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The true cost of the political class

In the most recent edition of the Sunday Times1, there was an interesting article by Ferdinand Mount called Uppers and Downers which had the tagline:

Ferdinand Mount believes a ‘classless’ delusion grips Britain. Not only is the class divide wider than ever, but in a compelling new book he explores how the rich are treating the poor with an unprecedented contempt

I must confess that this intro led me to read this article with a predisposition for contempt for that premise myself. And indeed, I found much of what Mount had to say about class attitudes in Britain debatable to put it mildly. However the central thesis, something not hinted at in the introduction, was indeed compelling: that many social problems today in the UK are a direct consequence of the destruction of working class culture, and this was caused by, as Mount puts it:

Worse than all of this is the fact that in the past I have worked for a Conservative government, and not just any government but the administration led by Margaret Thatcher, which its passionate opponents still believe did more to deepen class divisions than any other government since the war. I was, for a time, the head of her policy unit. How can someone like me pretend to know what life was and is like for the worst-off of my fellow countrymen?

My answer is that it is People Like Us who are largely responsible for the present state of the lower classes in Britain. It is our misunderstandings, meddlings and manipulations that have transformed a British working class that was the envy and amazement of foreign observers in the 19th century into a so-called underclass that is often the subject of baffled despair today, both at home and abroad. We did the damage, or most of it. It is the least we can do to try to understand what we have done and help to undo it where we can.

For me this is truly the key but it is not a consequence of the ‘Conservative’ or ‘Labour’ varient of intrusive regulatory statism (for in 2004, who really thinks there is a huge material difference between them?) but of regulatory interventionist statism in all its progressive democratic forms. I shall certainly read Mount’s new book Mind the Gap, though if the pre-release blurb is true that the book asks…

[T]he author pursues an oft-times illusive answer to the fundamental question: How can oppressive inequality in Britain be wiped out once and for all?

…which begs the question does ‘oppressive inequality’ (a) actually exist in Britain, and (b) it is anyone’s business to ‘wipe it out’. If that is in fact what the book is about then I expect I shall be putting a pretty nasty book review up here on Samizdata.net in the not too distant future.

For me the core issue here however is that as Mount indicates, it was indeed the political class, people like him, who bear the responsibility for destroying a significant section of civil society and replacing it with a state-centred dependency and entitlement culture of de-socialised barbarians.

Thus the question that really needs answering it not how do ‘we’ solve this problem but rather how to dis-aggrandise the entire class of people from left to right who caused the problem in the first place. I cannot tell without first reading Ferdinand Mount’s book but perhaps he has realised that there is indeed what Sean Gabb calls an ‘enemy class’… and much to his chagrin, the term ‘People Like Us’ indicates Mount has realised that he is a member of it.

1 Due to the benighted archiving policy of The Times making articles unreadable to viewers overseas, we do not generally link to Times articles

19 comments to The true cost of the political class

  • cirby

    We get a lot of British vacationers here (Orlando, FL), and it amazes me how class-conscious they tend to be. For example, one of the “regular visitors” we get is very well-off, with a family worth a huge amount of money. He gets an “allowance” each month of more then I make in a year. He literally couldn’t understand that his family’s accomplishments didn’t count as something he did.

    “A hundred years from now, will anyone remember who you were?”

    “Well, my family is a famous name.”

    “Yes, but how about you? Have you ever done anything at all to distinguish yourself?”

    “My family is really rich!”

    He couldn’t understand that, as far as anyone over here was concerned, he had nothing to actually be proud of.

  • Tom

    I will have to read the book to make a judgement, but on the basis of what Ferdinand Mount has written before, I’d say let’s give it a fair run. One of his books, The Subversive Family, written in the early 1980s, was a brilliant work, pointing out how collectivist regimes of all types have resented and sought to destroy the family. He has also written eloquently in defence of property rights and the disastrous impact of socialism in the past. He is certainly no collectivist or egalitarian.

    I used to like his regular columns in the Spectator, which were always full of sharp insights and wry wit.

  • Lynne

    Oh, for those glory days in the 19th century when the peasants knew their place.

  • Bernie

    “Oh, for those glory days in the 19th century when the peasants knew their place.”

    Indeed…. and the women did too :-)

  • Shannon Love

    “Thus the question that really needs answering it not how do ‘we’ solve this problem but rather how to dis-aggrandise the entire class of people from left to right who caused the problem in the first place. “

    I keep trying to nail this jello to the wall and just keeps failing off! Guess I need another type nails and a bigger hammer!

  • Lynne: which means what, exactly?

  • Julian Morrison

    When I think over the reasons for the cultural impoverishment of the “lower class” nowadays, I think it would be unreasonable to blame the state or even the “political class”.

    I think it would be fair to say: the state was the hammer, the political class was the hand that swung it – but the mind that aimed the blows was a society-wide suite of shared attitudes and ideas. The collectivist ethic, utopian technocracy, macro-intervention, the concept of “entitlement”, the idea of “progress”… everyone believed in those things, even if they weren’t educated enough to articulate them.

  • limberwulf

    Too true Julian, politicians have been getting into office for years on sales pitches that basically come down to class warfare. The haves versus the have-nots, everyone pointing fingers at those who have what they want and saying “its not fair”. Basically a screwwed up concept of “fairness” is at the root, and the root of that screwwed up concept is laziness. People want something for nothing, its a battle the producers constantly fight, trying to get the rest of the world in gear. Collectivism, entitlement, false equality, they all come from that same root. If it were not there, the politicians would be having to sneak around doing the intervention, but instead they shout from the mountaintops about the gifts they will give the have-nots if they are voted in. The more gifts there are, the more votes, the more votes, the more have-nots there are to vote, because stealing from the producers to feed the non-producers always makes for a poorer and poorer society.

  • Dalmaster

    I have often been curious about this humble working-class culture, which was rumoured to exist before the Thatcher era, a time that I almost entirely missed.

    Listening to descriptions, I gather that what some call “individualism” is the main source of the decay of that culture. Generally people no longer work for pride and satisfaction of getting a job done properly, of standing back at the end of the week and saying “We did this”, “We make this business work”. They work solely for that pay slip. Throw in the fact that you can “earn” an equal-in-value pay slip by wallowing around in front of your tele on dole, and you have a recipe for popular procrastination.

    I’d say this is pretty well founded from my own experience: From cowboy plumbers, to workmates who do nothing but moan from shift to shift.

    What could he mean by “treating the poor with an unprecedented contempt”? Perhaps drawing conclusions from what they heard from the BBC that night: all the wandering rape-gangs, the mass-mug-murders of the elderly, the alleyway binge drinking. Did these things happen before? If they aren’t exaggerated, what is different now? I’m guessing it’s down to the fact that all forms of ethics and responsibility are being gradually torn out of British culture by sleaze-passed-as-entertainment, lack of good example and poor discipline through childhood, as well as turning police into full-time office coffee-cup-holders.

  • Old Jack Tar

    Individualism? I don’t think so. Working class culture or at least the bits that worked, was relying on others, mostly your family or union or local social organisation, rather than a hand out from the state. My dad was a member of a working mans club and that actually meant something. That is the world that was slowly made to rot away around us and now all we are left with is the stink of decay.

  • Guy Herbert

    Seeing that only one person could climb the ladder at a time, while someone else was needed to hold it, they decided that no-one should climb if they could not all be first.

  • Julian Morrison

    No, it’s mistaken to point the finger at “envy from below” either. The pattern of ideas was society-wide. All people, all social strata, all taking different roles and stands but within the same context. The ethic was cultural, whether one took the role of saint, sinner or victim.

    Oh, and I agree that the rising wave of individualism is what blew away the last shreds of “working man’s culture” – but this is hardly bad, it was collectivist to the core. And the same wave has shredded theocracy, communism, patriotism, is shredding leftism, and will shred statism.

  • Guy Herbert

    Maybe; the fable actually works better if it is a man on the parapet who decides none may climb if they are not all first. That man’s name might be Crossland.

  • Shawn

    Two points:

    First it is telling that in the current left wing New Zealand Government there is not one genuine working class person, and certainly none with any major responsibilities. Almost all of them are upper middle class chardonney socialists and ex academics. Yet these people claim to understand and represent working class people. Having actually been working class, and a labourer for most of my life until recently, I have always been struck by the vast gulf between the cultures and values of real working class people and the liberal-left.

    Secondly, Dalmaster is right.

    There is a very real difference between conservative ordered liberty, which places individualism in its proper place alongside other values of equal importance such as family, community, country, hard work, thrift, honesty and respect for others, and the faux individualism of liberalism, which can be summed up as pot, porn and profit.

    “When liberty becomes license, dictatorship is near”

  • Guy Herbert

    Unless you have some license, I sincerely doubt you have any liberty.

  • No Shawn, it is much, much simpler than that. If you pay people other people’s money if they act irresponsibly rather than making them, or the people who they reply on socially, pay the cost, then do not be surprised if they act irresponsibly. It is nothing less than infantalising them.

  • Shawn

    Welfare and Nanny state is part of the problem, even perhaps central to it, but so is the degradation of our culture, and the state is only partly responsible for that.

  • Ian Bennett

    The State is responsible insofar as it fails to punish incorrect behaviour, and indeed seeks to punish those who attempt to do so.
    When I were a lad, the local bobby would clip your ear to keep you in line. If you ran to your dad, he’d repeat the chastisement. These days the bobby would be suspended faster than you could say ‘police and criminal evidence act’, you’d be on the ‘at risk’ register and your father would be in court for assault, assuming he doesn’t take your side and sue for compensation instead.

  • Effra

    Mount comes from a minor gentry family (his father Robin was a well known amateur NH jockey) but threw his lot in with the oikish tendency of the Tory Party: he thought the only way it could win was by emulating the grammar-school mores of latter-day, not-so-socialist Labour while outbidding them on taxes. Like most Tories of all stripes, his main concern was being in power. He changed his mind later and wished he’d stuck with the paternalist toffs and dirigistes such as Alan Clark, Ian Gilmour and Douglas Hurd, his fellow OEs.

    He always puffs his “influence” over Mrs T. His main party job was answering letters from Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells, like Matthew Parris. She tended to employ effete younger men for this purpose.

    Ferdy was a pedestrian novelist who edited the TLS. He was always more a litterateur than a politician. I agree that “The Subversive Family” is a good piece of pop anthropology. Read between the lines and you can see why Thatcher’s wilder flights of economism and proto-neoconnerie would never be swallowed by the British electorate– too unBurkean, m’dear.