How National Culture Fell into the Gutter

Ridden with guilt, the English middle class has retreated into its own redoubts and let the white working class go hang itself

The riots on England’s streets in August confirmed all too graphically the existence of an underclass. The high number of black faces among the young rioters triggered renewed agonising over England’s ethnic minorities. But the most disturbing aspect of the new underclass is that much of it is indigenous. 

In the poorest fifth of households, children of the white English working class are now performing significantly worse at school than their black and Bangladeshi counterparts whose underachievement has been the conventional concern of social policy, according to research by the Financial Times last April. They are more likely to get stuck in the bottom fifth of the academic league tables and are even less successful than those children of immigrants for whom English is a second language. The problem is most acute not in London but in the North: in Hull a poor white child has a greater than two-thirds chance of finishing at the bottom of the academic pile. Yet the education system, despite its failings, cannot reasonably be blamed as the sole culprit. The origins of this new underclass lie deeper.

Over the past half-century the English class war has been fought  on two fronts, one economic, the other cultural. From the 1980s the working class lost the economic war: manual jobs disappeared, there was competition from a massive influx of low-skilled immigrants, and social protection through unemployment benefit and the state pension deteriorated to among the lowest in Europe. The English middle class benefited from the consequent cheap labour and low taxes. The working class won the culture war. Fifty years ago there was a single television channel, run by the BBC,  which, from Children’s Hour to The Brains Trust, held to the standards set by Lord Reith. Respect — both self-respect and the respect of others — was to be achieved through respectability, defined by the stuffy but functional lower-middle-class virtues of thrift, sobriety, fortitude, endeavour and family. In his magisterial social history of postwar Britain, David Kynaston entitles his volume on the 1950s Family Britain, and he surely highlights its central distinctive feature.  

Alongside this national culture the working class had a counter-culture: through bitter experience ordinary people had come to value solidarity over competitive effort and fatalism over aspiration. But because everyone was exposed to the national culture, to a considerable extent working-class children also internalised its essentially middle-class value system. 

Driven partly by the commercial race to the gutter led by Rupert Murdoch, and partly by the collapse in middle-class self-confidence, the dominant culture has been drastically vulgarised. What has triumphed is not even traditional core working-class culture. Partly, there was a selection effect: as the English working class shrank from being a substantial majority of the population to a minority, its composition inevitably changed. Ranged on a spectrum of attitudes from aspiration and self-help to fatalism and grievance, the ranks of the working class were depleted disproportionately from the more functional end.

 More profoundly, the new dominant culture selected disastrously from the myriad new influences to which society was exposed. For example, England has more immigrants from neighbouring France and Germany than from distant little Jamaica. Yet the contribution of the French and German cultural stereotypes of respect for intellect and hard work to English mainstream culture are negligible compared to the Jamaican stereotype of swaggering violence. A middle class embarrassed by past class deference and racism lacked the will to police mainstream culture. The role models for English working-class youth have become celebrity footballers and their shallow pastimes: indeed, survey evidence shows celebrity to be the predominant youth aspiration. 

More profoundly, the very criteria for respect have been turned upside down. Respect is now demanded as a right irrespective of behaviour. An example of this indiscriminate “respect agenda” is the desperate avoidance of official criticism of single-parent families in the face of mounting evidence of their undesirable consequences. In response to defeat, the middle class has retreated into a subculture where it is still able to serve its own preferences: with the internet and Radio 3, we insulate ourselves from the Sun and X Factor. With expensive suburbs and private schools  we can preserve the cultural dominance necessary for the fundamental task of each generation: to pass on our culture to our children. But because the middle class lost control of the national culture, its culture no longer has significant reach into the working class: working-class children are now largely dependent upon the diminished cultural resources of their own class. 

The importance of culture as an influence on behaviour is no longer in the domain of speculation. In economics the Nobel Laureate George Akerlof has reformulated the springs of motivation and work performance. Instead of the traditional crude emphasis upon monetary incentives, the evidence now points to the centrality of the particular goals which people internalise. In turn, these are derived from the role models they adopt in building their sense of identity. Yet  more fundamentally, recent advances in neuroscience and experimental psychology flowing from the discovery of the mirror neuron have transformed our understanding. Imitation is hard-wired into the human brain: the perception of an action and its performance are neurologically the same phenomenon. I do not see an action and then decide to imitate it; I automatically imitate unless that urge is overridden by a subsequent conscious intent. But copying observed actions is merely the “low road” of imitation; the high road is imitation of stereotypes. The evidence here is chilling. Teenagers primed to think of the attributes of professors perform significantly better in tests than a control group primed to think of football hooligans. People primed to think of rudeness behave significantly more rudely than those primed to think of politeness. People primed to think of the elderly walk more slowly. 

The most astounding feature of these experiments is how light is the “priming” — exposure to a stereotype — needed to produce such results: people are highly suggestible. Compared to bombardment by popular culture they are the merest touch of a feather. The most heavily researched aspect of cultural transmission has been the effect of exposure to violence on television. Here the evidence of adverse effects is now overwhelming, but violence is not all we should worry about. In practical terms a culture is a menu of stereotypes by which its members, and especially its young members, learn the entire range of behaviour. Free will — the power to choose to behave differently — is exercised less at the level of individual responsibility than we have conventionally imagined, and more through the shaping of a culture. Cultures are highly dynamic: a relatively small group of influential people determines how a culture evolves. The middle class earns its right to privilege if it guides the evolution of the national culture.

The currently dysfunctional culture of the English working class was not an inevitable consequence of the modern world. In Australia the dominant culture has long been working class, but it has not been allowed to degenerate. There the working class won the economic war: Australia rivals France for the highest minimum wage according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It has regulated immigration through a points system so that immigrants are sufficiently skilled to compete with the middle class rather than being concentrated at the bottom of the jobs ladder. Perhaps decisively, Australia has avoided the toxic deference of the English class system. In contrast to England, Australian culture did not need to welcome dysfunctional influences in a wave of guilt. In France and much of continental Europe, the working class also won the economic war: a high minimum wage, job security, and generous pensions and unemployment benefits. But the middle class decisively won the culture war. In place of the Sun, France’s largest circulation newspaper, Ouest France, is pitched somewhere between the Daily Mail and The Times. On French television, the airtime for American popular culture is limited by law, and its crass cultural teeth are pulled by being dubbed. 

The outcome in England has been disastrous for the bottom half of the working class. Defeat in the economic war led to a period of mass unemployment which broke the habit of work. As jobs re-emerged, usually in services rather than factories, 80 per cent of them were taken by immigrants who arrived with aspirations and a willingness to work hard. In the process, unlike in the rest of Europe, the apprenticeship system collapsed: employers found it cheaper to hire skilled immigrants than to train English youth. Despite overall higher employment than in continental Europe (the result of our deregulated labour market), we now have English working-class households in which three generations have been workless, living in neighbourhoods in which the majority also do not work. 

The collapse in the work ethic coincided with a breakdown in family relationships. Contraceptives brought the youth of all classes sexual liberation: yes, bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven! But the middle classes, who led the libertarian revolution, had the cultural resources to temper their freedom: middle-class divorce and illegitimacy rates initially rose but then declined again. Working-class youth, meanwhile, was not truly liberated from the link between intercourse and pregnancy since that depended on a prudence which was largely lacking — severed from the cultural norms that had preserved the family.

Finally, the English working class lost its sense of pride. For the post-war generation, even if work and family failed, there was always the default option of pride in nation. But for the contemporary English working class this is no longer available. Probably since the Suez crisis, the middle-class Left in England has been hostile to national pride (in contrast to its counterparts in Scotland and, par excellence, France). Since the 1990s the official espousal of multiculturalism (again, in contrast to Scotland where it is irrelevant due to the paucity of immigrants, and to France where it is illegal) has inadvertently further undermined the English sense of nationhood. Meanwhile, the cultural messages to the English working class, transmitted through the National Curriculum or the children’s television channel CBBC have been directed to other important goals such as normalising the presence of ethnic minorities.

 More generally, as a result of anti-nationalism and multiculturalism Englishness has become deeply unfashionable: who now admits to being English if they can claim some shred of another identity? The marginality of the ugly working-class backlash of nationalism is testimony to its disappearance from mainstream English culture. The flag of St George (in contrast to its Scottish or Welsh counterparts) is more likely to be daubed by vandals than flown by councils. The lack of pride in nation is of little consequence to the children of the middle class who increasingly perceive themselves as global citizens. With a middle-class education, whether private or state-financed in a middle-class neighbourhood, the children of the middle class aspire to play on the global rather than the national stage. That an astonishing 80 per cent of applicants to the civil service choose the Department for International Development (DFID) as their preferred assignment illustrates this perfectly.

Meanwhile, the children at the bottom of the working class now exist in a void where the evaporation of the previous structures of meaning — work, family and nation — have been replaced by  the fatalistic thrills of sensation: alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, crime and fashion. This cocktail, laced by short horizons that encourage indebtedness and early pregnancy, is inimical to achievement and has condemned the poorer half of English working-class children to becoming an underclass.

The ethnic minorities are more successful than the English working class because, like the middle class, they have built their own subcultures that challenge the dominant degenerative one. Indeed, they have been encouraged to do so by multiculturalism. Reflecting the huge differences between their societies of origin, these cultures vary widely, but they have one feature in common: immigrants have aspirations. Hence, virtually all these ethnic subcultures are more conducive to social mobility than modern national English culture, the diet only of the English working class. The problem is most acute in northern cities because this is where middle-class culture has least penetration. It is indeed hard to envisage any group characteristic other than culture that would explain the systematic underperformance of the English working-class poor relative to poor and disadvantaged immigrants from Africa and Asia. 

On this diagnosis the demoralised English underclass lacks the cultural resources to save itself. It needs to recover its morale, and it needs to restore functional values such as thrift, hard work, family loyalty and self-help. Unfortunately, these objectives conflict. The simplest way to restore morale is to intensify the respect agenda: affirm the equal value of all behaviours. Yet the only way to enhance the cultural resources of the working class is for the middle class to reclaim national culture. The respect agenda is the more comfortable route, but feeling good about failure will evidently further weaken the incentives for achievement. The full logic of the respect agenda would be to accept the lack of social mobility. But if we are to will the middle-class ends of social achievement, as most surely we should, then we must accept the middle-class means.

A functional national culture is the ultimate public good. Everyone can benefit from it but, as with all public goods, it benefits most those who have the least. A functional national culture disproportionately benefits those whose own subculture cannot equip them with the aspirations necessary for achievement. A key duty of the middle class is to strengthen and promote such a culture which, though built by the middle class, can be shared by all. This happens in all successful societies. But the English middle class now lacks the will to do its job. Having of necessity become largely culturally self-sufficient, it no longer needs a national culture conducive to wellbeing. Of course, it will never accept a dysfunctional working-class culture as its own, and middle-class children will continue to be fed a more useful intellectual diet. Allowing the working class to win the culture war has meant only that the working class can no longer access middle-class culture through the conventional national channels. This is why working-class victory in the class war, while apparently a manifestation of greater social equity, has paradoxically increased inequality.

A national culture is a form of social capital accessible to everyone. It is a menu of imitable stereotypes which supplements the subcultures that endow groups highly unequally. If the national culture becomes worthless, the groups that lose are those whose subcultures are the least conducive to achievement. The middle class can cast its inaction as virtuous: a belated conversion from condescension and racism; an acceptance of diversity; a refusal to be judgmental. But in reality it is indolent, timid and selfish. The middle class has let the working class go hang itself; it is now reaping those ill rewards.

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