Thursday, 13 November 2008

John Prescott and Class

As I have commented before, I have thought that John Prescott received an unfair condemnation as a politician. I do not think he is the best politician the UK ever had and his support for Tony Blair especially over the war in Iraq angered me. However, his abilities and in particular his analysis of the UK political scene I think have been under-rated. Due to his physical stature, his accent, his behaviour that is like many ordinary men of his age and background, people have assumed that means he lacked knowledge and skill. However, even if incompetents rise to the top of various political systems he would not have been able to hold his position as deputy prime minister for ten years if he lacked ability; Blair removed even close allies if they blundered. Throughout his term as prime minister, Blair was almost untouchable for the media, so Prescott took some of this flack. In addition, Prescott's ordinary nature, his moments of temper made him an easier target. However, interestingly things that he was ridiculed for, such as bus lanes on motorways, actually worked. Of course in the UK as elsewhere bringing in a successful policy is less important than winning the approval of the media and thus the public. A key challenge for the media, of course, was that right throughout the period of rule by the Blair party (1997-2008) Prescott was seen as the embodiment of the Labour Party that had gone before. He complied with Blairist policies but there was always a suspicion from the right-wing media that he Prescott would contaminate the policies that they (and their constituency of the wealthy and the nationalistic) were enjoying so much with something that had more reference to the needs of the broader British community.

Prescott was the embodiment of man who had got on. In some ways he should have been the symbol of the input the Labour Part had made to the UK in the last 60 years. His grandfather was a coal miner, his father was a railwayman, having failed the 11-plus exam (which separated children at 11 into different types of schools and curricula) he worked as a ship's steward and yet ended his career as deputy prime minister. This says a great deal about increased opportunities and how education can help you get on. Someone coming from that kind of background today would find it far harder to progress than Prescott did through the more liberal times of the 1960s and 1970s. Ironically the Blair Party's policies have shut off so many routes that Prescott's equivalents in the 2000s could have come through.

Now, on 27th October 2008, Prescott presented a programme on BBC2 (you can still watch it on the BBC iplayer) called 'The Class System and Me'. Social class is a big issue in the UK. Despite rhetoric about the classless society in the UK since the mid-1990s in fact it is incredibly difficult to break away from the class you are born into in the UK and to be something of higher status than your parents. My father came from a working class background and moved into the technical lower middle class ranks. He could now be counted as middle class, as a property owner with investments. I attended university the first (and last) in the whole of my extended family to do so. Yet, rather than rising to a class higher than my father I am busily sliding down, pushed around by landlords, having few items that I own and with the casualisation of labour, having no career structure. I am back down to lower middle class and anticipate that by the time I retire will actually be worse off than my grandfather (who actually owned a house for many decades) floating down in the unskilled working class, certainly in terms of my income and what I own and the shops I frequent, if not in terms of the culture I put myself in.

Prescott saw himself as having risen from the working class into the middle class. That is a good thing. It is easier on you living a middle class life than a working class one (even easier if you are living an upper class life) so much more is done for you. It is unsurprising that Prescott enjoyed having the large cars that came with his job. Only those who had been used to driving themselves around in small, old cars or going by public transport truly relish having a car at your command. Prescott was ridiculed as 'two Jags' (as in Jaguar cars) but actually I would be more alarmed at someone who did not relish that opportunity and saw it as something normal. Prescott received criticism in 'The Guardian' newspaper for his programme on class. Having risen through the classes it is naturally a topic that interests him, added to this he comes from a political party that was founded on a class basis. It was suggested that he was somehow now only learning the 'ropes' of being in a higher class and that he should have known that before he became deputy prime minister. That utterly missed the point. It assumes somehow that middle and upper class behaviour is somehow more correct and more valid than behaviour of people in other classes. Of course that is not the case, though society insists that it is. In addition, whenever Prescott indulged in upper class behaviour, notably when he tried out the game of croquet, he was mocked for apeing his 'betters'. In the USA black politicians and business people (probably far less now since Obama) were often ridiculed for behaving like successful whites, and yet if they did not then they would always be seen as behaving 'wrongly'. This is the 'lose-lose' situation that social elites set up to keep capable people out of their ranks. In their view you must assimilate yourself into their modes of behaviour and so adopt all the assumptions and values that come with them, or you are invalid. However, some people, whether they are black or from a working class background will always be seen as invalid and so their attempts to assimilate or be assimilated are simply ridiculed and the British media was wonderful at doing that kind of social policing on Prescott on behalf of the elites who both feared and despised him. It is interesting to see the comments written on the BBC messageboards, some suggesting that it is wrong to see Prescott as having become middle class as even though he has middle class trappings, they argue, he will never be middle class, only his grandchildren could reach that ranking!

Prescott is not the first Labour politician to be in that position. We can see parallels to Ernest Bevin, a leading trade unionist and Labour Foreign Secretary 1945-51 who was in a similar position vis-a-vis the upper classes. Of course the progress of such men in British politics is portrayed by the upper class as demonstrating that we have an egalitarian society. As Lord Onslow noted to Prescott, there had not been an Onslow in the Cabinet since 1870. What Onslow of course conceals is that actually he probably wields far greater power outside the government than part of it. These days so much government policy is channelled by what the rich and the upper classes will tolerate. They were given their greatest burst of freedom by the Thatcher regime and no-one is really in a position to limit that. The policy arena in which Prescott operated had parameters set by Onslow and his kind, nothing could stretch beyond these. In fact all Labour governments in British history have run up against these parameters set up by the upper classes, but over the decades the arena for policy has been increasingly narrowed. People like Onslow, show, how effective the propaganda machine of the upper classes is, in making so many people believe that any reference to privilege, class structure and lack of social mobility is somehow 'outdate' especially since the collapse of Communist regimes in the 1980s. It might be portrayed in that way, but in fact the upper class and super-rich have far more grip on British society and have clamped down on social mobility in a way that they have not been able to do to this extent since 1945.

One aspect of Prescott's programme which received particular attention was his reference to private schools. As regular readers will know their privileges and their distortion of opportunities in education, especially access to leading universities, is something I have long bemoaned. Prescott was right on target when he noted that private schools uphold many of the elements of the British class system. I will add that you can see this in sharp contrast to France with its post-revolutionary society in which anyone who has the ability can attend a Grand Ecole, whereas in Britain only a tiny fraction of society, the most privileged will ever get into the so-called 'public schools' (the elite private schools) and from people from these ranks are heavily over-represented in senior political, legal, religious, civil service, military positions not because they are of greater ability but because they have the right connections. Prescott acknowledged that the parents of the 7% of children who go to private schools were seeking to buy their children the best opportunity in life and he did not begrudge them doing that. He did, however, note what that signals to the 93% of children whose parents cannot afford to send them to these schools.

Prescott wants the break down of the sharp divide in British education. It is ironic that the Blair government actually sought to increase division in education by further segregating the schools that 93% of children go to into faith schools, grammar schools, specialist academies, etc. so exacerbating the shutting off from access to good schooling to even groups of children who are in this 93%. Of course Prescott was attacked for being 'out-of-date', an unreformed class warrior and seeking to 'punish the successful'. They also said that a quarter of pupils come from areas of below average income. Well, in the UK in a single street you can have a wide range of wealth, you can see it all over London, so I would not put much store by that point. In addition these schools are successul because they are not constrained by the factors that ordinary, state schools face in terms of pupil numbers, constant monitoring and a sustained shortage of funds. If state schools each received as much money as the average or even poor private school, you would see immediate improvement. Of course people do not want to pay the taxes to provide that and parents who send their children to private schools have the gall to say they should be exempt from part of their tax bill as they do not use the state system (yes, but all your British teachers were trained by it).

Prescott argues that the only way to begin to erode the sharp class divides in the UK, which are detrimental to social harmony and its economic success, is to break down such divides and invest heavily in state education. To say that Prescott's views are outdated is utterly wrong. In fact given how social division is increasing in the UK and social mobility reducing rapidly, his points are even more relevant today than they were in the past. If we are going to have a better society in the UK in the future in fact we need many more class warriors like Prescott, all strength to him!

P.P. - 12/02/2009: I was pleased to see that he was behind a 13,000-signature petition to try to get the government to block banks that have been bailed out granting their employees huge bonuses. A good step, keep it up John.

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