As the Brexit shambles rumbles on with no leadership in sight, the country as divided as ever, and the war of words, long on rhetoric and short on truth, sincerity and substance, I came across a documentary film called My Generation on Netflix one night and thought this could be interesting, a look at 1960’s Britain (pre EU) narrated by none other than ‘Alfie’ himself, Michael Caine.
It told the story of Britain in the 1960's, and how the teenagers of that era, were the first generation to enjoy freedom and money in a way previous generations never had. These were the children of the working-classes who had fought and sacrificed so much in the First and Second World Wars, who demanded the social changes that put the Labour Party into power in 1945, and which led to the creation of the Welfare State that gave us free healthcare, education and decent housing.
As a result of these changes, there was an explosion of working-class talent in art, film, music, fashion and politics that led to London becoming the centre of the 'Swinging 60's'. The class barriers were torn down as they stormed into places previously denied them and they did so through sheer force of talent. They were educated and confident, and not afraid to challenge the class barriers that previous generations deferred to, and instead of remaining 'in their place’, they questioned, challenged and created new places. They marched against war and discrimination, demanding peace and equality for all, and were a beacon of inspiration and hope for others. The baby-boomer generation; advantaged by the political consciousness, of their parent’s. A new generation of working-class hero, as recognised in song, by John Lennon.
Looking back, I must ask, where did it all go wrong? What happened to all that working-class energy, why did it not grow and expand to encompass future generations? What happened to all the potential and idealism that since the 60’s, has seen the working-classes reduced to an object of sneering disdain, and led to the social and political stagnation we have now?
There are several factors to consider which together created a perfect storm which has insidiously diminished the gains made by those previous generations. One of those was in education. While those on the liberal left despised grammar schools, they did give many the opportunity of a college education which had been denied previous generations and helped to fuel the explosion of talent in the 60’s. We have the grammar school system to thank for educating people like John Hume and Seamus Heaney. But even if you weren’t academically inclined, you had the option of leaving at the end of 3rd year and going to a technical college where you could learn a trade and become a plumber, electrician, joiner or brickie; there was also the option of secretarial courses with shorthand and typing.
The 1970’s saw the demise of grammar schools as the liberal left, in pursuit of equality for all, created the comprehensive system (which seemed like a good idea at the time). The decision to try and create an equal playing field has unfortunately, over time, led to the dumbing down of the education on offer. Some comprehensives still maintained a grammar stream in their schools but the chance to leave and get a ‘technical’ education at the end of 3rd year was taken away and there is now an academic requirement for GCSE’s in order to get on a plumbing or electrical course (at least that's what happened here).
Also, in the 1970’s, Unions that were set up to protect and fight for worker’s rights became more and more demanding, leading to strikes and, eventually, to the winter of discontent when they over-played their hand and lost the support of the public, leading to the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and almost 40 years of Tory rule since. (I include Tony Blair's New Labour in that) It was the working-classes who helped elect Margaret Thatcher, she promised to give them the right to buy their council houses, brought in legislation to curb the power of the unions and promised to create a nation of shareholders in the great sell-off of public utilities; selling off to the few, what belonged to the many.
As the public housing stock was sold off (and not replaced) those who had been in council properties for a long time, received large discounts and with the economic boom in the 1980's, many of those home-owners saw the chance to make a profit and so sold their houses, many of which have now ended up in the hands of private landlords. This happened to most of the public utility stock too, and the race for a quick profit meant that most of those nationally-owned companies and industries are now in private hands and/or foreign corporations, and the profits for the many have ended up in the pockets of the few.
On top of this, Globalisation and Free-Market economics saw many working-class jobs either disappear abroad or disappear altogether. The job losses, the Miner's Strike and the legislation to curb union power also had another effect, which was to close the door to a political career. Factories and trade unions used to be where the working-classes learned, or were introduced to, politics. They received an education in how to negotiate and fight for their rights and many started on the road to a career in politics and into the Labour Party through their union. Since the 1980’s, the Labour Party lost its working-class edge and under Tony Blair became a middle-class party. But, with the election of Jeremy Corbyn, there is a move back to the Labour grass roots, and the working-class are making their presence felt again and trying to wrest control back from the Blairites who, realistically, should be on the Lib-Dem or Tory benches.
These changes are some of the main reasons for the disaffection that is driving the Leave voters here in the UK today. At its heart, are the working-classes, ignored for years by the political establishment, and punitively targeted by that same political establishment with 'austerity', and made to pay disproportionately, for the reckless gambling of the private/corporate banking sector. And now sneered at disdainfully by the middle and upper-classes over Brexit and dismissed as a bunch of ignorant racists.
Looking at the My Generation documentary, I was struck by how many of those 'working class heroes' from the 60's turned their backs on the class they came from and are now firmly part of the establishment, including 'Sir' Michael Caine himself. One of the most recent to accept the bauble from the Crown and tug the forelock, and one of the greatest disappointments, is 'Sir' Billy Connolly. Like his fellow countrymen, 'Sir' Sean Connery, that great supporter of Scottish independence (ironic or what??) and 'Sir' Rod Stewart who, on a recent show, tried to excuse it by saying it's from the British people, not the Crown! Then, we also have people like Dame Judy Dench, crying crocodile tears about the lack of opportunities for working-class actors while helping to support and maintain the very system that keeps the working-classes down and out.
So, if anyone is worried about Britain after Brexit, it would do no harm to check out this documentary and get a look at Britain before the EU, when it was the centre of everything with a strong manufacturing base, and thriving home-grown industries: when working-class was something to be and something to be proud of.
When Britain joined what was the Common Market back in the 70's, it was with the intention of making trade easier among the countries of Europe, which seemed like a good idea at the time. It has now grown from a ‘common market’ into a bloated, bureaucratic monolith, expanding and growing beyond the remit of easy trade into a superstate, now with plans for its own army (under whose control, and to what or whose purpose?).
Watching My Generation, has consolidated my belief in Leave. Britain has the potential to do well as an independent nation but only if everyone in that nation is considered worthy and given the chance, starting with a decent education for all, so their talent and ability has the chance to evolve. Those working-class who achieved so much in the 1960’s need to be reminded where they came from and instead of rushing to join the establishment, they should try extending a hand downwards to their fellow countrymen instead of pulling up the ladder after them.
The working-classes believe they have found a hero in Jeremy Corbyn and all the sniping and sneering by Blairites and their supporters will not change that view. (Take note, JK Rowling! Another working-class, gone snob!)
The disaffection among the working-classes here, is now visible on the streets of France with the Yellow Vests, and is spreading to other European countries with many taking to the streets in solidarity. The silent majority who have been pushed to their limits, finally making their voices heard.
I sincerely hope the Yellow Vest protesters find a leader or spokesperson, if this movement is to become more than just a 'street riot', to be put down by the forces of the state. I sincerely hope Jeremy Corbyn lives up to the expectations of those who have supported him and helped him become leader of the Labour Party. He carries the hopes and dreams of the working-classes on his shoulders, something they haven't had for a very long time. I sincerely hope he becomes the hero they think he has the potential to be, because if ever the working-classes needed a hero, that time is now.