The Cavalier Middle Classes

May 19, 2012 § 3 Comments

I am in the process of reading what is generally an excellent book, Jerry White‘s London in the 20th Century, itself part of a recently completed trilogy on London.  The 20th century came first, in 2001, followed by the 19th century in 2008, and the 18th a few months ago.  It’s an intriguing read, as White is adept at pulling together disparate strains of the history of the city in a compelling and very readable narrative.

But sometimes, he gets hard to take seriously.  For example, in discussing homelessness and begging in London in the 1980s, one of the toughest decades in English history due to a global recession and Margaret Thatcher’s scorched earth economic policies, White writes:

London experienced a begging revivals in the 1980s, especially among the young homeless and squatters, to an extent probably only paralleled in some of the bleakest years of the nineteenth century. In the absence of children, dogs had always been a useful prop for beggars to squeeze that extra penny from a sentimental public.  In the 1980s and 1990s the small dog on a length of string was a required fashion accessory for the young beggars of Stoke Newington Church Street or Islington’s Upper Street or Camden High Street and probably every other high road of inner London.

Yes. Right. Because being homeless is really just a career choice, complete with the same fashion accessories of the London City banker. Except instead of the Brooks Brother suit, Rolex watch, and Porsche, the beggar chooses ratty clothes and a mutt on a string to get that extra bit of change out of the public. Obviously White is being sarcastic here, injecting some humour into his narrative. But it’s inappropriate humour.

White strikes a similar chord in discussing the fate of the Port of London and the Royal Opera House, two unionised work places in the 70s and 80s.  Here, he calls the unionised workers, and the unions, “stupid” because they were unable to see the long-term and to protect their jobs (and their industries).  Indeed, this is a pretty common attitude amongst historians of late in discussing the deindustrialisation that struck Western Europe and North America in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.  Unions were daft because they refused to accept their fate.  For that matter, we see the same discourse surrounding the plight of Greece today, those dumb Greeks refuse to see reality.

It’s not that simple, of course.  The critics of the Greeks aren’t experiencing what the Greeks are experiencing, quite obviously. It’s very easy to preach and be judgemental from Berlin, London, New York, or Toronto.  Of course, what those observers also have is a view of the bigger picture, and can no doubt see the forest, rather than just the trees.

It’s the same thing with the historians looking back at deindustrialisation.  Sure, from where we sit today in the early 21st century, it’s easy to see the bigger picture of the process of deindustrialisation in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. But, know what? It wasn’t so easy to see that from the position of the working classes in that era. These people were fighting for their jobs and their livelihood.  What else you expect them to do?  Lie down and take it?  To allow the system to run them over, dispossess them?  To settle for less than they thought they deserved? How many people do that?  Right, approximately zero.  Sure, they were wrong.  But for them it was a personal fight, not some abstract discussion of the economy and projections, stagnation, and inflation.

It wasn’t pretty.  The 80s were a horrible decade for the working classes of North America and Western Europe. Jobs disappeared as the world’s economy globalised.  When Free Trade came to Canada at the end of the decade, it had a direct impact on my family.  My old man lost his job, victim to Free Trade, because his company realised that a welder in South Carolina could do the same work for far less money than he did in Vancouver.  Not only that, but unionisation was a lot less likely in South Carolina.  And so on.

The process of deindustrialisation had very real human costs.  End of story. Historians would do well to remember than when discussing the process, rather than dismiss workers and their unions as “stupid” or “daft.”


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