Change and the values gap
Updated: Dec 28, 2018
Below is an extract from Chapter Sixteen of Warring Fictions. This comes from the section of the book about alternative narratives to the Golden Era. It describes the Groupish, Individualist, Post-materialist shift in values.
vi. Groupish, Individualist, Post-materialist
The shifts we’ve looked at all relate, at least in part, to changes in the public’s values. There’s now less tolerance of prejudice, but a greater focus on personal autonomy. There’s less discrimination and deference, but a stronger emphasis on self-sufficiency. Many arbitrary barriers have been dismantled, but have often brought down with them ‘arbitrary’ support structures, like class identification and community.
The tendency is to see these changes as impositions by ‘the powerful’.[i] This is the narrative set out by left-libertarian filmmaker Adam Curtis, for example, in the documentary Century of the Self. Curtis describes a shift from a society driven by material resource needs to one powered by abstract appeals to self-image. ‘Elites’ engineered this using Freudian psychology, according to the film, to placate the masses.
Setting aside its conspiracist tone, there’s truth in the change which Century of the Self portrays. But what if you accept the transition, but think an evolution in the public’s attitudes has driven political decision-making – not the other way around?
Guardian columnist George Monbiot explores this, using what he calls ‘the values ratchet’. He sees the UK as having moved from ‘intrinsic’ to ‘extrinsic’ values. Intrinsic values are, in Monbiot’s view, wholly positive: “self-acceptance … tolerance, appreciation, cooperation and empathy” and “a powerful desire to help others.” Extrinsic values are the opposite: “lower empathy, a stronger attraction towards power, hierarchy and inequality, greater prejudice towards outsiders, and less concern for global justice and the natural world.”
The ‘values ratchet’, Monbiot says, is the process where reactionary, extrinsic values come to govern policy, thanks to politicians indulging them – meaning our politics gets more right-wing with each year that passes. It was through indulging the extrinsic values promoted by Thatcher, Monbiot argues, that Labour lost its way.[ii]
This analysis initially feels compelling. The accusation is that politicians have abetted the public’s worst instincts, not shaped them. This is more sophisticated than Puppet Master explanations.
Yet a glance at the decades before Thatcher shows that so-called intrinsic values weren’t the order of the day. Political deference, xenophobia, snobbery, jingoism, the death penalty, domestic violence;[iii] these phenomena were offset by things which are less prevalent now, like solidarity, pride in community and an ethos of self-sacrifice for the whole. But they weren’t the product of self-reflective, altruistic or universalist value systems.
The problem with Monbiot’s assessment is it assumes values are a zero-sum proposition. Instead of saying different values overlay or build up, depending on life experiences, the ‘extrinsic versus intrinsic’ analysis is a tug of war, between the compassionate and selfish instincts in each person. “These clusters exist in opposition to each other: as one set of values strengthens, the other weakens,” Monbiot writes.[iv]
An alternative approach, already mentioned, is the British Values Survey. To recap, this divides the different human values into three layers, with one of the three being the central driver for any individual at a given time. These are:
Groupish values – defined by fear of threats to resources, and driven by belonging, conformity, authority, safety, etc
Individualist values – characterised by aspirational, optimistic, status-driven and competitive motivations
Post-materialist values – built around social liberalism, universalism, internationalism, inner-fulfilment, and ethics
This framework argues that values develop based on needs. It rejects the division into compassionate or selfish values. Rather, it says that people are at different social and psychological life stages. Instead of a seesaw, the relationship between values here is more of a tissue effect; a build-up of different layers, partially dependent on culture and economics, but also driven by personal experiences and natural differences.
The general rule is that, over the generations, groupish values are gradually replaced, as the core, driving motivation, by more individualist values, once rising prosperity makes the need to stick together less acute. These, in turn, are usurped by a post-materialist focus, once status concerns retreat. Groupish, Individualist, Post-materialist.[v]
The table below shows how this has evolved in Britain. In 1973, when values analysis was first carried out, over half the population had groupish values. Now it’s a quarter. Levels of individualism have grown, as groupish values have gradually been supplemented by individualistic ones. And post-materialist values have increased too, as people move ‘through’ the individualistic cluster. The result is a country roughly split between the three.[vi]
These figures run counter to Monbiot’s view that we’ve seen a meta-shift from compassionate to selfish values. And it’s a rebuff to the ‘values ratchet’ idea – which claims that by indulging certain values we enlarge them. In fact, it implies the opposite, suggesting that only once populations fulfil groupish and individualist needs do people move towards the inner-directed, ethical and internationalist values Monbiot champions.
So, if, like Monbiot, your ideal is a society of post-materialists, then helping other groups to fulfil their values needs is the way to get there. As we’ve seen with Brexit and Trump, attacking other values systems as immoral often entrenches and enflames them.
From a truly pluralist perspective, this is beside the point. The progressive aim shouldn’t be to indulge others, so as to coax them to post-materialism. Instead, assuming we see government’s role as to meet the requirements of its people (“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”), the goal is to help people fulfil themselves in whatever ways they want – as long as this doesn’t harm others.
Monbiot’s analysis epitomises a wider Golden Era misdiagnosis – which is to assume Labour’s electoral bedrock in the 1940s or 1950s was built on environmentally aware, ethical and altruistic impulses. In reality, the left’s coalition was comprised of groupish motivations far more than post-materialist ones. Both sets of values eschew individualistic materialism. But groupish value systems do so on the pre-materialist basis that they want to protect the resources and identity of their tribe from freeloaders – whereas post-materialists reject individualism in favour of an egalitarian, universal and abstract philosophy.
This demonstrates why globalisation has driven a wedge into the traditional Labour coalition. It’s exposed, for instance, differences between the patriotic instincts of groupish voters in former heartlands, and the internationalist impulses of urbane post-materialists.
Hence, the British Values Survey reveals a different dynamic to Monbiot’s analysis. For sure, past societies were less driven by individualism and consumerism. But this was because times were hard, resources were scarce, and people clubbed together. This manifested itself in tight-knit areas with traditionalist attitudes, looking out for each other and scanning the horizon for threats. Collective identities were more powerful – with unionised industries and stronger communities. But this also led to attitudes Monbiot would be unlikely to celebrate – like groupishness on gender, educational background, sexuality or nationhood.[vii]
The misunderstanding here explains the romantic view of the Golden Era. And it’s part of the reason Labour often fails to understand changes in the population. What actually happened in the 1980s, for instance, wasn’t that selfishness trumped compassion but that the balance shifted from groupish values to individualistic ones. The population became less willing to see themselves as needing collective protection. And Labour’s coalition of groupish and (to a lesser extent) post-materialists values was unable to hold in the face of a swelling population of individualists.
Likewise, the view that younger generations’ support for Corbyn shows they’re finally backing old-school socialism. The reality is that millennials are unprecedentedly liberal. Younger cohorts “weaned in the age of choice” put stronger emphasis on personal autonomy, and have less collectivist attitudes to welfare or unionisation[viii] – while also being far more tolerant and pro-social.[ix] They’re moving away, in key respects, from the racial, sexual – or class-based – groupishness that characterised the populace five or six decades ago.[x] A 2014 report found that[xi]
Generation Y is more likely than other cohorts to believe the role of state should be more focused on providing opportunities and less on managing the risks individuals face. [It is] more concerned with personal independence and opportunity than compulsory systems of risk pooling and redistribution. However, younger people are no less likely to think that specific groups, such as the elderly, the disabled and low-income working families need to be supported.
Within this, we can discern both socially liberal variants of individualistic value systems (often among BME groups and less well-off young people), and, more significantly, ethical and egalitarian values systems (especially among graduates).[xii]
It’s this that explains the surprise appeal of Corbyn. Rather than rediscovering the ‘compassionate’ values that supposedly existed pre-Thatcher, Corbyn has lent voice to a younger cohort with unprecedentedly post-materialist and liberal ideals.[xiii] The process isn’t one of a pendulum swinging back.
One way of looking at the Groupish, Individualist, Post-materialist shift is via the ‘Angry Young Men’ novels of the post-war years. John Braine’s 1957 book Room at The Top is particularly interesting. Written two decades before the rise of Thatcherism – and set in the late 1940s – it contains early indicators of what was to come. The novel tells the story of Joe Lampton, an ambitious working-class man who moves from run-down Dufton to the affluent town of Warley, to work in local government. Joe, who has returned from WWII to a more prosperous society, is adequately provided for. He’s moved beyond the deprivation his working-class parents experienced. He has a job for life, and a white collar one at that, thanks to the upward mobility of the time.
Yet individualistic Joe, exposed in Warley to levels of wealth beyond his Town Hall existence, wants more. He sets out to escape his parents’ humdrum, groupish existence. Early on in the book, upon seeing a Warley man driving a sports car, he has an epiphany. Mulling over the social framework which both protects him from poverty and limits his prospects, Joe concludes:[xiv]
I made my choice then and there: I was going to enjoy all the luxuries that young men enjoyed. I was going to collect that legacy. It was as clear and compelling as that vocation which doctors and missionaries are supposed to experience, though in my case, of course, the call ordered me to do good to myself not others.
Returning to Dufton the subsequent Christmas, Joe goes to his former local pub and suddenly finds “It was too small, too dingy, too working-class; four months in Warley had given me a taste for… the authentic country pub.”[xv] He remembers his parents, meanwhile, as frustratingly unambitious, happy with their low status as long as the basics were provided: his father is a ‘Labour man’ who would always look after “his own” rather than himself.[xvi]
As the story unfolds Joe must choose between two women: Alice, for whom he’d have to provide, and Susan, the spoilt daughter of Warley’s richest businessman. Joe ultimately forms a Faustian pact, choosing money over love on the basis that “People could be happy in those little houses with their tiny gardens... They could be happy on my present income – even on a lot less. But it wasn’t for me.” He decides he must “force the town into granting the ultimate intimacy, the power and privilege and luxury that emanated from The Top.”[xvii]
Joe is a forerunner to the values changes in subsequent decades. His individualistic attitudes had evolved beyond the group allegiances that had got the country through the war. And his decisions in the book anticipate the next thirty years of social history: the selling off of public utilities; the aversion to tax increases; the widening gap between rich and poor, etc.
While Joe is unattractive to egalitarian sensibilities, the approach he takes begins to look understandable – laudable, even, in places – when seen from his first-person perspective. As he views it, he’s breaking from clannish orthodoxy and overcoming hierarchy. He may be egotistical – selfish, even – compared to his parents. But he’s also meritocratic and self-aware. He doesn’t identify as part of any tribe, and the primary battle is between him as an individual and the collectivist, stratified society that he feels holds him back.
Other Angry Young Men texts are similar. Alan Sillitoe’s 1958 novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning depicts Arthur, a young working-class man who also hates the groupish tendencies around him. This is directed at everything from his unionised workplace to the institution of the family to ideas of class solidarity, religion and the military. He takes for granted advances since the war, and boasts “I don’t believe in share and share alike.”[xviii]
The Angry Young Men authors were the products of a more educated, secure and prosperous era, but one which remained class-bound, provincial and unambitious. They would have hated the call to “Rise with your class, not out of it,” and were unhappy with societies built on groupish needs – hence why, despite starting out as firebrands and radicals, many moved rightwards over time.[xix]
If the Angry Young Men books are portentous, they’re not the end of the story. The rise in individualism has been followed by a rise in post-materialism, meaning a growing preoccupation with inner fulfilment, equality and the things money can’t buy.
If we look at the political coming-of-age of Russell Brand, we see this. Likewise, the ‘gap year’ phenomenon, which lets people find ‘deeper’ fulfilment, rather than joining the career ladder. Likewise, enthusiasm for fair trade and ethical production, and for cycling or backpacking. Likewise, increasing numbers of young people volunteering, or trying to find work with charities, think tanks and social enterprises. Likewise, the popularity of yoga or alternative music festivals, of international cuisines or vegetarianism. Likewise, the commercial pressure on big companies to have Corporate Social Responsibility departments.[xx] And, again likewise, the growing propensity for the liberal middle-classes to vote ‘against their interests’.[xxi]
Looking again to fiction, Hanif Kureishi’s state-of-the-nation novel The Buddha of Suburbia is a good illustration. Written in 1990 but set in the late 1970s, the novel shows post-materialism in its adolescence. Many of the characters – including the protagonist, Karim – are straining to move beyond status-conscious conformity.
Karim’s father reinvents himself as a spiritual guru, and the surrounding cast seeks meaning and connection in a variety of ways. Most are culturally liberal, with many attracted to socialism, at least superficially. They have fulfilled the individualistic needs, and crave inner fulfilment, be it political, spiritual or sexual. Eva, the middle-class woman at the heart of the book, who builds Karim’s father’s reputation as a guru, embodies the new post-materialism. She seeks exoticism, experimentation, self-actualisation, freedom of expression and a more ethical world. She’d be entirely at home at an event like The World Transformed – Momentum’s counter-cultural alternative to Labour Conference.
The post-materialism described in The Buddha of Suburbia always existed in sub-cultures: the bohemianism of The Bloomsbury Set; George Orwell’s decision to spend a year alongside the poor in Paris and London; the campus radicalism of the 1960s. Indeed, it’s visible among a few of the characters in Room at The Top. But post-materialist motivations are now, in 2018, evident in far larger proportions of the population.
Kureishi’s novel shows this trend early on. And while it’s easy to ridicule as a hypocrite and a faddist a character like Eva, the post-materialism she embodies has also brought a range of progressive attitudes on social issues. It has helped to promote internationalism, equality and sustainability.
Regardless of the merits of groupish, individualist and post-materialist values systems, the factors driving the transformations from one to the next are usually positive. The move from groupishness to individualism, for example, was the result of people having more disposable income, travelling further, seeing more things (and wanting those things for themselves), meeting a more diverse range of individuals, consuming more media and technology, becoming less deferential, etc.[xxii]
This had a dark side, leading to Thatcherite policies which made the playing field less level (and, in fact, less competitive and meritocratic). It led to communities being abandoned and to people being grossly over-rewarded. Yet individualism is also an inescapable part of the Groupish, Individualist, Post-materialist transition, a gateway to the values someone like Monbiot lauds. If people identify as individuals rather than as groups, they’re usually less willing to judge others by the groups they come from.[xxiii] Hence, the rise in individualism has inadvertently delivered more tolerance and self-efficacy, and less prejudice and deference.[xxiv]
The shifting emphasis towards post-materialism is also the product of positive change. Citizens in affluent countries are much more likely to have post-materialist values – thanks to the luxury of not having to worry as much about resource and status needs.[xxv] Preoccupations like freedom of speech, preservation of natural beauty, universal morality, sexual liberation, human rights and the primacy of ideas over money have all become more dominant in developed nations – nearly doubling between 1970 and 2000.[xxvi]
Even the 2016 rise in authoritarianism – seen by some as proof that we’re getting more conservative – arguably came as a backlash against the pace at which post-materialist and individualistic value systems had been embraced by political leaders. The feeling that mainstream progressive parties no longer speak for a single class bloc – or that conventional conservatives no longer speak for a single national tribe – helps right populists to mobilise groupish values.
This reflects a wider difficulty for politicians: that of appealing to an electorate split by values, and of keeping groupishness in the tent. The possibility of alienating one values set by over-appealing to another was less of a factor several decades ago – when there wasn’t the current three-way split. The risk, if the Groupish, Individualist, Post-materialist shift isn’t inclusive, is that we create our own version of the US ‘culture wars’. [xxvii]
Talking about ‘values sets’ might seem like psychobabble – especially for those who view issues through the prism of class. The problem, they’d say, is simple: from the mid-1980s on (and from 1994 in earnest) Labour triangulated away from those it was created to represent. Billy Bragg, for example, is critical of what he sees as New Labour’s indifference to the working-classes. And many claim Labour’s problem, pre-Corbyn, was that the party had abandoned its base.[xxviii] For left populists, a shrinking working-class is proof that the Golden Era myth is true.[xxix]
On the flip side, sceptics point out that Corbyn appeals most strongly to “middle-class graduates” and “wealthy city dwellers,” and highlight mounting evidence that he’s alienating working-class voters.[xxx] His supporters are derided for their “croissant eating” habits.[xxxi]
So, how does Groupish, Individualist, Post-materialist intersect with social class? To answer this, it’s important to distinguish between class as a form of identification (e.g. self-describing as working-class) and class as a form of work (e.g. having a manual job). Once we do this, we see three major changes since WWII, each of which relates to the Groupish, Individualist, Post-materialist transition.
Firstly, the proportion of the population doing manual and industrial jobs has decreased – from over two thirds in 1968 to less than half today.[xxxii] This has impacted on values, and particularly on the proportion with groupish values – which, as we’ve seen, fell steadily over the same period.
Many in the 1940s and 1950s would have needed to club together by class and community – to protect living standards and guard against threats. But this has changed as home ownership has risen, the economy has de-industrialised, and groupishness has become less of an economic necessity in parts of the country. As a result, larger proportions now have individualist or post-materialist value systems.
Secondly, class as a form of identification has become less straightforward, with more middle-class people identifying as working-class, and vice versa. 2014 YouGov polling showed that one in three adults now ‘gets their class wrong’.[xxxiii] Of course, there have always been ambiguities and anomalies – the working-class Tories who Disraeli described as ‘angels in the marble’, for example. But these would have been rarer five or six decades ago.[xxxiv] This is partly thanks to socio-economic complexities, which have made it harder to work out which class you fit into. But it’s also due to several major changes in values:[xxxv]
The rise of individualist values often means higher levels of social aspiration among working-class voters. This is especially true among C2 voters, and helps explains why some of those in working-class jobs might identify as middle-class.
Meanwhile, the rise in egalitarian, post-materialist values among the middle-classes means they’re more likely to feel embarrassed rather than proud of their high social status, and to be downwardly mobile in their politics.[xxxvi]
Lastly, there’s a meritocratic, individualist tendency among those who are now middle-class, but who self-define by their humble beginnings. These people are less left-wing and are – we might guess – proud of their working-class roots because they’ve had the aptitude to leave them behind.[xxxvii]
So, through working-class individualists, middle-class post-materialists and middle-class individualists, class identification has become more complex.
Thirdly, there’s been a decline in the correlation between voting and class. The aforementioned YouGov research finds that people are more likely to vote by the class with which they self-identify than with the class to which – in employment terms – they actually belong. Whereas political scientist Peter Pulzer famously said, in 1967, that “Class is the basis of British politics – all else is embellishment and detail,” the link is now more tenuous.[xxxviii]
This is partly thanks to a wider range of factors feeding into people’s politics – with faith, ethnicity, age etc meaning more complex forms of identification.[xxxix] It’s also down to there being less substantive policy difference between the interests of those in ABC1 jobs and those in manual professions.[xl] But, most centrally, it’s the consequence of declining partisanship, with more people voting on an issue-by-issue basis, or weighing up the pros and cons of each party.[xli]
Again, this links to values, with these contributing factors all stemming from an electorate who are more inclined to see themselves as individual entities – and to vote in the autonomous way that implies. Whereas those with groupish values are politically tribal, those with individualistic values are more likely to be swing voters, choosing their parties on the basis of personal pragmatism.[xlii] And those with post-materialist values are more likely to pride themselves on being flexible and independent thinkers.
In short, the more individualists and post-materialists there are, the less politicians can rely on mobilising large blocs of support. Through this we can understand why politicians of both left and right have – in their keenness to appeal to a range of voters – pitched themselves in the centre-ground, provoking accusations of ‘retail policies’ and ‘triangulation’.
Overall then, to recap, we’ve seen three intersections between class and values. Firstly, a rise in individualistic and post-materialist values, as the country has become less reliant on certain types of work. Secondly, class identifications converging and blurring, as people’s concept of their class becomes more value-driven and less employment-driven. And thirdly, the decline of class-based voting, as the collectivised voting patterns of those with groupish values have become less dominant.
Class is just one area where the Groupish, Individualist, Post-materialist transition is in evidence. But there are many other issues where a shift has taken place: the declining role of organised religion, nationalism and the trade union movement are other examples.[xliii] And, like all the shifts discussed, Groupish, Individualist, Post-materialist isn’t a wholly positive or wholly negative story. It’s simply a change that’s occurred, which has given to the left in some places, and taken away in others. What it does provide, however, is a rebuff to the romantic aspects of the Golden Era – which suggest the societies of yesteryear shunned opulence on moral grounds,[xliv] knew how to live ‘the good life’, and cared about the things that really mattered.[xlv]
[i] At some point during the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s, the argument goes, ‘elites’ saw the way the wind was blowing, and ceded a certain amount of ground to social liberalism so as to retain their economic privileges. Left-wing academic Jeremy Gilbert describes how the doctrine of ‘neoliberalism’ provided a “convenient set of discursive tools” for responding to the “rising tide of democratic demands.” Once they felt secure in victory, these ‘elites’ cynically played on issues like immigration to divert attention from their own privileges.
[ii] Monbiot writes that “when you change the way society works, our values shift in response. Privatisation, marketisation, austerity for the poor, inequality: they all shift baselines.” He adds that “Margaret Thatcher’s political genius arose from her instinctive understanding of these [extrinsic] traits.” This analysis says that Margaret Thatcher changed the country’s ‘soul’, and that no one since has had the courage to change it back. Monbiot adds that “values and baselines keep shifting, and what seemed intolerable before becomes unremarkable today. Instead of challenging the new values [New Labour] adjusted… When a party reinforces conservative values and conservative ideas … what outcome does it expect, other than a shift towards conservatism?”
[iii] Interestingly, domestic violence briefly became a source of contention on social media, after actor and centre left tweeter Eddie Marsan described the high levels of domestic violence growing up in an east end community in the 1970s. He was criticised forcefully online, for traducing the working-class communities from the past. Yet Marsan’s recollections are backed up by a range of evidence suggesting domestic violence was much more widespread in the past. As one defender of his put it, “you don’t lecture some bloke … who grew up in that atmosphere and loathed it, for good, decent reasons, because he has bad memories of that time... You just show your ignorance, and privilege, that you live in a softer world, the softer world that the generation he was part of made.”
[iv] This is based on a model developed by Common Cause foundation, which argues that social change must be framed in terms of good, ‘compassionate’ values: “selling people green behaviours and products on the basis of appeals to status, image, and money values” will not change attitudes, they claim, and can be “corrosive.” Rather you should frame it as a social good in itself. They suggest that failing to do this contributes to Monbiot’s ‘values ratchet’, whereby individualist or selfish values encroach further and further.
[v] Although the model is not bound by demographics – there are many with groupish values in social grade AB, for instance – values do correlate with affluence and education. Populations are generally moving towards post-material values across all classes, but it is the highest social grades that are often making this transition quickest. See ‘The myth of deconsolidation: rising liberalism and the populist reaction’, Journal of Democracy, Christian Welzel and Amy Alexander, March 2017, p.11. MPs like Alison McGovern are right to push back against the stereotype that working-class groups are riven with social conservatism. People of every background have become more socially liberal. But it is also true that middle- and upper-class groups have had the most extreme conversion, which has accelerated divides in some places.
[vi] Interestingly, the 2008 recession saw a temporary reversion to groupish values. Politically this was articulated by the rise of Ukip, whose support is overwhelmingly built on groupish value systems. ‘The New Electorate’, Nick Pecorelli, IPPR, 2013, p.19. Elsewhere, Christian Welzel of the World Values Survey describes how, over time, “fading existential pressures” make people “prioritize freedom over security, autonomy over authority, diversity over uniformity, and creativity over discipline.” Freedom Rising: Human Empowerment and the Quest for Emancipation, Chritian Welzel, Leuphana University, Lüneberg, Germany, Cambridge University Press, 2013, p.xxiii. And, Jonathan Haidt, referencing Wezel, clarifies that “Countries seem to move in two directions, along two axes: first, as they industrialize, they move away from ‘traditional values’ in which religion, ritual, and deference to authorities are important, and toward ‘secular rational’ values... Second, as they grow wealthier and more citizens move into the service sector, nations move away from ‘survival values’ emphasizing the economic and physical security found in one’s family, tribe, and other parochial groups, toward ‘self-expression’ or ‘emancipative values’ that emphasize individual rights and protections.”
[vii] The 1968 Ford Machinists Strike – dramatized in the film Made in Dagenham – saw a bitter struggle for women to be paid the same as men. The strikers’ male counterparts – and the male-dominated unions representing them – were felt to have been deliberately obstructive of the battle for equal pay. In this instance and in others, solidarity was a groupish concept. Other examples include the Mansfield Hosiery strike of 1972, the Imperial Typewriters dispute of 1974 and the Grunwick dispute in 1977.
[viii] Following a visit to a centre for young, working class people starting businesses, the journalist Jason Beattie reflect on the political attitudes of what he calls the ‘Uber generation’, a cohort “weened in the age of choice.”: “This is not the post Thatcher generation but the post Blair one. It is more fluid, un-beholden to neither the state nor past ideologies… They will care little who provides their schools or collects their taxes, still less whether that service is provided by staff who are unionised or wedded to particular ideology. Their only concern will be whether it caters for them with the same efficiency and immediacy as YouTube or Instagram.”
[ix] Between 1987 and 2011, 18-34-year-olds turned against redistribution at twice the speed as those aged 65+, and became twice as likely as older people to believe that the unemployed “could find a job if they really wanted one”. The Economist meanwhile, reported polling data in 2013 suggesting that British young people are “the most liberal generation ever.” As one columnist puts it, “the average under-40 is actually less sympathetic towards nationalisation, redistribution or left-wing policies in general than the old. What separates them from the Conservative-voting over-55s is that they are a) more socially liberal than older voters, b) they dislike Brexit both as an assault on their cultural values and because they fear it will make them poorer, and c) they can’t get on the housing ladder.”
[x] Think tank British Future notes that hostility to interracial marriage has fallen by 20% since 1993. Indeed, early Commonwealth controls explicitly made an issue of racial difference. One Cabinet Memo promised to “operate on coloured people almost exclusively.” How to Talk About Immigration, Sunder Katwala, Steve Ballinger and Matthew Rhodes, British Future, 2014, p.52-55.
[xi] ‘Social attitudes of young people: a horizon scanning research paper by the social attitudes of young people community of interest’, HM Government, December 2014, p.8.”
[xii] A TUC report into Britain’s ‘young core workers’ – that is, working non-graduates in their 20s – finds that they’re “status-driven and optimistic – and less loyal to causes or traditions.” They reject values systems driven by security and contentment with their lot, and like risk-taking and competition. In other words, their values systems are individualistic – in both positive and negative respects – far more than they are groupish. See Living for the Weekend, TUC, 2016, p.29-32.
[xiii] This helps explain Labour’s curious performance in the last General Election – winning Kensington but losing Mansfield. The 2017 result was “simultaneously Labour’s highest middle class support since 1979, and the Conservatives’ best score among C2DEs since then,” according to the Chief Executive of MORI. The analysis of John Curtice suggests a similar class realignment, and some have started to ponder whether there’s an altogether different route to power – the new swing seats being strongholds of economic and cultural capital, like Westminster or Putney. This compounds something which had been going on long before Corbyn, as Labour steadily came, in the light of a shrinking working-class, to garner its support from metropolitan liberals. Thomas Piketty suggests this has led to a state of affairs in the UK where both parties speak for privileged social sets. ‘Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right: Rising Inequality & the Changing Structure of Political Conflict (Evidence from France, Britain and the US, 1948-2017)’, World Inequality Lab, Thomas Piketty March 2018..
[xiv] Lampton writes: “The salary I’d been so pleased about, an increase from Grade 9 to Grade 10, would seem a pittance to him. The suit in which I fancied myself so much – my best suit – would seem cheap and nasty to him... That was the most local government had to offer me; it wasn’t enough.” Room at the Top, p.29.
[xv] Room at the Top, p.85.
[xvi] Room at the Top, p. 94-95.
[xvii] Room at the Top, p.197.
[xviii] Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, p.35.
[xix] This transition was made by John Braine, and was common to many of the Angry Young Men authors (although not to Sillitoe). Kingsley Amis, John Osborne and John Wain all began by attacking, from a left-wing perspective, the conformity and deference of the of class-bound post-war communities. But more often than not they took refuge in individual freedom and personal choice.
[xx] An interesting potted contrast here is the fact that the number of young people with driving licences has halved since 1994 – while the popularity of endurance sports has grown exponentially among the same cohort. As George Eaton points out, “Car ownership once provided aspirational voters with a stake in the market… Just as the car’s rise reflected an era of Conservative hegemony, so its fall marks the fracturing of the Thatcherite settlement.” The love of running and endurance sports, meanwhile, offers “regenerative escapes from the self” – according to sociologists. “By flooding the consciousness with gnawing unpleasantness, pain provides a temporary relief from the burdens of self-awareness, [helping] consumers create the story of a fulfilled life.” In short, this transition from Mazda to Tough Mudder reflects the shift from individualistic values to post-materialist ones.
[xxi] In a chapter on the rise of the so-called ‘Liberal Metropolitan Elite’, geodemograpic experts Richard Webber and Roger Burrows highlight a key turning point as the 1966 election, when Ben Whittaker was returned as the first ever Labour MP for Hampstead. “In an earlier era, it would have been unthinkable that Labour could win so middle class a seat,” they write, adding “During the 50 years since 1966 there has been a huge growth in the size, confidence and influence of this particular geodemographic group. A radical minority, once fabled for its eccentric habits – shopping at Habitat, reading Private Eye, wearing sandals, eating muesli and supporting human rights – …has now come to dominate large swathes of inner London and significant parts of the high status Victorian inner suburbs of Britain’s provincial cities.” The Predictive Postcode: The Geodemographic Classification of British Society, SAGE, Richard Webber and Roger Burrows, March 2018, p.141-163.
[xxii] In Room at The Top, Joe moves to a town where he gets a different insight into what life has to offer. He acts in a play by the thespian society and is exposed to socially liberal attitudes. At one point his lover, Alice, takes on his attitudes to gender roes, telling him that if he’d ever “mixed with intelligent people” he’d drop his “outraged respectability.” Room at the Top, p.117. Early on in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, meanwhile, Arthur predicts that within five years’ politicians will have put a man on the moon, an idea he has read in the paper but which his father scoffs at. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, p.29.
[xxiii] The decline of racism in football is an example of this. This was partly the result of intensive campaigning. But it also came from the influx of foreign and non-white players, as television money raised the profile of the Premier League. Football is based on clearly definable technical ability, and in a highly competitive environment, where the talent of an individual could win or lose you a game, the illogicality of racism was exposed.
[xxiv] John Gray writes that “post-Thatcher Britain is more divided than the society it replaced. Certainly it displays larger inequalities of income and wealth. At the same time, it is less fixed in its hierarchies and notably less ready to defer to authority… Thatcher destroyed the culture of deference in Britain.” As 1980s TV characters like Harry Enfield’s ‘Tim-Nice-But-Dim’ show, it ceased, at a certain point, to be enough that someone was born into a higher social station; they need to prove what they have done to earn that station.
[xxv] ‘Changing Values among Western Publics from 1970 to 2006’, Ronald F Inglehart, West European Politics, Vol. 31, Nos. 1-2, 130-146, January-March 2008, p.138. This has led some academics to describe post-materialist values as unrepresentative, and as specific to countries that are ‘WEIRD’ – an acronym for Western, Educated, Rich, Industrialised and Democratic.
[xxvii] The academic Pippa Norris identifies the rise of Trump as the consequence of groups for whom this has happened: “This long-term generational shift threatens many traditionalists’ cultural values. Less educated and older citizens fear becoming marginalized and left behind within their own countries.” She writes that the move towards post-materialist values has led to a gradual rise in authoritarian populism since the 1970s. Indeed, after the 2017 election, The Economist declared that the ‘culture wars’ had arrived in Britain.
[xxviii] Bragg claims this is the reason for the rise of the BNP in his home borough of Barking and Dagenham. Meanwhile, Margaret Hodge was attacked online as a “class traitor,” and Momentum Chair Jon Lansman has said Labour’s loss of the working-class vote was the result of centrists driving working-class voters away. Likewise, the RMT union endosed Corbyn so as to “keep building a Labour Party that fights for the interests of the working-class.” Paul Mason argues that Labour’s capitulation to Thatcherism led to a loss of working-class culture. Etc etc etc.
[xxix] In response to those who suggest New Labour “alienated many of the party’s core supporters,” Peter Kellner makes the following observation: “The real reason for [the decline in Labour’s working-class support] is that Britain’s economy and society have continued to evolve. Half a century ago, two-thirds of voters were working-class. In 1997, they still outnumbered middle-class electors by two million. Today, Britain has six million more middle-class than working-class electors. Of course the profile of Labour support has become more upmarket since 1997. That’s because Britain’s economic structure has changed, not because a disproportionate number of the party’s historic core voters have rebelled against the policies of the Blair/Brown years.” Indeed, as Janan Ganesh has argued, New Labour in fact returned Labour to its working-class roots, with its approach to patriotism and law and order, and with the number MPs from working-class backgrounds in its Cabinets.
[xxxi] This is according to work by the academic Tim Bale and colleagues, and to leaked internal data showing Labour becoming more middle-class under Corbyn. Accusations about croissants were according to a Labour peer, who complained that the party was becoming philosophical rather than practical. Elsewhere, Sarah Ditum has critiqued the “heritage, heirloom leftism” of Corbyn’s supporters, comparing the Labour leader’s appeal to the “retro pleasures you find at the farmer’s market” and arguing that he was a risk the middle-classes could afford to take.
[xxxiii] 34% of ABC1 voters see themselves as ‘working-class’ and 26% of C2DE voters consider themselves ‘middle-class’, according to the polling. Interestingly, just 1% of the population describe themselves as ‘upper-class’ despite other research showing that 4% are in social grade A – suggesting that the most privileged people now underplay their status. Likewise, it’s notable that the percentage identifying as working class has remained the same since 1983, despite the proportion in working-class jobs shrinking significantly.
[xxxiv] In analysing this YouGov data, Peter Kellner writes that “As far as I know, no equivalent data exists for the Fifties or Sixties, but it is hard to believe that the equivalent cross-over figures would have been anything like as high.”
[xxxv] Not only does the new socio-economic structure have seven classes, for example – according to the aforementioned research for the Great British Class Survey – but it’s also influenced in new and significant ways by ‘cultural capital’. The highest ranking class groups identified are no longer status-obsessed, socially out-of-touch and culturally narrow – in the style of, for instance, the Birling family in An Inspector Calls. They are culturally wide-ranging, socially networked and post-materialist. ‘A New Model of Social Class? Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey Experiment’, Mike Savage, Fiona Devine, Niall Cunningham, Mark Taylor, Yaojun Li, Johs Hjellbrekke, Brigitte Le Roux, Sam Friedman, Andrew Miles, 2013, p.245-246.
[xxxvi] One academic points out: “Snooty upper-class accents are no longer fashionable or admired and so have declined in value… Society drifts increasingly in the direction of enhancing, validating and endorsing the values of the lower classes.” This analysis chimes with a world where socially conscious, middle-class graduates increasingly borrow the slang of more deprived groups.
[xxxvii] This group are, according to the BSA, “in middle-class occupations [but] still think of themselves to a surprising degree as working-class, and especially so if their family background was working-class or they have never been to university.” Politically speaking, these are not the same as the downwardly mobile post-materialist graduates disguising their class: according to the BSA “[their] sense of working-class identity apparently means that they are less libertarian and less pro-immigrant, but not necessarily more left-wing”.
[xxxix] The BSA write that “we are seeing an increasing fracturing of attitudinal domains.” There are a number of different factors influencing how people choose to vote, rather than just class. See ‘Social class: The role of class in shaping social attitudes’, British Social Attitudes 30, Anthony Heath, Mike Savage and Nicki Senior, 2013, p.178.
[xl] On social questions like gay rights and drugs, ABC1 voters and C2DE voters poll similarly. Likewise, on most major socio-economic questions, there aren’t big class division; on welfare and unemployment, the NHS, social mobility and corporations there is also parity. And on questions about the super-rich, trade unions and tax, differences are minimal. The chief distinctions are that ABC1 voters are more internationalist (on immigration and Europe policies), and less pessimistic.
[xlii] Those with groupish values, for example, deserted Labour some time before the 2015 election – whereas those with more individualistic values were more likely to be the shy Tories who abandoned Ed Miliband’s party on polling night. See The Cruddas Review (Labour’s Future), The Independent Inquiry, One Nation Register, 2016, p.41-42.
[xliii] For instance, over successive generations the proportion of the population who see British identity in purely civic terms – e.g. having no ethnic component – has trebled, and the small proportion who don’t attach any meaning at all to national identity has risen from 2% to 10%. See ‘National Identity and Exploring Britishness’, BSA 31, NatCen, Zsolt Kiss and Alison Park, 2014, p.7. Similar trends apply to church attendance and trade union membership.
[xliv] As Labour historian Steven Fielding points out, “those that liked [Attlee’s] suggestion of a National Health Service did so largely because they hoped to personally benefit, far fewer looked on it as an act of redistribution.”
[xlv] This doesn’t just apply to Lily Allen’s wistfulness for a lost reservoir of authenticity and ethics, which are felt to be absent from the vulgar and atomised modern world. As early as 1937, George Orwell described “sandals-wearers…vegetarians, teetotallers and creeping Jesuses” who preached self-denial and were disappointed with how ordinary people chose to spend their disposable income once they had it – or that they chose to spend it at all. The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell, p. 134-135.