Find out more about Ben Irvine at benirvine.co.uk

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Brexit, Working Pride, and Noblesse Oblige

“Benny I’ve just finished it I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read a book for almost 10 years but I couldn’t put it down mate really enjoyed it you should be really proud of yourself mate I didn’t realise all the sacrifices you had to make to create it, I’m really chuffed for you.”

Recently I received this heart-warming message from an old school friend of mine who had just finished reading my latest book Space to Create: A Writer’s View on the Housing Crisis. My friend is a family man who works as a black cab driver in London, where we grew up together. I don’t think he will mind me saying that he wasn't the most academically-inclined member of our friendship group. But he is no fool. Far from it: he is one of our most respected friends; I have literally never heard anyone say a bad word about him. (Well – apart from his bald patch and his support for Arsenal). The idea that someone like him enjoyed my book gives me great satisfaction.

I have also received feedback about the book from various friends who could be described as intellectuals. Curiously, one topic has kept cropping up in their feedback: social class. One friend suggested that class is an ‘issue’ that ‘looms large’ in my book. This surprised me, because I didn’t think I was interested in class – well, not anymore. When I started at university, I was a socialist firebrand with a massive chip on my shoulder, not least because of my strong cockney accent. However, by the time I had finished at university – a decade later, having completed a PhD at Cambridge – my socialist views had begun to fade, and so had my sense of inverse snobbery. I was now comfortable talking to anyone, because I was comfortable with myself. Within a few years of graduating, I was describing myself as a conservative: a long way from a class warrior.

Or so I thought. If I was surprised at people suggesting that social class looms large in my book, I was even more surprised at how I reacted: I felt slightly indignant. I soon began to wonder if I was inwardly protesting too much. After all, ever since I graduated from Cambridge, I’ve deliberately chosen to ‘slum it’ for the sake of my writing career. Space to Create documents my life as a struggling writer during the housing crisis. For a decade, I’ve funded my writing by working as a delivery driver. I’ve struggled to pay the rent in a series of cramped shared houses. I’ve lived and worked with some challenging characters. Throughout all this, I’ve gained firsthand experience of the social and economic conditions that are blighting the lives of working-class Britons today. Above all, I’ve seen the woeful effects of mass immigration. I’ve seen how the problems of overcrowding, overstretched public services and depressed wages have hit low-income Britons hardest, callously throwing their life chances to the wind. I’ve lived inside the pressure cooker that cooked up Brexit.

So, yes, I suppose it’s fair to say I still feel a sense of solidarity with the working classes. My school friend’s sympathetic response to my book, and my instinctive enjoyment of his message, indicates as much. Yet I don’t think I have reverted to being a class warrior. I don’t think my book was about class in any negative, tribalistic sense of that word. You can be proud of your class, and you can want to stick up for people in your class, without disliking people from other classes. Brexit, I think, bears this out. Though the Leave vote is often simplistically portrayed as a rebellion against the ‘elites’, I don’t think many people who voted Leave did so because they hate posh people. After all, some of the heroes of Brexit are extremely posh: for instance, Bill Cash, Daniel Hannan, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and of course Boris Johnson. Then of course there are the countless posh journalists who have championed Brexit. Indeed, the poshness of many of the leading Brexiteers hasn’t escaped the notice of left wing remainers, who have relentlessly parodied Brexit as some sort of aristocratic capitalist conspiracy against the gullible poor. Whichever way you look at it, Brexit spans the working classes and the upper classes.

What is going on here? What kind of force can meld the upper classes and working classes together so seamlessly? Moreover, what kind of force can achieve this result while still enabling working class people like me to retain a strong sense of their roots (while presumably the posh folk have retained a sense of theirs)? The solution to the conundrum can be found, I think, in a little-known fact about the character of Brexit voters. At the time of the referendum, psychologists conducted personality tests that found that Leavers tended to be more conscientious than Remainers. The dictionary definition of conscientiousness is: feeling a moral responsibility to do your work carefully and to be fair to others. This definition is extremely revealing. For a start, it explains why Leavers don’t take kindly to being bossed around by unelected bureaucrats. People who feel a moral responsibility to do their work carefully don’t need to be bombarded with rules and regulations. Bureaucratic meddling gets in the way of moral responsibility.

But most revealingly of all, moral responsibility explains the link between the upper- and working-class factions in Brexit. The British upper classes have long been animated by the concept of ‘noblesse oblige’, a French expression which translates as ‘Nobility Obliges’. According to this concept, people who are privileged – the ‘nobility’ – have an obligation to behave responsibly towards those who are less privileged. In practice, this means leading by example, and it means accepting an obligation to protect and serve. In other words: it means good leadership. Anyone who believes that hierarchies are both necessary and desirable in human affairs can appreciate that noblesse oblige is a valuable concept. Those at the top of the pile ought to behave conscientiously towards those at the bottom.  

Of course, noblesse oblige doesn’t simply mean that all responsibility falls upon society’s leaders. Quite the contrary: good leaders encourage their followers to take responsibility. The concept of noblesse oblige creates its own mirror image. In the case of the British working classes, the mirror image created by noblesse oblige is clear: there is a long tradition of working-class Britons taking pride in their work. This attitude of ‘working pride’ means not only doing one’s work carefully, but also treating one’s fellows fairly and charitably so as to cultivate the sort of cooperative atmosphere in which hard work takes centre stage. Naturally, the poorer you are, the more important it is to work hard; hence there’s no surprise that a tradition of working pride has historically been found among the poorest Britons. The result has been a virtuous circle between working pride and noblesse oblige. Leaders have felt an obligation to provide conditions in which their followers can flourish, while the followers have felt obligated to seize the opportunity to flourish.

Granted, the quaint-sounding notions of ‘working pride’ and ‘noblesse oblige’ do not imply that classes are fixed categories – castes. Within the framework of a capitalist economy, people can move between classes. Social mobility has become an important part of the system of reciprocal obligation that connects good leaders and their followers. Good leaders expect their followers to take responsibility on the promise that the followers who are exceptionally responsible and capable will advance into leadership roles. Moreover, the virtuous circle created by this arrangement is not only an important aspect of capitalism but is essential to democracy. Political leaders emerge as leaders because they have proven themselves worthy.

At least – that’s how it should be. Alas, over the last few decades, a new managerial kind of leader has increasingly come to dominate the UK, in large part thanks to our immersion within the structures of the EU. The concept of noblesse oblige has gradually been replaced by something more like: ‘abide, or else’. Instead of being told to emulate the spirit of our leaders, we have been told to slavishly conform to the letter of their pronouncements. Leading by fiat has replaced leading by example. Bureaucratic leadership has replaced responsible leadership. And, inevitably, the quality of leadership has nosedived. To put it mildly, the working classes in the UK have not been provided with conditions that are conducive to flourishing. This amounts to the breaking of a profoundly important contract. To the extent that Brexit was driven by the working classes, tribalism wasn’t the driver. The Leave vote was fuelled by the righteous fury of proud working people who had fulfilled their responsibilities while Britain’s leaders had reneged on theirs.

It is interesting to note that on the eve of the referendum, when David Cameron emerged from his limp renegotiation with the EU, he proclaimed that he had made concessions which would give the British greater control of their own welfare system. He radically miscalculated the national mood. In the eyes of the working classes who voted Leave, Brexit wasn’t all about handouts. The betrayed working classes didn’t want to give up on responsibility. They didn’t want to be patronised. They wanted responsibility and all its rewards. And they wanted responsible leaders who understood this. 

Space to Create is available from amazon.  

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