home Overview The use and abuse of memories of the working class in 21st century Britain

The use and abuse of memories of the working class in 21st century Britain

Selina Todd
Professor of Modern History, University of Oxford

The public history of the working class, as told by most British politicians and the media, is one of decline and disappearance. In a prizewinning essay published in 2009, the writer and journalist Andrew O’Hagan lamented the loss of a ‘sense of pride and worth that was said to be in boom in the years of austerity’ following the Second World War, and its replacement by the 1990s with a ‘working class [who] were no longer a working class…. people who craved not values but designer labels and satellite dishes’ and formed ‘the most conservative force in Britain’. O’Hagan is not alone in believing that affluence and technology had corrupted ‘my own people’. ‘Once they were celebrated as heroes in plays, books, and films’, declared the writer Andrew Anthony in the Observer newspaper shortly after the financial crash of 2008. ‘Now they are derided as reactionary and bigoted losers.’

Since 2010, the public memory of the working class has become more conflicted. The notion that ‘they’ are reactionary bigots has been strengthened by the result of the Brexit referendum of 2016. Most journalists overlook that many affluent residents of southern, rural England, voted to leave the European Union. They focus their ire on the deindustrialised areas of northern England – constituencies which also helped give Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party a landslide win in the 2019 General Election.

But this public memory of the working class was challenged in 2015, when Jeremy Corbyn, a left-wing veteran MP, was elected leader of the Labour Party. Labour rapidly became Europe’s largest social democratic party, and many of Corbyn’s supporters lived in Britain’s former industrial heartlands. They were among those voters who defied media predictions to give Labour a huge increase in parliamentary seats in the General Election of 2017.

Corbyn’s victory did not spring from nowhere. In 2016, more than 60 percent of British people described themselves as working class. This had been the case throughout the early 21st century, and media commentators struggled to explain it. As a historian of working-class life, I had long suspected that the public memory of the working class was at odds with the popular memory of working-class people. In 2008 I set out to investigate this, and in 2014 published my book The People: the rise and fall of the working class. The ‘fall’ of the subtitle does not imply that the working class has disappeared – rather, that mainstream politics and the media conveniently forgot about them.

The public memory of the working class is devoid of politics and divorced from work. I realised that this derived from social surveys of Britain conducted in the 1950s and 1960s, when affluence encouraged the theory that everyone was becoming middle class. Among the most illuminating studies were Richard Hoggart’s semi-autobiographical The Uses of Literacy and Michael Young and Peter Wilmott’s Family and Kinship in East London, both published in 1957. These books became bestsellers. They highlighted that working class people’s lives were worthy of serious consideration. But they were not comprehensive: they focused on neighbourhoods, not workplaces, and on family life rather than trade unionism. They fed some powerful myths: that ‘traditional’ working-class men worked in heavy industry while women were full-time housewives; that working-class people lived in the same place for generations; that ‘their’ interests lay in domestic stability, not in political change.

Post-Thatcher, we are in an era of deindustrialisation, attacks on trade unionism, legal restrictions on popular protest and growing inequality. In this context, these myths feed an argument that the working class no longer exists. After all, we’re now in a world where women go out to work, heavy industry has declined, and migration is a fact of life. Alternatively, these myths bolster politicians’ claims that working-class voters can only be won over by promises to curb migration and restore socially conservative values. Most dangerously, this public memory suggests that being working-class is a lifestyle that has now been lost through the greed and selfishness of workingclass people themselves. In fact, as the American writer Walter Benn Michaels has pointed out, class is a product of economic and political inequality. Celebrating or mourning an ‘authentic’, depoliticised working class simply leaves us with a status quo that condemns a majority of people to worse health and shorter lifespans than those at the top of the pile.

The popular memory of the working-class has long been more political, and less parochial, than the public memory. In the 1970s and 1980s, Britain had a flourishing community publishing scene, and state schools also encouraged children to undertake project work in their neighbourhoods. These initiatives produced hundreds of working-class autobiographies and oral histories which show how memories of strikes and resistance shaped the lives not just of protestors, but of their children. These provide excellent resources for the study of popular memory. Some state schools trained children in undertaking oral history interviews – I was fortunate to be among them, and it’s a skill I have used in my career as a historian.

Autobiographies and oral histories remind us that until 1939, the largest single group of working people in Britain were servants, not miners or steelworkers. The typical servant was a teenage girl, often a migrant. 21st century migrant care workers and call centre staff have more connections to the past than we might assume – and those links might help us explain why unionisation has risen among part-time, women workers since 2000.

These memories can change our understanding of working-class history. They also reveal the importance of memory itself, as a tool with which to question oppression. In 1926, a General Strike occurred in Britain: millions of workers downed tools. But the Strike was a failure for the labour movement. The trade union leadership capitulated after just nine days and Britain’s miners – who had instigated the dispute – were locked out of work for months. But the autobiographies of former servants shows that the memory of the strike, the possibilities it suggested, and a desire to carry on their fathers’ struggle, led many young women to question their own subordinate position. As factory work increased in the late 1930s, servants who were the daughters of miners and steelworkers led an exodus from domestic service, and began to unionise in the factories. In 1945, they were among those voters who gave Labour a landslide election victory, swept to power by promises to establish a welfare state and full employment.

After 1945, the welfare state depended heavily on migrant workers, especially women, as nurses, teachers, cleaners and care workers. As the Black British journalist Gary Younge wrote earlier this year, we badly need to reclaim this memory as part of working-class history. Many aspects of modern history that evoke pride in Britain (especially the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948) relied on women and migrants.

Of course such memories can become romanticised. Younge reminds us not to forget the racism his family faced and the sexism that prevented so many women of his mother’s generation from fulfilling their potential. In the 1970s, working-class women (Black as well as white) organised as trade unionists and parents to create a new women’s movement, provoked by anger at the sexism they encountered from male trade unionists and activists, as well as from the state. Researchers need to learn to ask the right questions to tap into these memories. If we miss them, we may imply that feminism, or anti-racism, were and are only of interest to a university-educated middle class.

Banner: “We Are All Immigrants”, created by supporters of Manchester’s fan-owned FC United of Manchester, in 2019 | Selina Todd

The popular resonance of such memories has been made more evident in recent years. Corbyn’s victory galvanised new public history projects. Each September, the village of Burston in Suffolk commemorates the longest strike in British history. In 1914, Burston’s schoolchildren and their families struck in solidarity with their schoolteachers, who were sacked for helping local agricultural workers to unionise. Striking children, teachers and farm workers don’t feature in the ‘public’ memory of the working class promoted by most politicians and the media. ‘Between the 1980s, when the commemoration of the Burston School Strike began, and 2015, we’d have maybe fifty to 200 people coming to the event each year’, says the commemoration’s organiser, Miles Hubbard. But ‘since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, we’ve had several hundred; we could have thousands if we could accommodate them.’ Trade unionists from
across the country join environmentalists, local teenagers, Labour Party activists, history enthusiasts and curious locals to mark the event.

Corbyn has now resigned as leader of the Labour Party. Covid-19 means that large gatherings like that at Burston are no longer possible (the commemoration is suspended in 2020). But Burston reminds us that the traces of a radical working-class past survive at the grassroots. They are sustained by popular memory, passed down through family stories, or kindled into events by campaigners like Miles Hubbard. How to engage those memories and create from them a public history that can offer renewed hope and commitment for the 21st century – a century that will require internationalism, solidarity and imagination – is an urgent challenge. But if working-class history tells us anything it is that change is always possible, and often comes at the most unexpected times, from surprising quarters.

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