Why the Working Class was Never ‘White’

by Jon Lawrence

The ‘racialisation’ of class in Britain has been a consequence of the weakening of ‘class’ as a political idea since the 1970s – it is a new construction, not an historic one.

First published: 26 December, 2014 | Category: Class, Culture, History, Labour movement, Migration, Politics, Racism

I am currently a little over half way through a two year project re-analysing the surviving field notes from a dozen or so classic social science projects from the late 1930s to the late 2000s. My purpose is to use these sources to explore the shifting nature of everyday life and culture through people’s own words.  Though I am looking at much more fragmentary and mundane language, in essence I am following Raymond Williams in seeking to map shifts in the underlying ‘structures of feeling’ of working men and women across the last eighty years.

I am particularly interested in the shifting balance between individualism and community in popular culture. One facet of that story brings me into direct dialogue with Satnam Virdee’s new book Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider because it is in popular conceptualisations of ‘community’ and ‘belonging’ that one is most likely to find evidence of the vernacular racism which runs through Virdee’s book. However, when one looks at the issue ‘from below’ – through the recorded speech of working men and women, rather than through the actions of their supposed representatives, the story looks a little different than in Virdee’s telling.  Three differences of emphasis stand out to me:

  1. Perceptions of ‘belonging’ tended to be very local – suspicion of the ‘outsider’ was certainly intense, but it was not strongly marked by ethnicity or perceived ‘racial’ differences.
  2. At the supposed high-point of the ‘racialization’ of the British working class (in the 1950s and 60s) abstract discussion about nationhood and race, often linked to the end of empire, was heard much more frequently, and with more emotional force, from middle-class rather than working-class respondents.
  3. In the Powellite moment, when ‘race’ and immigration really took off as issues in working-class districts there was already a strong working-class opposition to white racism – in fact there were two: one socialist and internationalist, the other liberal and parochial. Left-wing politicians and self-acting ‘racialised outsiders’ were able to achieve so much so quickly in the 1970s and 1980s because the British working class was never a monolithic bastion of ‘whiteness’.

We need to start by recognising the force of ‘class-as-place,’ as opposed to ‘class-as-politics’, in British popular culture across the period from the 1880s to the 1950s – the period which historians such as Eric Hobsbawm and Ross McKibbin identify as the high point of distinctive and relatively homogeneous class cultures in Britain (Hobsbawm, 1984; McKibbin, 1998). Although class feeling has long been a potent force in Britain, the vernacular sense of class has never been easily mobilised through party politics (Lawrence, 1998, 2011). ‘Class’ in everyday usage was (and is) a cultural resource to make sense of social difference and social injustice in a sharply hierarchical and unequal society. This vernacular sense of ‘class’ was strongly rooted in place, and could be highly conservative and particularist (McKibbin, 1998). Moreover, this vernacular culture of ‘class-as-place’ was predicated on an un-resolvable tension between a sense of solidarity against ‘Them’ ─ the ‘outsiders’ who held sway over your own and your loved ones’ prospects ─ and of differentiation and distinction among ‘Us,’ the residents of any given locality. This can be seen very clearly in classic working-class memoirs such as those by Robert Roberts (1971), Louis Heren (1973) and even Richard Hoggart (1988), who first theorised the ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ distinction (Hoggart, 1957).  Each conveys a strong sense of cohesive and relatively closed ‘urban villages’ that nonetheless were riven by deep internal divisions based on skill, gender, status, religion and, yes, also by ethnicity.

So, when Labour politics sought to construct a political rhetoric which placed ‘the workers’ at the heart of the nation, this was driven less by craven nationalism, let alone xenophobia, than by the need to find some synthetic political language capable of transcending local particularism. Labour politicians and trade union leaders had to find some way to overcome the internal divisions which often fractured the sense of ‘class-as-place’ as politics became about more than how to defend the locality from ‘Them’.

Turning to the testimony in the surviving field-notes of social science, one certainly finds plenty of evidence of indigenous hostility towards ‘outsiders’, and some evidence of explicitly racial hostility. But the bold claim that by the 1960s Britain was divided into two separate, antagonistic working classes, one white and one black, is hard to justify when viewed ‘from below’. It is equally difficult to find evidence from these transcripts to sustain the argument that ‘whiteness,’ or notions of racial superiority, were central to working-class culture in post-war Britain. Interestingly, the testimony from Bermondsey in the late 1950s displays the strongest evidence of ethnic antagonism, but this is directed at Irish migrants moving in from north-west London.  Even in the late 1950s there appears to be no recognition of non-white immigration as an issue relevant to local people.

Similarly, the Bethnal Green material from the mid-1950s registers evidence of residual anti-Semitism in this former hot-bed of Oswald Mosley’s BUF, but no evidence of hostility to immigration from South Asia or the Caribbean. This may simply reflect the fact that these were not major areas of first settlement for Commonwealth migrants – but, if so, that still underscores the limited purchase in such working-class districts of racism as an abstract problem about Britishness. By contrast, one does find significant hostility to immigration as an abstract issue in the testimony gathered from the New Town of Stevenage at exactly the same time. Interestingly, most of this overt racism came from middle-class newcomers to the town for whom it was an abstract political issue about national decline and the loss of empire, not a personal issue rooted in local experience.

This is not to deny the existence of working-class racism, or to suggest that racism is somehow acceptable if rooted in perceived socio-economic grievances. But it is to suggest that the concept of a ‘white working class’ needs problematizing, as does the claim that the British working-class was strongly committed to a post-war vision of ‘White Britain’ analogous to the politics which sustained the idea of a ‘White Australia’ until the 1960s. Yes, old, settled neighbourhoods could be profoundly distrustful of outsiders – all outsiders, including the researchers seeking to study them – but, when it came to race, they were internally divided. We certainly hear working-class racist voices – often echoing stock racist complaints about over-crowding, welfare dependency or exploitative landlords and small businessmen, but we don’t hear the deep pathological racial fears laid bare in the letters sent to Enoch Powell after his so-called ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 (Whipple, 2009).

But more importantly, we also hear strong anti-racist voices loudly and clearly. At Wallsend on Tyneside, where the researchers were gathering their data just as Powell shot to notoriety, we find workers expressing casual racism, but we also find eloquent expressions of an internationalist, solidaristic perspective in which, crucially, black and white are seen as sharing the same working-class interests. Racism is denounced as a deliberate capitalist strategy to divide workers against themselves, weakening their ability to challenge those with power over their lives (shipbuilding had long been a very fractious industry and its workers had plenty of experience of the dangers of internal sectarian battles).

Even those who endorsed the Powellite line on immigration were usually quick to distance themselves from overt racism (the English racist’s urge to appear liberal is not a new phenomenon). In a discussion among a group of blacksmiths one man declared ‘We ought to keep the blacks out. They’re no worse than me but they ought to stay in their own country.’ One of his workmates claimed to agree but then offered a striking caveat which exposed both the myths about immigration that were fuelling these fears and his own instinctive liberalism: ‘But if they work a year before drawing National Assistance I don’t mind that.’ This, I would suggest, was the other source of opposition to vernacular working-class racism: a widespread popular liberalism which served to contain, and to some extent tame, instinctive prejudices against outsiders – racialized or otherwise. We too often fail to recognise that liberalism was more than a hypocritical veneer across British society – it was a powerful discursive script which helped to delegitimise intolerance and prejudice in the eyes of many working people. As Raphael Samuel counselled, the myths we live by have great power over us; academics must study that power as well as expose the myth.

Popular culture was not monolithically racist, let alone white supremacist, in the 1960s. On the contrary, it was riven by intense arguments over the meaning of immigration. The scenes played out on the sofa between racist East End docker Alf Garnett and his anti-racist, left-wing son-in-law in the controversial sit com Till Death Us Do Part (1965-75) were taking place daily in workplaces across Britain in the late sixties and early seventies. It was not working people who racialised the idea of the English ‘working class’, but academics and journalists (Collins, 2004; BBC 2008).

The sooner we recognise that the ‘white working class’ is not a thing, but rather an unhelpful media construction which the left must eschew, the better. Not only does it deflect attention from the virulent racism in other parts of English society, but it reinforces the idea of working-class people as unchanging, anachronistic and ‘left behind’. The ‘racialisation’ of class in Britain has been a consequence of the weakening of ‘class’ as a political idea since the 1970s – it is a new construction, not an historic one, and it is profoundly unhelpful. It makes it all too easy for millions of people hit hardest by neo-liberal economics to be dismissed as somehow reaping what they deserve.

Jon Lawrence is Reader in Modern British History at the University of Cambridge.

This article is part of our series, Race and Class in Britain.



BBC (2008) ‘White’ series on BBC2

Collins, M. (2004), The Likes of Us: A biography of the White Working Class (Granta)

Heren, L. (1973), Growing Up Poor in London (Hamish Hamilton)

Hobsbawm, E. (1984) ‘The formation of British working-class culture’ pp. 185-9 in his Worlds of Labour: Further Studies in the History of Labour (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Hoggart, R. (1957), The Uses of Literacy (Chatto & Windus)

Hoggart, R. (1988), A Local Habitation: Life and Times, 1918-1940 (Chatto & Windus)

Lawrence, J. (1998), Speaking for the People: Party, Language and Popular Politics, 1867-1914 (CUP)

Lawrence, J. (2009), Electing Our Masters: the Hustings in British Politics from Hogarth to Blair (OUP)

Lawrence, J. (2011), ‘Labour and the politics of class, 1900-1940’ in D. Feldman and J. Lawrence (eds), Structures and Transformations in Modern British History (CUP)

McKibbin, R. (1998), Classes and Cultures: England, 1918-1951 (OUP)

Roberts, R. (1971), The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of this Century (MUP)

Whipple, A. (2009), ‘Revisiting the “Rivers of Blood” Controversy: Letters to Enoch Powell,’ Journal of British Studies, 48: 717-35

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