Working Class Britain: Hold Your Head High for Not “Making It”

Working class culture and heritage are things to be proud of
What I hear more and more these days, whether from politicians, social commentators or just liberal facebookers, is this – “class doesn’t exist anymore”, “forget about class, it’s all about people” or “why are you always banging on about being working class?”
But social relationships do not just skip in and out of existence depending on whether or not an individual self-identifies as being working class or upper class, or indeed because people say they don’t believe in class. Didn’t Thatcher and Blair bang on about a class-less society whilst sticking it to the less well off? Social differences are real.
There exist different groups of people who play diverse socio-political roles. The upper and higher middle classes control the system and run it for their own benefit. And there exists a group of individuals within this capitalist society that have been systemically denied any meaningful participation in the governance and administration of society and the economy. Their attempts to seize political or economic power by means of labour struggles and other endeavours are heavily suppressed. Collectively, this group is exploited and enslaved by the ruling class and this is watched over by the upper middle class. That group is the working class. Its existence is fact.
So, it’s not a choice that one can make: if you are working class, you just are. It’s not a question of being proud just because of your class, or because of the traditions, culture or heritage of your people, regardless of whether they are positive or negative. Working class traditions, ways of life and political beliefs change all the time. But this is about having pride in your background and understanding its value.
We see other classes, cultures and traditions celebrated implicitly and loudly, yet working class people are meant to forget their own. Upper class politics and traditions are what they are…err… rowing and yachting regattas, or shooting weekends at daddy’s estate. As for the middle class, well…rugger buggers, attending balls…tea with the vicar, village jamborees, pony-riding? So, what is working class culture then? Jesus, it can be a load of stuff, as I’ll soon explain.
What I always find a bit weird is this attitude about the working class guy that “did well”. That guy who got through to university despite his working class upbringing. You made it, must have been awful! Well done! As if aspiring to be middle class and upper class is the goal or the best you can be.
People who spend their lives working for the local community, for their workers’ union, or caring for sick people for little reward, who worked their bollocks off for decades in a boring job to put food on the table, are never held up as achievers. Yet the few working class people who manage to “better” themselves, despite their disadvantages, are held up as some kind of role model for people to look up to. And I’m not knocking working class people bettering themselves, or going to university. I wish that more people did and could do both. I very often hear people who went to university sitting around talking about what great times they were. But is it not okay for people who never went to university to talk about other life experiences?
If the official time it takes to get to adulthood is 18 years, then even disregarding the fact that most of us take much longer to find our feet, that’s still at least 18 years’ worth of experience working class people are expected to blithely toss aside at the first taste of balsamic vinegar. TPeople think it is okay to tell me I should forget about all of that. Forget about your past, stop discussing your experiences – it’s not relevant anymore!
The industrial working class, as it was, doesn’t exist in the UK now. Yet today, the working class is made up of unemployed and low paid workers, zero-hour workers in blue and white collar jobs. Teachers too are working class – of course they are (in fact, they are some of the most militant trade unionists around!) – along with nurses, self-employed people, skilled workers, and the list goes on.
And what is our culture if not one of class? Am I proud to be British or English? Why? I think it is far healthier to be proud of your class than to be proud of some flag-waving, nationalistic, empty loyalty, with its hate-filled negative connotations.
I choose to take from the culture I know – in fact, I have no other choice. So, I take the good and the bad. I take the history of the working class fightbacks. From Peterloo to Grenfell communities, people standing together and helping each other. I take the struggle of the miners.
What is taught in school is bullshit that has nothing to do with me; the history of the British Empire, the queens and kings. The history of the struggles of ordinary people is not taught even though it should be. Those traditions and that history should be preserved and passed on.
I’m proud of the community spirit, the need to fight for justice, the determination to try and live a decent life. And the ability for lots of working communities to embrace multiculturalism far more than other classes. I take all that, along with the humour, the story-telling, the music, the fashion and more.
Of course, it is not all positive. We can look at the rise of the fascists in the ‘70s but I prefer to look at the anti-fascist struggle against them. I prefer to look at punk and Two-tone and the positive things they brought up. I prefer to recall the proud working class history of my local football club.
In fact, the worst aspects of working class culture are now basically middle class too. “Lad” culture is a good example: many middle class guys trying to slum it with the working class “plebs”. I spent my youth trying to get away from lad culture. I dismissed it as bullshit. But I discovered positive aspects of working class culture that are worth being proud of:
The ability to fight through hard times.
The ability to come together in times of hardship.
The ability to be individual, humorous and hard working.
The ability to help others and fight for others.
There’s a lot wrong with working class traditions and lifestyles. But the working class is a tradition, a culture, a social heritage and a history.
When I watch England play in footy, what exactly am I proud of? I’m English, proud to be. But proud of what? I’m proud of the working class and all that it represents. I am not there to be proud of the bleeding Queen, the bloody Generals and toffs, the universities and the private schools, Rule bleeding Britannia, and tea and scones. I am proud of my locality, my friends, family, the history, the fantastic music, the struggles of my class. And I’m proud to pass on all these things to my son.
What with the Brexit fiasco, increasing economic hardship for many, xenophobia and deepening divisions within British society, we need to hold onto and build our community, and we need to learn more about our class backgrounds – maybe now more than ever.

Photo: Shirley Baker
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