The TV programme broadcast on Channel 4 at 10pm on Tuesday 9th January 2018 entitled Working Class White Men offered some deep insights on significant aspects of populism and alienation in England now. This programme was presented by “Professor” Green who is not a real professor but a rapper: nor, so far as I know, does he have any academic qualifications. Nevertheless, as a man with a working class background himself, I believe that he presented deeper insights into the causes of populism, alienation, and racism in England than many professors who profess to study such subjects.
Publicity for the programme suggested that “if everyone who felt marginalised and angry in modern Britain was to step forward at this moment, there’d be a long queue indeed.” It attempted to understand the particular issues facing working-class white men. “Professor” Green met Lewis, who was trying to get a student place in Cambridge Unversity ,entrepreneurial Denzil and David who is homeless, furious and flirting with far right policies. The programme tried to understand their alienation, its causes and its consequences.
After an initial sharp boom after 1945, the tendency for the prosperity of British industry to decline relative to the economies of other advanced countries – which had been apparent well before 1900 – resumed. This resulted in inexorable decline of the then vast number of British workers employed in very large workplaces, primarily in manufacturing, coal mining and the railways. Most of these workers were organised by powerful trade unions committed to the Labour Party; the leaders of trades unions were committed to supporting that Party and had some influence in that respect over their members. Further, many of the workers who were both trade unionists and Labour Party supporters, were committed to socialist values, and were living in solidly working class communities which shared their values. The number and size of those communities was steadily eroded as manufacturing, railway and coal mining all declined steadily and continually. As consequences, there were more or less parallel declines in the number of committed Labour supporters; and in the commitment of the Labour Party and its membership to egalitarian, socialist or social democratic values. For such reasons, the possibility of a socialist or social democratic government was at its peak in around 1947 and declined inexorably in the period up to 1979.
After 1979, Thatcher-led governments made numerous, and so far very successful attempts to reduce the possibility of a socialist or social democratic government ever governing again in the UK. Perhaps the most successful element in Thatcher’s rather well co-ordinated strategy, was in relation to housing. The 1980s saw an unprecedented expansion of home ownership in Britain which started with the Right to Buy scheme in 1980. The drive for owner-occupation in place of council houses played a key role in destroying the solidarity of the Labour movement by creating individualistic values supportive of capitalism amongst a large number of workers who had previously been inclined towards socialist values. This process was accelerated by the later rapid destruction of the already steadily declining coal-mining industry which replaced large communities of Labour supporting socialist inclined workers with perhaps two generations of workers who have become alienated from society. In parallel, similar processes have happened more gradually in areas where manufacturing employment which had been huge, and has been reduced very substantially.
In particular, many English working class white men who had lived and worked in what were previously areas of large solid working class manufacturing and coal mining communities, have become alienated from society and have become very receptive to powerful messages scapegoating immigrants and the EU as responsible for the profound defects of British capitalism: these formed the core of the pro- Brexit campaign by Ukip and Conservative Brexiteers in the 2016 Referendum; and now form an important element in the present Government’s insane Brexit policy.
Such messages have been widely disseminated by politicians and newspapers, in particular the Daily Mail, Sun and Daily Telegraph, by leave politicians and in social media during and since the Referendum campaign. Indeed, I go so far as to suggest that in their pro- Brexit campaign, certain British politicians have greatly enhanced the propaganda techniques so forcibly and effectively used by Joseph Goebbels to scapegoat Jews for creating the much more serious problems faced by Germany in the 1920s and 1930s: Since then, technology has developed rapidly to enhance the power of propaganda.
De-industrialisation has certainly been an important factor in causing alienation and generating support for populist policies amongst white male workers in the USA as well as in the UK, and possibly in several other countries. In the U.K. pro Brexit populism incorporates racism mainly in the form of hatred of immigrants. Trump’s racism is expressed in terms of hatred of ethnic minorities living in the US, and of Muslims wherever they live.
The UK was a pioneer in industrialisation, and since the late nineteenth century a pioneer of de-industrialisation. From the 1980s, Thatcher-led governments also pioneered destroying egalitarian values and replacing them with individualistic values amongst the working class by means of implementing divisive housing policies, and by adopting policies which accelerated de-industrialisation and caused severe damage to the solidarity of working class communities. Since 2016’s Referendum, important sections of the Conservative Party, historically a long-established major centre-right political party, have adopted several ideas emanating from the small right-wing Ukip Party, and have been disseminating similar right-wing populist ideas. Donald Trump used a fundamentally similar ideology as the basis for election as a Republican US president. Indeed, I consider that it is entirely reasonable to accuse Boris Johnson and some of his fellow pro- Brexit ministers of being right wing populists.
This is in sharp contrast to several European countries in which populist policies, while gaining in strength, have remained the preserve of new extremely right wing parties: for example, I believe that, for all their defects, it would be unreasonable to accuse either Chancellor Merkel or President Macron of being right-wing populists.