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Sacred Cows - The British Working Class
 
by Phil Thornton
 

It’s painful for me to say this as a former trade union activist and socialist firebrand, but the British working class aren’t worth a fuck. Let’s begin with the term ‘working class’ which originated in Britain, the world’s first industrialised nation and differentiated the poor factory fodder of 19th century Blighty from the simple ‘peasantry’ of other lands. If you are proud of being working class then it stands to reason you’re proud of working and anyone who’s proud of working for a living is a shmuck. I wouldn’t lose a day’s sleep if I never had to work another day in what remains of my life. Work is a means to an end and, whilst the noblest of all shirkers involved in the battlegrounds of industry always knew that the name of the game was the tiny triumph of grabbing as much time for yourself  whilst supposedly gainfully employed, those fuckwit trade unions still believed in all that ‘dignity of labour’ bullshit that chained the working class to the Protestant Work Ethic for centuries.

 

The good old PWE in fact was invented for men like my granddad and indeed my dad. My (maternal) grandad worked in a tannery from the age of 14 til he was in his late 60s and used to boast that he’d never lost a day’s pay through illness.  He worked in appalling conditions and brought home a pittance but boy was he proud of his attendance record. And, I suppose, you could forgive him this attitude as he was a prole of his generation, brought up during the early part of the century when Britain ’s empire stretched across the globe and wars were fought to protect its interests. Ofcourse in those days if you were sick you didn’t get anything as nanny state-ish as SSP and so there was a vested interest in staying fit and healthy for work. My granddad’s lot were proud of the empire and they were proud of the flag. Although they realised that ‘savages’ were being exploited in the process, as long as it didn’t affect them directly they weren’t interested. Ofcourse they too were getting fucked over but y’know, Rule Britannia, Britannia Rules The Waves. Better them then us.

 

By the time my granddad was retiring, my dad’s generation had taken over and they wanted, nay demanded their slice of the economic pie. My dad was a docker and during the 60s and 70s they realised how the entire wheels of industry depended on their strategic importance. If the ships didn’t get off-loaded then nothing got made. They demanded better pay and they got it. Ofcourse once they got it, they didn’t want other workers gegging in; thus the eternal paradox of the trade union myth was exposed. Individual unions acted as niche guilds protecting their own members in competition with other skilled and non-skilled unions. And when these working men, these Labour voting men, these union member men, got their pathetically disproportionate share of the country’s wealth, what did they do with it? They pissed it away. My dad’s work mates prided themselves on the macho glory of how quickly they could offload a cargo to give them more time for the important business of sitting in the alehouse for as long as possible. Not all of them of course, no, some of them bought their own houses in the 70s and became Torys.

 

My granddad wasn’t like most of the men of his generation, this heroic breed of tough leather skinned toilers who went home after boozing away their wages to brutalise their families. Ah, the good old days when ‘domestic violence’ was regarded as ‘keeping your house in order’. No, my granddad wasn’t a drinker or a gambler  (although he always had a bottle of scotch in the sideboard and never had the racing off the telly), he wasn’t a wife or kiddy beater either. No, he was something much worse; he was a Tory. He knew his place. He kept his nose clean and his garden tidy. Although they lived on one of the roughest streets in town, they were regarded as a bit ‘posh’ and when my mum met my dad, he was eyed with suspicion. Dad was a teddy boy, a boozer and something of a brawler but he brought home the bacon. Dangerous but dutiful. A disciple of the ancient ways of prole male behaviour. 

 

During the early 70s my dad was always on strike. If it wasn’t the dockers or the miners, it was Fords or British Leyland and unions wielded more power than at any time in their brief history. But the vast majority of union members weren’t interested in socialism. Fuck that! What union members wanted then and want now is not a wholesale restructuring of international capitalism, a system forever geared against them. No the grand cause of the British trade union movement is and always has been ‘a few bob more for a few hours less.’  It’s what the winter of discontent was all about. Not a shocking demonstration of union power over a helpless Labour government who only wanted to balance pay rises with inflation; but a simple matter of rather timid demands; a few bob more for a few hours less. Hardly the storming of the Bastille.

 

I began secondary school just as Thatcher came to power and left as her dismantling of Britain ’s industrial base was nearing completion. Times were tough and jobs were scarce. I went onto a YTS and then joined the civil service, where I stayed for almost 20 years. My dad was made redundant in the mid 80s by which time he’d bought our old council house AND bought shares in BT. This was Thatcher’s master-stroke because the Torys knew the working class better than those paternalist pricks in the Labour Party. The Torys were obsessed with curbing union power but that power was built upon flimsy idealist foundations. Give them their little crumbs; their own homes, their pathetic bundle of shares in privatised national assts and appeal to their greedy, aspirational, closet Tory ambitions. In the old days workers on strike could always run up rent arrears but with mortgages, watch em fall into line.

 

Not all of them of course, there are some great people involved in unions and campaigning groups, people who never put themselves at the centre of the dispute but who work tirelessly and without reward or fanfare for the rights of others. These people are my heroes and I never had the moral fibre, personal energy or indeed the inclination to become one of them. I was a union activist who provoked management and manned picket lines, using intimidation as a futile weapon. Civil service picket lines weren’t exactly Orgreave or Grunswick but I soon became aware that solidarity is just a word.   You wouldn’t believe the number of people who joined the union just before a pay-rise and left just before a strike. 

 

During the miner’s strike I’d walk around with a collecting bucket and met mostly with outright hostility and abuse, not only from non-members but the majority of union members who resented how much miners brought home in their wage packets. There was no solidarity, no shared sense of grief, or collectivist anger, only apathy and jealousy. Divide and rule; it’s the oldest trick in the book and the working class always, ALWAYS fall for it. The miners ofcourse had brought down Heath’s Tory government a decade earlier but the Torys weren’t the only people who wanted to end union power, New Labour’s architect Kinnock also wanted to re-brand his party as a friend of the social climbing go-getter. The Sun reading prole masses who bought into the meritocratic myth. They were as disgusted and dismissive of the traditional old core working class constituency as any pseudo-toff from the Home Counties.

 

Just before New Labour came to power in 97, I left the party and briefly joined Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party. The defeated miner’s leader, brought down not only by a hostile Tory government but by fellow trade unionists and so-called Socialists as well, was a man clinging desperately to the past. It soon became apparent that Socialist Labour’s entire manifesto was based around re-nationalising the mining industry. These people, whose communities had been built upon the blood and sweat of previous generations actually wanted the same future for their children. What kind of person wants to see their kids risk their lives digging coal from a cramped and dangerous seam, hundreds of feet below ground? Who really wanted to see kids working in steel mills and shipyards and car factorys and dockyards? Not fucking me mate.

 

Technology had come to set us free. It might not look so great in the short-term but 20, 30 years down the line, they’d be thanking Maggie for reducing Frickley to rubble. Scargill’s party seemed to have no wider philosophical or political agenda, apart from a few token links to other internationalist workers and political groups. That was when it hit me, that the left was more tied into the false prospectus of capitalism than even the Torys were. At least the Torys, or atleast the radical self-made-man wing of New Conservatism, believed in being master of their own destiny. Doing it for themselves. Standing on their own two feet. Asking no favours. Personal responsibility. Blah, blah, blah. Yeah we know that 99% of them are spoiled mummy’s boys living off daddy’s money (Branson and his ilk) but at least they can pretend to be self-sufficient.  What had become of the once radical left? Is this what the working class really wanted? Let’s rebuild the structures that enslaved us in the first place!

 

Thankfully during Thatcher’s era a whole generation had escaped form the self-defeating notion of ‘a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s graft’. Their graft was based upon other notions of solidarity and self-interest. The right to work? Fuck that! If it’s good enough for Prince Charles and his feeble minded parasitic offspring then it’s good enough for us, pal. You can see the bemusement of what remains of the working class even now. I’ve heard it a thousand times from parents and family and colleagues and yes, especially from trade union activists:

 

‘These kids today, don’t wanna work, they piss about, they don’t give a shit, they walk off the job, they come in late, they go off sick and they still want more than £5 an hour! No wonder all the factories and the fields are full of poor Polaks, the British have forgotten how to work.’

 

 The old left are as narrow-minded and conservative I their outlook as their supposed enemies. The working class want to be cosseted and controlled by their ‘masters’ because they’ve never got over the model of industrialised society, where they were exploited and abused but had the safety net of full employment to keep them safe in their flea bitten beds. Unions operated within this system because it sustained them too. Take away the ‘trade’ part of trade unionism and what do you have left; a lobbying group. A lobbying group that still funds a political party that actively legislates against its interests. Call me a unreconstructed old militant but isn’t that a rather masochistic attitude; paying for someone to whip your arse with brambles.  

 

Today’s young workers are almost entirely non-unionised and they are relatively poor compared to 60s and 70s standards of pay. Yet, paradoxically they are more powerful because their time and their labour is their own. They don’t buy into that work ethic jazz because they don’t have to. They are content in their complacency. They can work a week here, a month there, they can skive and walk off the job and sign on and go walkies around Europe if they like. They ARE the new flexible workforce that all the Eurocrats and CBI slavemasters have always dreamed of, except it wasn’t supposed to work out like THIS was it?     

 

I stayed in the civil service because, although the pay was shite, the work was easy and I always went for the easy option. Eventually I was made redundant myself and in a way, it set me free. The yoke of employment was removed and I could begin to sort out once and for all what I wanted to do with my life. It didn’t work out as planned but it never does, does it? No matter how you cut it; capitalism works on the premise of exploitation. Within that spectrum of exploitation of course there are many different shades; from virtual child slaves of Far Eastern sweatshops to city brokers putting hundreds of thousands away each year for their retirement. I left with a redundancy cheque and a bit of a pension. Not much but a fucking sight more than most ‘workers’ will expect to get as a leaving present. Ah well, at least when my mam and dad pop their clogs, we’ll have their house money to divvy out. See, Thatcher got her claws in deep maaaaan! She knew what she was doing there comrades. She knew you were weak and selfish and greedy. She knew you better than you knew yourself. She’ll have the last laugh on us all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
   
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