Lisa Mckenzie, LSE
I grew up in Sutton-in-Ashfield, a small town in north Nottinghamshire, in an area called ‘The Dukeries’; historically this large part of the county was owned by several dukes. Made up of ‘pit towns’, coal mining was dominant as the key employment for men, and the centre of community life. As a child growing up in one of those pit towns, the coal mines were significant in my upbringing. Every man I knew worked at one of the five pits in the area, including my Dad, Granddad, uncles, neighbours and then, as we grew up, cousins. The women in Sutton-in-Ashfield worked predominantly in the clothing and hosiery industries, my mum, and aunties worked at Pretty Polly Hosiery. My girl cousins, and school friends were later to join them, as did I, when reaching 16.
The area is approximately 13 miles away from St Anns, the inner-city council estate I have lived in since 1988, but the differences are considerable. Sutton-in-Ashfield is now a small town with very little industry and few employment opportunities. The ‘pits’ went during the early 1990s, and the manufacturing industry followed soon afterwards. The neighbourhood is made up of those families who have lived there for generations, with little mobility in or out. Consequently, the vast majority of the population identify as white British. There is a very high child poverty rate on the estate where I was raised. Nearly a third of all children are classed as living in poverty, although the long term unemployment rates are only at 6%, less than my inner-city neighbourhood in Nottingham, where it runs at almost 18%. The national average for long term unemployment (claiming over a year) is 2.8%.
It has been well documented that the strength of the old manufacturing and mining communities was their sense of the ‘collective’, whether that was through working identities, gender identities, or through institutions like local party politics, churches, and trade-union affiliations, usually all three being intertwined. My own experience of community and identity was like this. I knew I was working class from a very young age, but thought this was the ‘best’ class to be, I had a very positive understanding of my family and community.
We were strong, honest and hard-working, that was what I had been told as a child growing up, and this was how I thought of myself until the mid-1980s. After the miners’ strike in 1984, however, there was a dramatic change in how we perceived ourselves, and the pit closures also had an impact on this change.
The debate on the ‘white working class’ in the UK has been of interest to me on a personal level. Since the mid 1980s my understanding of being working-class changed dramatically, from being proud to being ashamed. We no longer were seen as strong, hard-working, and honest, but as old fashioned, stupid, and ridiculous.
This shift - which I have experienced in my lifetime – in how the white working class in the UK are known and named, and also how they know themselves has been raised by others [Chris Haylett (2000), Bev Skeggs (2004, 2009), Diane Reay et al. (2007), Steph Lawler (2008) and Anoop Nayak (2009)]. The white working class has become seen as not only economically impoverished but also culturally impoverished – as both ‘excess and nothing, in the sense of having and being of no value’ (Reay et al. 2007 p.1049). For his part, Chris Haylett (2000) suggests they have become an embarrassing contradiction. Losing the symbolic status their colour and their class had been allocated in the past, they have become ‘abject and white’.
In 2008, BBC2 held a ‘White season’ in which they asked ‘Is the white working class becoming invisible?’ The BBC explored these issues within documentaries and dramas asking ‘what it means to be white and working-class in contemporary Britain’ and highlighting the way that some white working-class communities felt overlooked by government. One of the documentaries, ‘Last Orders’, (aired in March 2008), showed how Wibsey Working Men’s Club in Bradford was under threat of closure, and its members – the remnants of the industrial white working-class – felt they were the ‘last of an endangered species’.
There was also a drama which was based on a documentary aired a few years previously and part of the same season, which was called ‘White Girl’, a story of an 11-year old white working-class girl who becomes a minority in an all Asian neighbourhood in Bradford. Initially feeling vulnerable as a minority, she eventually finds solace from her difficult and disadvantaged family life through Islam. The BBC said that their aim was:
‘… To question what’s happening to Britain’s white working class during a period of great economic and cultural change. We’re trying to reflect how they are responding to that change, while portraying them in a sympathetic and unpatronising way.’ (Klein R. 2008)
There was an undercurrent within this drama, that ‘if you can’t beat them join them’, which has raised many questions over recent years about the attributes and consequences of multi-cultural Britain. The Runnymede Trust in January 2009 published a report named ‘Who cares about the white working-class?’, exploring the possibilities that the white working class ‘might be losing out in the conflict for scarce resources’.
Amongst this backdrop of seismic change, both economically and culturally, over which they have had no control, the residents of Sutton-in-Ashfield have managed to hang on to very low paid, low skilled work. House prices and rents are much lower in Sutton-in-Ashfield than in Nottingham and it seems people they are getting by, albeit with a very low standard of living. There are few opportunities and, in consequence, it has not seen the immigration experienced in other areas in Nottinghamshire. They have rallied and are resilient, as are the people who live on the inner-city estate in Nottingham, who use their local identity of ‘Being St Anns’ to express their own sense of value.
With far right parties like the English Defence League attempting to make political gain out of this loss of identity and status, there has been a real shift in how the people who live here think about the British military. Partly because of the military campaigns in the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan there has become an acceptable new pride in the British and English identity, an interest in the military, and a resurgence in flying the Union Jack, and the flag of St George. This has led to much hand wringing by the liberal white middle class, further distancing them from the white working-class. Armed Forces day in 2013 was the most successful since it began in 2009 with events being held all over the UK, the largest was held in Nottingham with 60,000 people turning out on the route to watch the marching bands, and procession. And the charity Help for Heroes has become Britain’s most popular charity since it was set up in 2007.
As a child and a young person growing up in Sutton-in-Ashfield, there was little interest in the armed forces; it was unusual for anyone local to ‘join up’. After all there were plenty of employment opportunities until the late 1980s. There was always respect shown on Armistice Day, but also resentment by the older generation of what war and the armed forces meant to ‘people like us’. Joining the military was always considered a ‘mugs game’, with the idea that you were risking your life for ‘them’. In recent years this has changed, the armed forces is seen as a good option for employment, and as an opportunity to get out of this dying neighbourhood, especially for those young people who are unable to think about ‘getting out’ through education.
After the appalling attack on serving Fusilier Lee Rigby as he returned to his barracks in Woolwich in May 2013, when it was reported instantaneously around the world that he had been beheaded in a residential street in London, I became interested in the reactions to this event. The facts seem simple, a white working-class soldier from the north of England was murdered in horrific circumstances by two Black males of African heritage living and studying in the global city of London, and who claimed to be Muslims.
The reaction to this murder in London, a place that seems foreign to many north of Watford, has been one of widespread outrage from all parts of society. It is interesting, however, also to examine how post-industrial and mainly white working-class neighbourhoods in other parts of the country have understood this tragedy.
Over the many years of the devaluing of the white working-class, they have been seen as lacking the necessary attributes to become successful in a modern and forward thinking Britain. Their collectivist politics are seen as outdated and belong to the unfashionable 1970s. They have been represented, and consequently ridiculed, as longing for the great industries of the past to return to their dismal and desolate northern towns. It was during the Thatcher years in the UK that this notion of the stupid, un-modern working-class community unable to move on from their industrial roots was first developed. However, it was New Labour which cemented this negative view that the white working-class were un-modern and backward but also soured with racism, as they longed for the natural order to return when they were not the bottom of the barrel.
In recent years, especially and ironically since the election of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, towns and neighbourhoods like Sutton-in Ashfield in Nottinghamshire have begun to find their place, or at least begun to carve a sense of identity and pride, in ways which refer back to their understanding of family, community and values.
In Sutton-in-Ashfield the murder of Lee Rigby was felt sharply, a white northern working-class man, a father, serving his country, and murdered on the streets of London. This has struck a nerve with the ‘left out’, the other ‘other’, the white working-class who have felt at the mercy of a changing globalised world, leaving them behind and in which they have not felt included for a long time.
A Facebook page sprang up to support Lee Rigby’s family, and to raise funds for Help for Heroes, a sponsored walk was organised and an impromptu memorial was set up in the middle of Sutton-in-Ashfield town centre. A large Union Jack, photographs of Lee Rigby, poems, and flowers were laid at this unofficial memorial. A sense of sadness, lethargy, and misery which has hit this mining town in recent times has been changed into a sense of resilience and pride. The ‘left out’ are finding a voice through the military, through a vitriolic and unhealthy identity, linked to fear, colonialism, and a sense that they are English and have a right to respect. This is manifested in a popular acceptance of the EDL, and more recently of UKIP.
When the ‘left out’ are not looking left for leadership, we have a problem. There is a void in politics around inequality, a failure to say, and say clearly it is wrong, and that is not only having a devastating effect on the UK as a whole, but particularly to these post-industrial towns and neighbourhoods which are struggling with their identity and are unsure where they fit in a modern Britain that seems to have left them behind. Are we to leave their questions for the far right to answer?
Haylett C. (2000) ‘Modernisation, Welfare and ‘Third Way’ Politics: limits to theorising in ‘thirds’?’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 26 (1): 43-56.
Klein R. (2008) BBC 2 The White Season http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2007/11_november/20/bbctwo_white.shtml last accessed 1/03/2014
Lawler, S. (2008) Identity: Sociological Perspectives Cambridge: Polity
Nayak A. (2009) ‘Beyond the Pale: Chavs Youth and social class’ in Who cares about the white working class (Eds) Sveinsson K. (2009) Runnymede Trust
Office for National Statistics http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/guide-method/census/2011/index.html Last Accessed 01/03/2014
Reay D. (2007) ‘A Darker Shade of Pale? Whiteness, the Middle Classes and Multi-Ethnic Inner City Schooling’ Sociology 41 (6): 1041-1060
Skeggs B. (2009) ‘Haunted by the spectre of judgment: Respectability Value and Affect in Class Relations’ in Who cares about the white working class (ed) Sveinsson, K. Runnymede Trust
Skeggs, B. (2004) Class self and culture, London: Routledge
Lisa McKenzie is a research fellow at the London School of Economics. She previously held an Early Career Leverhulme Research Fellowship conducting a re-study of the 1970 St Anns ‘Poverty’ study, focusing upon the changing shapes of community, family, and belonging in contemporary Britain. She is writing a book on this research to be published by Policy Press in early 2014.