Difficult definitions – ‘white working class’ and ‘white privilege’

This piece is written by someone who is a) working class and b) happens to be white but who emphatically rejects being described as ‘white working class’. What follows is an exploration of why I find use of the term a problem while acknowledging the historical advantages the native working class in Britain have been able to enjoy as a result of being allowed just enough access to the spoils of empire to be brought off from revolutionary radicalism. Advantages that as neo-liberalism has taken over pretty much every aspect of our lives, are starting to disappear in the face of increasingly precarious working and housing conditions for more and more of us. A precarity that’s bringing a growing number of so called native Britons down to the level of super-exploited migrant labour.

‘White working class’?

‘White working class’ is a term bandied about by a fair number of political commentators, sociologists and also, a number of political activists who really should know better. I know a lot of people who are a) working class and b) happen to be white but I’ve not heard a single one of them ever describe themselves as ‘white working class’. They’ll describe themselves as English/Scottish/Welsh/Irish but that will always be at some remove from their perception of themselves as working class. There just isn’t the mixing of national/cultural/racial identity and perception of class as you would think from reading the work of some sociologists and commentators.

Which is why I see the definition as an unwanted one because it’s a label imposed upon us by sociologists/commentators who while they may be very well read, don’t have the day to day experience of life in a working class community that would give them a more nuanced understanding of the complex realities of our lives. In relation to this country, do we hear terms such as ‘black working class’/’Asian working class’/’Eastern European working class’? We don’t, so why should there be a term lumping those of us who are a) working class and b) happen to be white and native British, into one, homogenous group?

One of the main reasons for writing this piece is to work out a way of how a discussion about the problematic use of the term white working class on the one hand and acknowledgement of historic white advantage on the other can be eventually incorporated into our propaganda. We can and need to have this discussion in our movements but at some point, we will have to start tackling the remaining legacy of imperialist supremacism in certain elements of our class before we can make the breakthrough we need. Let’s just say that having a conversation about the lingering benefits of the spoils of empire with a pissed off, native Briton who has just pulled a hard shift in a warehouse could be a bit of a challenging exercise!

The term ‘white working class’ has been used disparagingly by certain ‘woke’ commentators to brand us as racist/bigoted/nationalistic and more than a little bit ‘thick’. Yes, we know there are bigots in our class – given the kind of society we live in and the imperialist history of Britain, it would be a shock if there weren’t any. We can’t help feeling that tarring us all with the same brush is little more than thinly disguised anti-working class prejudice.

‘Left behind’ or deliberately excluded?

The upward social mobility that enabled many working class people to better themselves in the 50s, 60s and 70s is pretty much a thing of the past. We look back with a degree of nostalgia at the actors, writers, performers and artists from working class backgrounds who made an impact in this period. Looking at the arts now, it’s difficult to imagine another David Storey, Joe Orton, Alan Sillitoe – the list goes on – being able or even allowed to make any kind of impression in the current climate.

The door has been pretty firmly slammed in our faces when it comes to breaking out of our class and making it in the cultural arena. Which may explain why so much current culture simply has no relevance to our lives. There are still working class artists, writers and musicians around but all too often they’re having to pull shifts in a warehouse or a superstore to make ends meet while they struggle to practise their craft in what little spare time they’re allowed to have.

The 50s and 60s were decades of relative optimism where the working class sensed that with a bit of graft and application, they could make a better life for themselves. This was the era of the new towns when thousands upon thousands of people were moved out of London and other major cities to planned settlements on mainly greenfield sites where they could start in a new life. Many enthusiastically took the opportunity to move from cramped inner city housing to a new, purpose built hose with an indoor toilet, bathroom, a garden and plenty of green space nearby. When we were young, we had mates whose parents had moved out from inner London to the suburbs and beyond and who were intensely house proud – it was strictly shoes off at the front door before stepping onto the hallowed carpet!

These selected quotes, reproduced from Hansard, made by Lewis Silken, the Minister of Town and Country Planning, during the second reading of the New Towns Bill, show the spirit of optimism that typified the era:

“I am most anxious that the planning should be such that the different income groups living in the new towns will not be segregated. No doubt they may enjoy common recreational facilities and take part in amateur theatricals, or each play their part in a health centre or community centre. But, when they leave to go home I do not want the better off people to go to the right and the less well off to go to the left. I want them to ask each other, “Are you going my way?” “

“I want to see the new towns gay and bright, with plenty of theatres, concert halls, and meeting places.”

“The new town should provide valuable experience in the best use of leisure, a commodity which is, and should become, more and more plentiful.”

“Our towns must be beautiful. Here is a grand chance for the revival or creation of a new architecture. The monotony of the interwar housing estate must not be repeated. We must develop in those who live in the towns, an appreciation of beauty. I am a firm believer in the cultural and spiritual interest of beauty. The new towns can be experiments in design as well as in living. They must be so laid out that there is ready access to the countryside for all. This combination of town and country is vital.”

“In the long run, the new towns will be judged by the kind of citizens they produce, by whether they create this spirit of friendship, neighbourliness and comradeship. That will be the real test, and that will be my objective so long as I have any responsibility for these new towns.”

That was the vision which has arguably worked out better for some new towns than others. There is a perception that it hasn’t worked out as well as it could for Basildon. There’s this telling quote from Christopher Ian Smith, the director of New Town Utopia: “Seventy years on, Basildon, of this first wave of new towns, is a challenging place that’s been through difficult times. According to recent research carried out by its council, Basildon houses one quarter of the most deprived areas in Essex. The gap between rich and poor is huge – it’s the 6th most unequal city in the country – and 29 per cent of workers in Basildon earn less than the living wage. Art and culture seem to be a distant memory. Its negative reputation precedes it, having cemented a place in popular culture as a paradigm of a shit British town.” This is from: New towns like Basildon started as a utopian dream. So what happened?

As a result of our activism, working in the town and having a fair few nights out there, we’re very familiar with Basildon. Basically, it’s a failed new town – there’s no other way of telling it. There are estates in Basildon that are grim and increasingly devoid of hope. In a globalised, neo-liberal economy, a growing proportion of the working class is being deemed as surplus to requirements. When your formerly skilled job has either been automated or exported to a country with lower labour costs and your prospects and those of your children are looking increasingly bleak, it’s no surprise that there’s a growing sense of bitterness and resentment. From time to time, this has been seized upon and exploited by elements of the far right for their own nefarious ends.

The far right have played on this sense of resentment with nostalgia and harking back to an almost mythical era when in their eyes, the ‘white working class’ held sway. They held sway because their labour was needed – once it was no longer needed, it wasn’t long before the demonisation set in – that started to happen from the 90s onwards and accelerated rapidly as we went into the 21st century. Basildon and Thurrock, despite the stereotypes, are not ‘white working class’ areas – outward migration from London plus inward migration have over the last few decades turned them into pretty diverse communities. The far right have attempted to blame immigrants for the lowering of wages and the loss of prestige of so called native Britons.

That argument falls apart when you look at industries where for a variety of reasons, not a lot of migrant labour is used, yet pay and conditions are still getting worse. The assault on our living standards and working conditions affects all of us regardless of who we are or where we came from. What is happening is that everyone’s working conditions are being dragged down to the same level. The older generation who can remember the days of skilled, well paid jobs are the ones who bear the most resentment about this. Younger workers who have lived all of their lives in a climate of increasing precarity see things differently and by and large, aren’t buying into the reactionary nostalgia being spread around by elements of the far right.

The so called ‘lumpen’ element

At another level, the term ‘white working class’ is a clumsy way of saying that the native working class of Britain have historically enjoyed advantages as a result of the ruling class using the spoils of empire to shovel just enough resources in the way of the working class to buy them off from resorting to radical or even revolutionary action. Although, it has to be said that those spoils were targeted at what was seen as the ‘respectable’ working class who were willing to knuckle down and graft away for king/queen and country. There was a however, a significant minority of the working class who were deemed to be lumpen/underclass and a problem to be contained and dealt with. The ruling class strategy of divide and rule has historically been deployed to encourage the ‘respectable’ element of the working class to punch down at the ‘lumpen/underclass’ element. This strategy of divide and rule is not only still alive, well and kicking any sense of class unity in the proverbials, if anything, it’s worse than ever.

Historically, with the development of racial thinking in the 19th century, the underclass were lumped in with the indigenous peoples living in Britain’s expanding colonies. Racial thinking in the 19th century had its origins in the deterministic notion that the poor were poor because of the lot dealt to them by nature and that in the main, there was little chance of the majority of them ever being able to transcend their circumstances. This account of working class life in the Saturday Review, a well-read liberal magazine of the Victorian era, typifies the English middle class attitudes of this era:

“The Bethnal Green poor… are a caste apart, a race of whom we know nothing, whose lives are of quite different complexion from ours, persons with whom we have no point of contact. And although there is not yet quite the same separation of classes or castes in the country, yet the great mass of the agricultural poor are divided from the educated and the comfortable, from squires and parsons and tradesmen, by a barrier which custom has forged through long centuries, and which only very exceptional circumstances ever beat down, and then only for an instant. The slaves are separated from the whites by more glaring… marks of distinction; but still distinctions and separations, like those of English classes which always endure, which last from the cradle to the grave, which prevent anything like association or companionship, produce a general effect on the life of the extreme poor, and subject them to isolation, which offer a very fair parallel to the separation of the slaves from the whites.” Saturday Review – 16 January, 1864

In the 21st century, it would be hoped that this kind of deterministic thinking would have been thoroughly discredited. However, a scan through the comments left after any article on social mobility and class in a right wing paper such as the Telegraph will reveal that these prejudices are alive and well. The quote below is just one example of how these views can be expressed:

“More children is not a solution or a good idea if those children are born to those at the bottom of the social ladder. Intelligence, either of the genetic or acquired variety, does not occur naturally at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder at anything like it does at the middle or upper ends. Having a disproportionate number of children born to parents at the bottom of the mental acuity scale will not save anything. It will create an intractable feudal society with an educated, intelligent elite and a far larger uneducable underclass. We must encourage educated women to bear more children or do it ‘artificially’ if we are to avoid this dysgenic nightmare.” Comment made by Scott on: Can we pay for pensions without working until we drop?Daily Telegraph | 7 May 2009

Bought off by the spoils of imperialism

Despite the ravages of austerity and an increasingly precarious work environment, it could still be argued that the ‘native’ element of the working class in Britain still enjoys the legacy of the spoils of empire and imperialism, albeit that legacy is declining. The welfare state which was built in post war Britain was built on the spoils of imperialism and what could be screwed out of the colonies. See: Labour – a party fit for imperialismRobert Clough for a detailed expose of how this happened and how, despite a progressive (sometimes faux radical) veneer, Labour has generally supported the imperialist project because it knows it could never have afforded the welfare state without it. Also see: HOW LABOUR GOVERNED 1945 – 1951Syndicalist Workers’ Federation | 1960 Yes, this is a very bitter pill to swallow and that’s just for the left that is largely aligned to the Labour Party. It’s also a bloody hard ask to tell the truth to our class about how they have historically benefited from the spoils of imperialism because acceptance of this seems to be hard wired into the national psyche. It may be the case that it will only be when precarity is the default experience for the majority of our class that we’ll be able to have these conversations.

‘White privilege’?

Okay, there are clear advantages that a working class person like me who happens to be white do still enjoy… I’ll never have to walk the streets in fear of an immigration van and its crew wanting to stop and question me about my right to be in this country. When it comes to stop and search by the cops, if I’m going about my business out here in Essex, it’s not something I ever expect (however, if I’m on a demo or action, then yes, I do expect it!).

So yes, it can be argued that the section of the working class that happens to be white, is ‘native’ British and deemed to be ‘hard-working’ does enjoy ‘white privilege’. If you see ‘privilege theory’ as the analytical, structural tool that it could be, then objectively acknowledging white privilege should be a no brainer. As an aside, I don’t like the term ‘privilege’ as it leans towards a degree of subjectivity which muddies what should be an objective judgement. That may well be down to a call out culture in certain activist circles which seems to focus on the faults of an individual and loses sight of the broader, objective context they operate in. Being told to ‘check your privilege’ always seems to be a personal admonishment that’s far removed from any structural context. Maybe swapping ‘privilege’ for ‘advantage’ would be a good start in ensuring we do have a useful analytical tool we can use.

In terms of achieving a nuanced understanding of class composition and dynamics, it can be argued that there is some value in acknowledging the differences within our class and how some sections are more advantaged than others. That’s for our own internal use… How we mediate this with our class without sounding like finger wagging, moralising do-gooders is something that we still need to do some work on to be honest.

The above discussion on ‘white privilege’ is necessary to put the debate about the use/misuse of the term ‘white working class’ on a more nuanced footing. As written previously, as precarity spreads and blights more of our lives, the concept of ‘white privilege’ will slowly start to fade away. The problem is that in an effort to fend off precarity, some politicians and union leaders are talking about migrants lowering pay levels and supporting restrictions on immigration. It’s the same old blame game which when you look at the history of Labour, particularly when they have been in power, have resorted to when it suits them. One example of this is Len McCluskey from Unite attempting to shove the blame for low pay on migrant workers. Mind you, McCluskey was well and truly taken apart in this piece: I am a union organiser. Len McCluskey’s migrant clampdown will only benefit bossesEwa Jasiewicz | The Guardian | 15 November 2019.

Which is a joke because it’s low paid migrant workers who are in the forefront of the fight for better pay and working conditions. It’s the cutting edge unions such as the UVW, IWGB and the like who are leading this fight. Unions which have been dismissed by the dinosaur mainstream, service orientated unions as nothing more than ‘pressure groups’. It’s not hard to escape the impression that the attitude of the likes of McCluskey stem from their fear of eventually being usurped by the emerging cutting edge unions.

Working class precarity

At this point, we ought to bring the term ‘traditional working class’ under the spotlight. It could be argued the ‘traditional’ and ‘white’ are pretty much interchangeable in some people’s minds. It’s just that ‘traditional’ is seen as a politer way of saying ‘white’. The thing is, as soon as you start to subject the term ‘traditional working class’ to any kind of materialist analysis, it’s clear it has no objective meaning. From the enclosures and the early rise of industry all the way through to logistics and warehouse operations setting up in former coal mining areas, the working class has been in a constant state of change and flux at the behest of capital. A degree of relative stability for a couple of decades in a particular industry may in the minds of some people created an illusion of ‘tradition’ but that’s all it is…an illusion.

Being working class means existing in a state of precarity – a state that has become all the more intense as capitalism succumbs to a state of crisis. A state of crisis that can only be resolved by our further immiseration. Which is why they will play the divide and rule card for all it’s worth. Nativism, talk of a ‘traditional working class’, stoking fears of ‘outsiders’ – these and more are in the playbook of an increasingly desperate capitalist elite struggling to stay in control. All of this divide and rule shite hasn’t re-emerged by accident – it ‘s a deliberate strategy to maintain control.


This is why, despite acknowledging that white advantage exists, we don’t like the term ‘white working class’ because it helps the divide and rule merchants. Given Britain’s imperial history, the ruling class strategy of buying off a significant chunk of the working class with the rest plus migrants excluded through various tactics of divide and rule has more or less worked for them to date. From culture through to politics, they’re doubling down on that because they have nowhere else to go.

This piece has been written in the hope that it can help in the ongoing discussion about class and race in our movements. There are a number of activists in our movement who in our opinion, because of their origins and biography are being wrongly portrayed as leaning towards defending the so called ‘white working class’. We know the activists in question and this portrayal couldn’t be further from the truth.

Like anything I’ve written about class, race, migration and identity politics, this is not intended to be the final word on the issue. What I want to do is frame the issues in a less polarising way to enable a constructive debate instead of the slanging match a few people with a grudge want to pursue for their own selfish ends. Hopefully, this is also a step in developing our collective thinking and should be seen as a basis for comradely discussion and debate.

Further reading

Race, Class and BordersMichael Richmond and Alex Charnley | Base | 2 May 2018

Working class versus minorities? That’s looking at it the wrong way – Kenan Malik | The Observer | 14 July 2019

‘Are they even aware that we can see them?’ Working-class Britons on Brexit politics – Lisa Mckenzie | 8 October 2019

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