rugged individualism. - Owen Jones, Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class

The working class is not, therefore, an identity but a transition point from which people “improve” or decline. The role model is not the community or collective values but the self-made man or woman who has built a future from individual entrepreneurship. They are not shaped by community; they have escaped from it. In that respect, the influence of American ideology, exemplified in the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, gained credence in the United Kingdom and permeated a persistent political consensus.

Photo: Soccer game in progress by Vincent Teeuwen

The popularity of soccer is, according to the writer Jimmy McGovern, an expression of a remnant of collective pride in which the team offers the supporter a form of (illusory) community. The game’s emotional hold on the English working class makes considerable sense in these terms:

The popular image of the working class is inextricably tied up with football, the sole surviving mass working-class pursuit in an era that has seen all other vestiges of working-class pride, from the traditional industries of coal mining, textiles and engineering to the historical links between organised labour, and the political party that bore its name, swept away. - “A Plea for the Victims of Welfare Britain,” Daily Mail, 6th December, 2008

The England lost was based on a sense of belonging to, and responsibility for, the whole: collectivism in which those who had resources sustained those who lacked the capacity to support themselves. The National Health Service was built precisely upon that principle of collective responsibility.

Photo: NHS at the Royal London Hospital by Julian Walker

The deaths of Bob Crow and Tony Benn symbolise the pre-eminence of individualistic ethics. The self-made man, the stockbroker, the banker, tax dodger and avoider, and, you might argue, the London rioters are (sometimes perverse) expressions of modes of individualism in which the ethical priority is to help yourself.

The battle between collectivism and individualism is, probably, over but a student of English political life and ideologies, whatever their own political views, has a responsibility to consider further the values that Bob Crow and Tony Benn embodied. Beyond the vitriol and vilification, headlines and hysteria, Crow and Benn are iconic figures whose beliefs belong to an England lost.

Thanks Mike!

Topics: International Education