‘White working class’ kids are the latest victims of Long Thatcherism

By David Osland

One must assume Conservative MP Robert Halfon concurs with Joe Strummer’s dictum that white people go to school, where they teach you how to be thick.

After that, the two guys don’t draw the same political conclusions from the disparity in academic outcomes between Caucasian proletarians and the rest.

The punk band frontman counselled robust forms of protest that would definitely get you banged up for a decade under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021.

But the chair of the Education Select Committee is happier cynically to stoke the culture war.

Halfon is highlighting decades of educational underachievement from the ‘white working class’ and stacking up the contention with statistics on every metric from GCSE passes to university admissions to prove it.

The problem is trendy teaching, particularly such dangerous leftwing notions as white privilege. And to paraphrase Orwell, he is playing with matches in the full awareness that fire burns.

I’m not going to get into a defence of this intuitively reasonable concept here. We know what we mean by these expressions.

But plenty of white guys in shit-shovelling low-wage zero-hour contract jobs don’t feel privileged, and that kind of grievance is fertile territory for the Tory right. Expect a backlash.

I think I might – as the white son of a railway worker and a nurse – have something to say on this one. What has held back children of my background in recent decades, especially boys, is not antiracism. It’s Long Thatcherism.

The 1980s saw entire communities like the one I grew up in crushed by deliberate deindustrialisation and mass unemployment, as the Tories shut down factories, pits, steel mills, shipyards. Entire towns lost the raison d’être that had been theirs for centuries.

Labour did nothing to reverse the process, and now boys in mining, steel and shipbuilding towns are getting scapegoated for not wanting to move to cities they can’t afford to live in and train to be hedge fund managers, lawyers or at the very least graphic designers.

Even when they get the educational qualifications, they lack the self-confidence, the connections, the private incomes to allow them to take on internships.

Halfon’s refusal to accept that working class people have always been the losers in the class war has many precedents.

His Victorian predecessors blasted the great unwashed for their general fecklessness.Sir Keith Joseph blamed low intelligence mums, who made for such poor breeding stock. Iain Duncan Smith imported US cod sociologyconcepts such as dependency culture.

But however they explain inequality, the right does nothing to tackle it. Many measures from the Tory and Lib Dem governments seen since 2010 have exacerbated the problem.

New Labour programmes such as Sure Start and Education Maintenance Allowance were at least intended to tackle working class education disadvantage. That’s why they were axed.

I’ll only believe privately-educated Tory MPs like Halfon are remotely serious about ending educational disadvantage when they start dismantling private education.

Meanwhile, in a cabinet chock-a-block with Old Etonians, nothing has changed since the first Clash single. All the power’s still in the hands of the people rich enough to buy it.

David Osland is a member of Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP and a long-time leftwing journalist and author. Follow him on Twitter at @David__Osland

Image: Joe Strummer performing with The Clash at the Tower Theater Show March 6, 1980. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/65258891@N00/4410174174. Author: John Coffey, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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