Johnson now has the serious task of restoring pride to the working class, failed by Labour

24 Jul

The New Snobbery: Taking on Modern Elitism and Empowering the Working Class by David Skelton

If David Skelton had delayed publication of this book by many more months, he would have had to rename it The New Orthodoxy.

For the lessons he urged in his last book, Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map, are becoming more and more widely accepted.

That book was reviewed on ConHome in October 2019, and in December of that year Boris Johnson redrew the political map by leading the Conservatives to victory in many of the forgotten towns.

Or the blue remembered towns, as one might now call them. The initiative now lies with the Conservatives.

The “new snobbery” identified by Skelton is mainly a problem for the Labour Party, which needs to regain the seats it lost in 2019, and cannot do so as long as voters in places like Hartlepool, captured by the Conservatives at a by-election held less than three months ago, feel despised by many on the Left.

That astonishing result came just in time for Skelton, who writes:

“Once the scale of the Hartlepool defeat for Labour had become clear, elements of the Left indulged in another round of electorate blaming. One claimed that the problem for the Left was that ‘a huge number of the general public are racists and bigots’ and asked, ‘How do you begin to tackle entrenched idiocy like that?’ Another claimed, ‘We don’t have an opposition problem. We have an electorate problem.'”

Skelton has collected much snobbery of this kind, some of which he quotes in his piece this week for ConHome.

In his book Skelton reminds us that such sentiments are not new. Here is Engels to Marx in November 1868, as newly enfranchised working-class voters supported “reactionary” parties:

“The proletariat has discredited itself terribly.”

Nobody has put it better than Engels. The workers often refuse to behave as progressive middle-class intellectuals instruct them to behave.

Skelton writes in a rushed, clumsy and gloomy tone about the dreadful delusions of the leftie intellectuals, but surely they have more cause for despondency as they contemplate Johnson’s to them incomprehensible success.

Lunatic “woke” nostrums, and attempts by their adherents to usher in a tyranny of virtue, cry out for a new Michael Wharton who helps us laugh to scorn these impertinent attempts to purify our history, language, institutions and the rest.

Earlier this week, I met a peer who has just been on one of the courses where members of the House of Lords are taught how to behave. He took it all with the utmost docility, but at the end asked his instructor whether it was all right to be rude to an Old Etonian.

“Oh yes,” she replied without a moment’s thought.

And perhaps that is one of the things people like about Johnson. One can be as rude as one wants to him and he doesn’t seem to mind.

The Prime Minister has an old-fashioned idea of liberty, as involving a degree of tastelessness; a propensity to live and let live; and a willingness to tease the Puritans, not least by avoiding a culture war fought on their own ineffably humourless terms.

We now have Wharton, not as a columnist for The Daily Telegraph, but as Prime Minister: a man capable of seeing the absurdity of everyone, including himself.

But there is another part of Skelton’s story where gloom is understandable. The destruction of great industries, the loss of skilled trades, the humiliation of proud workers reduced to scraping a precarious existence, is the dismal post-war story in town after town.

The example closest to Skelton’s heart is the closure in 1980 of the great steelworks in his home town of Consett, a topic dealt with at greater length in his previous book.

One of the worst things about the nationalisation after the Second World War of the commanding heights of the British economy was that decisions were no longer taken locally, but in London, where it was easier to pretend that parsimonious investment, limited by Treasury rules and recurrent public spending crises, would be adequate to modernise these grand old industries.

Local pride and ownership were lost. Now everyone owned the plant, which meant nobody owned it, and its future was in the hands of distant politicians and officials who for the most part had no deep knowledge or commitment.

The nationalised industries declined into job-preservation schemes which failed even in their own terms, a series of doomed rearguard actions as the great names of British manufacturing went under.

Just as modern architecture done on the cheap in the 1950s and 1960s led increasing numbers of us to shudder at the idea of allowing anything to be built, so regional policy and industrial policy were discredited by a lengthening record of failure.

In his recent Levelling Up speech, Johnson lamented the “basic half-heartedness” of the 40 different schemes or bodies which over the last 40 years have tried to boost local or regional growth.

He admitted that “for many decades we relentlessly crushed local leadership” because “we were in the grip of a real ideological conflict in which irresponsible municipal socialist governments were bankrupting cities”.

Now, he rejoiced, “that argument is over and most of the big metro mayors know that private sector investment is crucial”.

So we are at last returning to local leadership. That at least is the idea. We can be pragmatic rather than ideological, and can bring everyone together in a particular locality in order to do what works.

Skelton agrees that we should not allow ourselves to get “stuck in the endless trenches of a culture war”.

He observes that the Labour Party “emerged from those great institutions of working-class life: the chapel and the trade union”, but that the proportion of Labour MPs who were manual workers “has fallen from almost 20 per cent in 1979 to less than three per cent today”.

The party has become obsessed by cultural issues, and has forgotten that secure, well-paid work is what matters to its former voters.

Let the Labour Party debate cultural issues to its heart’s content, while the dignity of work is championed by the Conservatives.

Skelton wants to formalise “the partnership between workers and employers” by putting workers on boards, which he thinks would “help to rein in the excesses of executive pay”, and would “increase productivity, enhance retention and promote a long-term focus”, instead of short-term expedients to increase shareholder value.

Every successful Conservative leader from Disraeli to the present day has taken seriously the requirements of the working class, and has thereby triumphed over priggish middle-class Liberals and Socialists who supposed they were the true guardians of the workers. Here is a serious task for Johnson.

David Skelton: Why we should properly celebrate Saint George’s Day

23 Apr

David Skelton is the author of Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map.

Every St George’s Day, I have a bit of a ritual, which goes beyond the celebratory pint. I try to read Orwell’s ‘Lion and the Unicorn’, possibly one of the finest essays in the English language and almost certainly the finest essay ever written about England.

For Orwell, Englishness was a profoundly positive force and something to be celebrated. He argued that, “there is something distinctive and recognisable about English civilisation… it has a flavour of its own… it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past… And above all, it is your civilisation, it is you… The suet puddings and the red pillar boxes have entered into your soul.”

His Englishness was very much of the left. The essay is, after all, subtitled “Socialism and the English Genius”, but he was very much aware that elements of the left were deeply hostile to Englishness and deeply antagonistic to patriotism.

For him, the English intelligentsia represented an “island of dissident thought”, with England being the “only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality.” In some left-wing circles, there was “a duty to snigger at every English institution”, bemoaning the fact that throughout “the critical years” many left-wingers “were chipping away at English morale”, trying to “spread an outlook that was sometimes squashily pacifist… but always anti-British.”

That brings me to another annual St George’s Day ritual. Each year, without fail, various elements of the smug left-wing Twitterati remind us that “St George wasn’t actually English” and expect this information to act as a blinding revelation. Other elements of left wing social media either snigger at any mention of St George’s Day or seem appalled at any kind of patriotism.

We’ve all seen the Twitter accounts that treat the English or the British flag as something to be ashamed about and complain about “flag waving” and “jingoism”. These are often the same people who merrily waved Palestinian flags at the Labour Party conference and have European, Palestinian (and almost every flag other than their own) festooned across their Twitter account. They’re often sensitive souls too. One, with the inevitable EU flag on their social media profile, complained that Morrison’s use of the Union Flag on their porridge was “unpleasant and intimidating.”

The problem for Sir Keir Starmer is that such hostility to Englishness and patriotism isn’t just a fringe element in the modern left. In many ways it is the modern left. Despite the good work of the likes of Jon Cruddas and John Denham, a snobbery that looks down on working class patriotism has become the norm.

Little wonder that so many patriotic former Labour heartlands fell to the Conservatives in 2019. As Maurice Glasman argued, Labour became out of touch “with its history, traditions and the communities that cherished and created it. So out of touch that it couldn’t see the rejection coming.”

The new snobs of the left are completely wrong when they argue that Englishness and St George’s Day are somehow divisive. The truth is that Englishness is very much an inclusive identity, and that many of the recent events that brought us together as a country were based around Englishness. Who could forget the incredible feeling throughout the country when Gareth Southgate’s multi-racial England team made it to the World Cup semi finals in 2018? The only people who weren’t surfing the wave of patriotism seemed to be the Guardian columnists who were seemingly happy to support anyone but England.

Polls show that people from every background see Englishness as an inclusive and unifying concept. A poll for British Future showed that 61 per cent of people think that the St George’s flag should be flown more often and  a majority of ethic minority voters think St George’s Day parties should be held; 54 per cent of voters believe that paying more attention to Englishness would unite communities.  Nor is celebrating Englishness something that should detract from our precious union: 70 per cent of people in England regard themselves as both British and English.

The vast majority of people see England, its complex history and traditions with a sense of real pride. Centuries of freedom, expressed through our Parliament, is a central part of this pride. Today also marks Shakespeare’s birthday and it’s a reminder of the power of the English language, from the Authorised Version through to Byron and Blake. It has helped to define a culture that has made such a profound difference to the world. A uniquely English use of language is still very clear in the lyrics of people like Alex Turner, Ray Davies, Joe Strummer and Pete Doherty.

There’s so much to celebrate in English music, architecture and culture, which has spread English identity globally; and more locally, in the English pub, English humour, the beauty of the English countryside, and the great games of football and cricket.

Celebrating Englishness is something that will help to strengthen a sense of community. We have all seen local communities come together during lockdown and we should do what we can to maintain these new bonds.

Strengthening community is, of course, a key goal of the Government and Danny Kruger set out a number of sensible proposals in his excellent Levelling Up Our Communities report. Many of the ‘Red Wall’ towns that drove Brexit are also towns that have seen community facilities and “social infrastructure” damaged by deindustrialisation, austerity and economic decline.  Marking important occasions, like St George’s Day, isn’t going to revive community spirit single-handedly (that needs genuine empowerment of local people and renewal of local facilities), but it will be a step in helping restore community spirit.

Community will not be strengthened by an identity-obsessed left or by economically reductionist libertarians. As conservatives, we instinctively understand the importance of place, community and continuity and doing more to mark St George’s Day will strengthen all three. We should make a much bigger deal of St George’s Day and make it a day for everyone to share our pride in England and Englishness. Why not make St George’s Day a bank holiday in England as St Andrew’s Day is in Scotland or St Patrick’s Day in Northern Ireland?

As James Frayne argued on these pages a few months ago, bringing back local events is an important way of restoring local pride and a sense of community and the revival of St George’s Day events in 2022 and beyond would be a great way of bringing communities together.

When he was Mayor of London, Boris Johnson was right to push back against the lunacy of London spending millions on St Patrick’s Day parades but doing nothing for St George’s Day. He introduced free events and celebrations so that the day was no longer ignored in London and correctly argued that “St George’s Day is a time to celebrate the best of everything English.”

Just as London started to celebrate St George’s Day properly when Boris was Mayor, hopefully from next year onwards the rest of England can be encouraged to mark the day as well. This year, we can mark the occasion in a beer garden, in a socially distanced way. Next year, when the nightmare of Covid is behind us, hopefully people in villages, towns and cities around England will be able to come together to celebrate our Englishness and raise a glass to St George.

David Skelton: Snobbery against the white working-class is all too common among the “progressive” Left

25 Jun

David Skelton is the author of Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map.

A new snobbery has taken hold within elements of the liberal-Left. This new snobbery is all too often proudly on display across social media and the target of this new snobbery is always the white working-class.

As the Left becomes increasingly middle class, both in their electorate and in their representatives, they have become increasingly detached from those working-class voters that the Labour movement was established to represent.

This means that a sneering attitude towards working-class voters is too often accepted among elements of what Michael Lind described as a “managerialist elite” on the Left, at the same time as those white working-class voters remain economically, culturally and, in many ways, politically, marginalised. 

You don’t have to look hard to find examples of the new snobbery. Only last week, parts of social media were alight with self-congratulation about a new work of modern art that had appeared in Bristol. The sculpture was of an overweight man, wearing a string vest. On the wheelie bin itself were the words “spoiler: St George was Turkish.” It was a clear display of neo-snobbery, accompanied by the smug condescension that overflows from Twitter every St George’s Day.

Only a few days earlier, a media producer rightly criticised the behaviour of some far-right thugs in Parliament Square only to also suggest that they looked like they had been “born in a Wetherspoons” – that would be the Wetherspoons that has 900 pubs and employs almost 40,000 people.

The infamous cover of The New European that had the “Jolly Fisherman” mascot of Skegness flipping the “V-sign” while wearing a jumped carrying the slogan “Go Away” is another example of the new snobbery, as were the sneering comments about the lengthy queues outside some Primark stores earlier last week.

In too many cases, the white working-class are ridiculed, stereotyped and portrayed as somewhere between bigoted and racist. Such crude prejudice and stereotyping would be rightly unacceptable for any other group and they should be utterly unacceptable about the white working-class as well.

These attitudes crossed into the mainstream after the Brexit referendum, in which working-class voters propelled the vote to Leave after decades of being economically marginalised and politically ignored. Too many Remainers refused to accept that working-class voters had voted Leave because they had thought through the arguments and had come to their decision logically.

Instead, many middle-class Remain supporters resorted to downright snobbery to explain the fact that working-class voters had overwhelmingly voted to Leave. This attitude was, of course, compounded when many of these voters voted Conservative for the first time, partially in response to condescending overtures from the Left that a second referendum would give them a second chance to give the “right answer”.

Dismissal of working-class voters has been compounded with the rise of what John Gray describes as “woke militants”. Rather than rightly focus on existing injustices faced by the BAME community, such as in criminal justice and economic inequality, the fringe of the “woke” movement is driven by a near Maoist belief that British history is a long trail of unblemished negativity.

Part of this is a belief in “white privilege” – that comes from their division of society into oppressed and oppressor groups, with white working-class males falling firmly into the oppressor category. The idea that the men, like my Grandad, who died young with black lung disease after decades working down the pit were somehow beneficiaries of white privilege is clearly a nonsense.

The idea that those workers the Labour Party was set up to represent were actually beneficiaries of “white privilege” is clearly folly and the fact that some Labour politicians talk about such a concept shows how far Labour has drifted from many working-class voters.

The white working-class became politically, economically and culturally marginalised at just the time when the impact of ignoring or mocking their concerns had become clear. They became squeezed between an economic liberalism that shook up patterns of secure employment and a cultural liberalism that belittled the worldview and marginalised the concerns of many working-class people.

Working-class voters bore the brunt of the economic decline that followed deindustrialisation, with proud and dignified work being replaced with low skilled, often insecure work. The same voters were among the hardest hit by the decade long-wage stagnation that followed the banking crash. Health and social problems continue to be a major issue, with male life expectancy in the most deprived areas being almost a decade lower than in the least deprived areas.

White, working-class boys are the lowest performing demographic group at GCSE level and research has shown that this educational divide becomes entrenched from the age of five.

The same group are also amongst the least represented at university. Indeed, research earlier this year found that more than half of universities had less than five per cent of students from white working-class backgrounds, despite this demographic being the largest proportion of the population.

Bold steps will be needed to tackle these economic, social and educational divides. Focusing education reform on those areas most in need will be one part of this, as will ensuring that this reform also includes a boost to early years education and an ambitious programme of dual-track vocational education.

Education reform must be accompanied with the revival of “post-industrial” towns and cities so that social mobility doesn’t become synonymous with escape for the few and stagnation for the rest. An ambitious programme of industrial renewal could help both revive many towns and make our economy more resilient.

The snobbery about the white working-class is an unacceptable underbelly of much of today’s “progressive” Left. By voting Conservative in record numbers last December, these voters in the “Red Wall” and beyond showed that the sneering attitude from much of the Left hadn’t gone unnoticed.

It’s now incumbent on the Government to ensure that this trust is repaid and living standards are dramatically improved for working-class voters.