The Likes of Us by John Pateman

The Likes of Us

By John Pateman

Unlike Bob Usherwood (Update Jan/Feb 2005) I am able to fully empathise with the white working class as described by Michael Collins in his brilliant biography The Likes of Us. Collins argues that white working class culture is intimately linked to a landscape and a concept of home – in his case, Southwark, where his family lived for generations. Collins traces the history of this family and, with it, the history of that long neglected part of south London bordered by the Thames to the north and Walworth to the south. In between can be found Borough, Bermondsey and Newington, as well as the world famous Elephant and Castle and Old Kent Road. This is the home of the Pearly King and Queen , the coster monger and the chirpy cockney.

Collins does not seek to defend – in Usherwood’s words – racism, but to explain it. In doing so he points out that the white working class is much more tolerant and able to absorb other cultures than it is given credit for. As Collins delves into his family’s history he discovers that “missionaries” from other classes have always descended to study, influence, patronise and politicise the white working class, long before the contemporary intelligentsia began to demonise them. But there have been few attempts to understand the white working class – which is what Collins sets out to do. In the process he robustly defends their culture and identity.

After setting the opening scene of The Likes of Us in a library, Collins does not mention libraries again in the 270 pages that follow – which suggests how irrelevant they are to many working class people – other than right at the end when he returns to the same library where elderly working class residents are discussing the “good old days”. As Collins points out, they were never really that “good”, but at least there was a sense of class solidarity and community before the old houses were pulled down and replaced by three huge estates with aerial walkways which became an escape route for street criminals and drug dealers.

Ferdinand Mount has suggested in his thoughtful essay, Mind the Gap, that the working class (the “downers”) have suffered the ultimate deprivation – a consequence of all their other deprivations – which is the deprivation of respect. Collins makes the same point : once they were known as the salt of the earth, now they are portrayed by the media as xenophobes and exhibitionists. Their tastes and attitudes are mocked and “white trash are the only people left to insult.” Whole pages and programs are devoted by the media to denigrating the “chavs” (interestingly this word is derived from “Chavvies”, which is what Gypsies – another much maligned community – call their children.)

It is easy for the middle class (the “uppers”) – with their affluence and education – to be enthusiastic about multiculturalism. If it doesn’t work for them they can afford to move out of the area or send their kids to another good school. The white working class does not have these choices. They often end up living most of their impoverished lives in the same area – and it this area, with its familiar people and familiar landscape which gives their lives meaning, stability and comfort. Any changes to this landscape – a sudden shift in demographics or architecture – can be profoundly unsettling, even threatening.

These fears need to be understood. As Stuart Hall has said: “If you’re serious about a multicultural society, you would address the sense of alienation of white working class people, who have to be won over to a new conception of themselves”. This sense of loss and alienation is palpable in areas like Southwark where the white working class have literally been air brushed out of history. The benefits of a multicultural community are touted in municipal promotions but the bed rock of that community – the white working class – is completely ignored. No wonder that local people get angry, seek others to blame and fall prey to groups such as the BNP.

Valentine and MacDonald, in their report Understanding Prejudice: attitudes towards minorities (Stonewall, 2004) found that: “There is a strong perception that the white majority is being unfairly treated, and that minority groups are receiving preferential treatment – on an economic level, a threat is felt from asylum seekers, Travellers and Black people. Marginalised young, white heterosexual men tend to be the least socially integrated.”

Usherwood suggests that the solution to this problem is “education, education, education”. But this is not as simple as it sounds. Middle class people have some real choice over where they send their children to be educated. Working class people do not have the same choices. Many poor working class areas are served by low achieving state schools with big classes and stressed staff. In this environment many working class children fail to achieve their full potential and leave school with little or no qualifications. Some leave school without even the essential skills of literacy and numeracy.

Tessa Stone, director of the Sutton Trust education charity, has said: “We see it time and time again that there are self-reinforcing pockets of areas where it is very difficult to have an impact. Partly, it is because of the enormous difficulties being faced by some schools. When schools are dealing with issues of severe under achievement as well as deprivation, the extra scope for stretching the brightest children is very limited. They are really fire fighting.”

Even if they get over this significant hurdle of a good secondary education, working class children face the next class divide – according to a report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England “pupils from the wealthiest areas are six times more likely to enter higher education than those from the poorest”. In areas such as Kensington and Chelsea and Sheffield’s suburban south-west, 70 per cent of young people went on to university. But in 40 wards in places such as southern Bristol and inner city Leeds, fewer than 5 per cent of pupils entered higher education.

Mark Corver, the report’s author, wrote: “There is a high degree of inequality in the chance of young people entering higher education depending on the neighbourhood where they live”. Although the study was not intended to explain the gap, it said that poorer families were likely to live in cramped conditions and attend low-attaining schools, with parents in manual jobs who had no experience of university. This typifies many of the white working class families in Southwark described by Collins.

Debates about developing multicultural communities have been dominated and lead by the white middle class, who have no understanding of the working class. Putting the focus purely on the needs of ethnic minorities is unfair and divisive and likely to lead to angry reactions and a backlash from the host community. Failing to address the needs of local people can lead to violence and disturbances in the least likely places: the biggest race riot in 2004 was not in Brixton ( London), Toxteth (Liverpool) or St Pauls ( Bristol) but in Boston ( Lincolnshire). Simmering grievances between local people and migrant workers – stirred up by the BNP – flared into full scale riots when England lost a football match against France.

Building community cohesion is a long term process which must be fully inclusive and transparent. As Gurbux Singh, one time chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, has said: “Our way of thinking has changed. Tackling the perceptions and poverty levels of poor white communities is almost as important as tackling ethnic minority deprivation.” Tackling social exclusion requires a focus on the excluded – the working class, ethnic minorities and others – and their needs. Promoting social inclusion can start to add the middle class into the mix. Community cohesion enables different groups to understand each others needs. Each of these stages – exclusion, inclusion, cohesion – may take 10 years or more.

In responding to this challenge, public libraries must have appropriate strategies, structures and cultures which enable them to identify, prioritise and meet community needs. Libraries must take a needs based approach and reach out to excluded communities. This must be done by library staff who have the right skills and a real empathy and understanding of community needs. This is best achieved by employing staff from those communities – in Lincolnshire, for example, we have library staff from our migrant worker communities. Failure to do this will result in what Collins describes as adopting “the missionary position”.

Working class people do not want to be lectured to or treated like children by the middle classes – at school, in the media or by libraries. The outcome of taking this missionary approach can be counter productive – like most of Collins’ neighbours “we lived in a home where no one bothered with books.” Usherwood accuses Collins of “restricting the horizons of the working class, dismissing their potential and the role of critical friends”. The working class are rightly suspicious of such “friends” who, without consulting them, tore down their neighbourhoods and replaced them with concrete monstrosities. They were also not consulted about changes to their demographics and were expected to naturally absorb and integrate new communities without having any say or control over these changes.

The cultural missionaries dismissed by Collins and supported by Usherwood have not taken the time or effort to understand the white working class. Paternalism is just a kinder term for the cultural elitism imposed on the working class by the powers that be. Some working class people like myself and Usherwood have succeeded despite, rather than because of, the system. We took what opportunities we could to develop ourselves in the tradition of the nineteenth century autodidacts. But we are a tiny minority. Most of my class remain “downcast, confused and apparently redundant”, robbed even of their self respect by those who should know better, the educated and powerful “uppers”.

Only 30 per cent of the population are active library users. Two thirds of these active users are middle class. Public libraries are an alien institution to the great majority of “downers”. There are many good examples of library services reaching out to their multicultural communities. The Libraries Change Lives Award has been won for services to asylum seekers, refugees and Travellers. I know of no similar efforts being made to target the white working class.

Librarians can learn from a fellow professional, Professor Lola Young, project director at the Archives and Museum of Black Heritage, who is currently archiving a Black presence in Britain that can be traced back 500 years. Professor Young described how her work involves “all our histories, not just those of Black peoples. It’s a strategy to raise awareness, and disseminate information about the rich texture of British history”. In the process we may learn to understand that working class people can be proud of being British and white without them necessarily being the enemy.


Michael Collins, The Likes of Us, (Granta, 2004)

Joseph Lee, A nation riven by class and privilege, (Times Education Supplement, 21 January 2005)

Ferdinand Mount, Mind the Gap, (Short Books, 2004)

Gill Valentine and Ian McDonald, Understanding Prejudice: attitudes towards minorities (Stonewall, 2004)