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A Working Class Tory is Something to Be: Cultures of Aspiration.

August 4, 2017


David Davis is a busy man these days.  He’s busy humiliating his country with clueless and unresearched slogans (barely) dressed up as negotiating positions while his EU counterparts shudder at the spectacle of someone who can sacrifice his own country’s national interests so blithely to his own political ego.

But in 2010 he made a documentary for BBC Radio 4 that a Facebook friend was kind enough to alert me to.  You can find it here…

Davis treats the history of working class Toryism,  from the age of Macmillan to the age of Cameron (so distant and discredited a figure that he feels like he already belongs in a faded school history textbook).   He posits the idea that there are essentially two traditions of working class Toryism – the deferential and the aspirational.  There are those who doff to toffs because they feel calm and reassured by Etonians in high places.  And then there are those who aspire to join the middle classes and dislike being pigeon holed as “working class” with working class interests.  Naturally Davis positions himself as an aspirational working class Tory and regards a culture of aspiration as by far the dominant tradition.

But if you listen to the aspirant working class Tories being interviewed, led by Norman Tebbit and Eric Pickles, you notice an important paradox.  When asked what the Conservative Party has to offer working class people, perhaps the most important thing cited is “the chance to give their children a head start”.  Several mentions are made of being able to send children to a (better) private school, something I know for a fact that Tebbit did.  Having fought the good fight, you do your best to ensure that your offspring are protected from having to fight it themselves.

In short, the disturbing reality seems to be that an electorally significant section of those who succeed in bettering themselves wish to convert this meritocratic momentum into hereditary privilege as soon as possible.  Many of those who benefited most from the welfare state and free education, who used the securities and opportunities provided by post war socialism became keen that such advantages should not be made so widely available to succeeding generations.

By the twenty-first century, it became axiomatic in popular right wing discourse to say that welfare is a “trap” – that the welfare state immobilises people and prevents them from bettering themselves.

This notion is of course an egregious and obvious and transparent lie – and like all such political lies – it gets louder the more egregious it becomes.

Here’s some research…

This and other studies bear out the same common sense and observable reality.  Nations like the USA and the UK that have declared war on their own welfare systems have lower rates of social mobility than nations that have preserved them.  The highest rates of social mobility are to be found in those nations with a comprehensive welfare state and free access to tertiary education.  Those nations that spout aspirational and meritocratic rhetoric the loudest tend, by contrast, to be “born poor – die poor” nations.

The reason why welfare states are actually aspirational is obvious as well observable.  People who are struggling to survive from pay check to pay check do not usually “better themselves”.  Once people’s immediate wants are taken care of, people have to time to indulge their aspirational imaginations a bit more.  This means, paradoxically, that mid twentieth century social democracy had the effect not of consolidating class allegiance, but instead breeding a genuine meritocracy.

Sadly, while places like Finland seem broadly successful at creating a consensus that each generation deserves at least the same chances as its predecessors, in the UK there has been an electorally significant subset of public opinion that has insisted that once one generation has made use of certain ladders, these ladders are to be hauled up afterwards.

Paradoxically, in the USA and the UK, a meritocratic narrative can even become a form of hereditary cultural capital.  I was once engaged in an online discussion which soon became discussion about the disgusting and delusional race-baiting sex criminal who was in the middle of his successful bid to occupy the White House.  While his crimes were being enumerated, our discussion was interrupted by someone calling himself “The Real Donald Trump” who just said “what about my grandfather who arrived in the States with nothing?”  For this character -whoever or whatever he was – an ancestor who manages to better themselves legitimates the hereditary privileges of all their descendants in perpetuity.

Davis’ 2010 radio programme echoed this same idea.  “We managed to work to better ourselves but our children won’t have to.  I fought for what I have, but my children and grandchildren will enjoy what’s theirs by hereditary privilege.”  Central to this post-aspirational working class Toryism is, of course, kickdownism.  It creates a mental universe of lifeboats afflicted by “hoards” clutching for space which your parents or grandparents fought to occupy.  The essence of kickdownism is to turn those who are just about getting by against those who just about aren’t – to make people fear those who are clutching at your heels more than those who are kicking you in the head.



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