Heaping blame at Nanny's door

24th September 2004 at 01:00
Mind the Gap: Class in Britain Now. By Ferdinand Mount. Short Books. Pounds 14.99

In 1910 an itinerant, half-educated house painter and decorator called Robert Noonan, better known as Robert Tressell, completed the first draft of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, which documents the futile lives of wage slaves who eke out a miserable existence in the building trade.

Their brief is to produce excellent work and, at the same time, to maximise profits, to cheat demanding and capricious clients. Selling their labour for near-starvation wages, they subsidise the upper classes: they are philanthropists who can ill afford their generosity. Noonan knew of what he wrote. In 1911 he died of pneumonia in Liverpool workhouse (infirmary) hospital and was buried in a pauper's grave.

If he had known that in 2004 a well-paid journalist would declare that the working classes were never so well off as in the first hundred years of the industrial revolution, he might have been surprised. Ferdinand Mount, a close adviser of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher and former editor of The Times Literary Supplement, warns of a widening class gap in Britain.

This is not between, as before, the rich and poor, but between two groups whom he styles Uppers and Downers, and characterises as restless moneyed types looking for self-fulfilment and shaven-headed thugs with a beer can in one hand and pit bull's lead in the other.

The causes lie in "nannying" government, which has robbed the working class of the self-reliance, resilience and other qualities for which they have been famed: tolerance, Dunkirk spirit, endurance, clean houses.

Mount's solution, which he sees as radical, is to redistribute land and make businesses co-operative. All this is based on an extraordinary version of history. None of the oral and written evidence on the condition of the poor from Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor (1861) or the work of Sidney and Beatrice Webb in the 1880s is mentioned. Professor Paul Thompson's The Edwardians (1975) tells us that, in the slums of Southwark in 1901, life expectancy was 36; it is now more than double that. At that time, infant mortality was 33 per cent for the lower classes, 4 per cent for the middle classes. One middle-class dinner was estimated to cost the same as the total expenses overtwo years of a widowed washerwoman with three children. None of this is referred to.

Mr Mount has done some research, though, and admits that before compulsory education in 1870 there was schooling, organised and paid for by the poor themselves, that not every poor person was sunk in "moral depravity", that people got satisfaction out of earning their own living, that many working-class people led lives of dignity and interest, with hobbies and religion and art and music. Then, he argues, the Nanny State stepped in and taught the working classes to be dependent on its agents for every aspect of life.

To paint this picture he has to skate hastily over not only the National Health Service but also public works such as sewers - thousands used to die in cholera epidemics in the 1840s and 1850s - and the Mines and Factory Acts. It was not until 1867 that all factories were covered by the provisions of successive, hotly contested, acts limiting the use of child labour to those over eight and to "half-time", that is six-and-a-half hours a day - more than this age group currently spends in school.

At the same time, Mount's fable continues, as the decent, suffering-in-silence workers of the 1930s (if life was so good, how come they suffered?) were being turned into menacing Downers who swamp urban life and TV screens with dropped consonants and unseemly brawls, the effete Uppers were abandoning their duty to their country and seeking salvation in more interesting jobs and holidays abroad. And this is how, he argues, the mess we are in today evolved, when no one is proud to be British.

At pound;14.99 for a very short book, Mr Mount seems safe from the gap for a while. But for those on the other side of it, perhaps we might remember that four-fifths of those who volunteered to fight for the British Empire in World War I, a war in which they fought and died for no good cause other than that mindless patriotism which Mr Mount is proud to espouse, had teeth so bad, according to the Army Commission, that they could not eat solid food. Mind the pap.

Victoria Neumark

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