Back in 2004 the journalist and television producer Michael Collins published a book. Collins had written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Observer, the Sunday Telegraph and the Sunday Times, and the book was published by the literary publisher Granta. Otherwise liberals like myself might have been alarmed by the book’s title The Likes of Us: a Biography of the White Working Class.
In the book, Collins traced the the stories of working class people in London and their sense of alienation at a political system in which they had become invisible. Collins recounts a conversation with Sloppy Joe, a white working class Londoner, in which they discussed a brochure that had been produced to promote the borough of Southwark.
“You wouldn’t think us English had ever lived here if you look at this.’ He opens it and taps a page . . .
“Southwark is a highly cosmopolitan area with a rich mixture of communities going back centuries. The borough’s proximity to the River Thames led to strong links across the world and by the 15th century Southwark had one of the largest immigrant populations. German, Dutch and Flemish craftspeople excluded by the City of London settled in Southwark … immigrants from Ireland took up manual jobs … the labour shortage was eased by workers and their families invited from the Caribbean and West Africa … communities from China, Cyprus, Vietnam, Somalia, Ethiopia, Bosnia and Croatia … just under a third of our population is from an ethnic minority and over a hundred languages are spoken by our children”.
‘They don’t mention us English’, Joe says. ‘You wouldn’t think we’d ever existed would ya?’ Joe sees himself as part of a long established tribe that dominated the urban working class within this area from the beginning of the nineteenth century and earlier. It has been air brushed from the history of the area as reported in the brochure. But how would it be represented? The white working class have never needed to define themselves or be defined before.
The book was prescient in its analysis. A decade before the surge of populism, a dozen years before the Brexit vote, fifteen years before Boris Johnson’s Conservatives swept away the so called “red wall” of traditional Labour seats, Collins described the deep sense of discontent among white working class communities.
A government that really wishes to deal with the issue of racism needs to look at the sense of alienation from which that racism springs.
The Peace Process in Northern Ireland in the 1990s rested on a programme of education for mutual understanding, it rested on single identity, single tradition work. If people’s identity and traditions were acknowledged and affirmed, they found it much easier to accept diversity and to accept those who were different.
England has had no corresponding process. Instead, working class communities have often found been demonised by the political elite (Owen Jones’ Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class describes this process.) The Labour Party, the very party that should be seeking to empower working class people has become a party that, in its justifiable concern with the rights of minorities, has forgotten the core who should be the majority of its support.
If there is to be a lasting resolution of the problem of racism, it will not come through gestures or declarations, instead it will come through affirmation and respect for those of all identities.