Mind the Gap – Ferdinand Mount
Ferdinand Mount is a Baronet novelist who always wrote very interesting and insightful columns for various right of centre newspapers. He’s also the author of the 1983 Conservative Party Manifesto, but I wasn’t minded to hold that against him initially when I picked up “Mind the Gap”.
It’s an interesting book, revealing in a number of ways, and I like the fact that a High Tory is both prepared to address these subjects and to admit – mildly – that the growing income inequality between rich and poor is the fault of all major governments in this country, the Blessed Margaret’s included. The only problem is, the more I read of it, the more issues I had.
The first would be the feel of the book. There’s a slightly out of date tourist style description of working class life (or, as he christens it, “Downer Life”, more of which later), which for me is summed up best in this passage, about the decor of a working class house:-
“Here the carpet will be of a violent, highly coloured design, whorled and clustered and splashy. The wallpaper will also be colourful, often of a floral design, and frequently textured with a flock finish or a crusty effect. There will be a matching three piece suite. On the walls you are most likely to see family photographs, although there may be landscapes…if there is a bookshelf, it may constain china and glass ornaments as well as books” (p.39)
Now, I didn’t really bristle at the above account, even though it was a Baronet novelist dissecting the household furnishings of those poor chaps. But what I did do was think “Yes, that sounds like many a working class house I visited….in the 1970s”. It may have escaped Ferdinand’s attention, but that’s not the house of a young working class man or woman. We do, y’know, know the way to Ikea.
Ferdinand also has a bit of a problem with identifying the subjects of his book. After first throwing out all previous notions of class, (including a passage where he makes the point that Marx wasn’t averse to mixing up his definitions of what constitutes the working class), he settles on the categories of “uppers” and “downers”. Basically, uppers are those who have control over their life, but those poor downers….well, they once did have control over their life but guess what happened?
There’s rather long paeans to working class organisation and culture before the insidious growth of the Welfare State, the co-ops and the mutuals, the togetherness and community. The sense that you get is that Mr Beveridge’s well meaning reform was idiocy and now stands in the way of the “downers” siezing control of their destiny. So far, so standard Tory position.
He’s got a point – more than a point – about the state often being the tool of the middle classes who wish to reform the working classes into something prettified, sanitised, and by far the strongest passages in the book are where he quotes various middle class and intelligensia voices that reek of fear of the mob. What he doesn’t quite explain, however, is how many of the most successful and strongest advocates for state intervention have been from that working class/lower middle class borderland – Lloyd George, Bevan, Prescott, to name 3. It also ignores the engagement of the working class with the state and with the project of the state – whilst telling us how the NHS is failing the lower orders, who does he think makes up the vast majority of NHS staff? I’d hazard a guess that your average hospital orderly isn’t a sneering member of the upper middle class intelligensia.
Similarly, he cherry picks quite substantially. His condemnation of the comprehensive school project rely on a few well-worn calumnies about progressive schools who don’t allow competitive sports and don’t allow children to compete academically and yadda yadda yadda. I grow tired of these arguments against comprehensive schools, for several reasons. The first being, they only represent a tiny minority of progressive schools – the vast majority of children who went through the comprehensive system played competitive sports, competed with each other for exam results, and were educated in pretty much the same way that children have been educated since year dot. The only difference? They weren’t *pre*streamed for wealth, social background or the occasional working class intellectual dynamo. The second objection I have is that comprehensives were never given anywhere near a chance. There was a brief ten year period of switchover, followed by the siren calls of the right (and those that pretended they were “of the left”) for a return to selection, which has been the dominant strain ever since.
This, really, goes along with the dislike of the State to give you a feel what this book is about – on the one hand, a well meaning wish for the chattering classes to stop excluding the working class, stop demeaning it and talking down to it becomes “Chavs” filtered through “Red Tory”. To make his argument, the pre-lapsarian life of the working class is portrayed in roseate nostalgia, and the way they live now (and here we see the point of the “Downer” designation, because the working class get lumped in with the underclass) is portrayed as…well..”Broken”.
And, of course, he has a point that healthy working class community has been broken. The reasons he gives, however, aside from The State and the sneering of the chattering classes can be summed up as “We took away their love of God and we sneer at their love of the Monarchy”. Again, this argument is a substantial cherry pick -Republicanism and atheism are, apparently, the territory of a sneering middle class who look down on those below them and their silly love of Throne and Pulpit.Throw in a little bit about marriage being degraded and you see, the divorce laws, ruined family life for those chaps, you know?
Bizarrely, for a book which in the first couple of chapters dismisses the idea of economic equality as either attainable or desirable (and offers as his justification the idea that “the left have agreed”, and uses as his example of the left the New Labour party of Tony Blair….), his final solutions do include the idea of a land bank, which is mildly distributionist (it’s noticeable that the land to be given away to the working chaps by this landbank will firstly be a small size – enough to build a cottage or house on – and secondly, will be taken from farmers who don’t use all their land rather, than, say, the Queen, the aristocracy, the Church, et al) but the majority of the book ignores the economic for these cultural markers.
The total feel I got, therefore, is of a wasted project. It’s of Ferdinand recognising there are problems but getting the entire thing arse about tit, and thinking that the problem is with the chaps at the bottom losing heart, rather than having the heart pummelled out of them by economics that have for the past 40 years pushed them further down. No amount of God and Monarchy and Flag is going to bring life back into the depressed towns of Northern England or Wales or Scotland. The answer lies in lifting up, not trying to ensure the proles are happier with their lot.