Talking about class has returned to British life with a vengeance. The term that buzzes around Brexit, Trump, and the more general upswing in populism in the west is “white working class”.
Recently the House of Commons Education Committee held the first evidence session for its inquiry into “left behind white pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds” – otherwise known as the “white working class”.
As with all committees of its kind the evidence provided was at times engaging and at times infuriating – including the alarming suggestion from committee chair Robert Halfon MP that one of the invitees, professor of social mobility and former head of the Sutton Trust, Lee Elliot Major, was being “too political” in mentioning the effect of de-industrialisation on working class communities.
But, as a member of the white working class who did make it to university, the session left me with a question: exactly who are we talking about? Are we all talking about the same group when we discuss the white working class?
The limits of demographics
The UK is a majority white country. Overall, white people make up 87 per cent of the UK’s population. Even if you remove Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – all significantly whiter than England – you’re left with 84.4 per cent.
Any comparison between ethnic groups has to grapple with the fact that the white working class far outnumbers any other ethnic group. And they live all over the country, from deprived fishing villages in Devon, rusting seaside resorts on the Essex coast, former pit villages in Cumbria, and on council estates in Toxteth, Kilmarnock, Aberdare, or Romford. Whereas ethnic minorities in the UK are far more concentrated in cities and large towns.
Even in the most ethnically diverse cities – London, Birmingham, Manchester – white people remain the majority. The only major town in England where white people are not the absolute majority is Slough, where they form 46 per cent of the population, ahead of the 40 per cent of Asians and nine per cent of Afro-Carribeans.
Now, if you felt like checking my research, and I encourage you to, you might find that some newspapers like the Daily Express will report Slough’s population at 35 per cent White British, which gives the first indication that things might be more complicated than they appear. Specifically: are Eastern European immigrants part of the “white working class”?
According to research from 2015 commissioned by the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, which looked at higher education participation between 2003 and 2008, non-British white working class young people are more than twice as likely to participate in higher education than their British counterparts. Non-British white girls participated at rates similar to British Pakistani girls, while their male school mates attended university at rates slightly exceeding Black Caribbean boys. Overall, their HE participation is comparable to “other” ethnic minorities.
What makes the difference between British and non-British white kids if it’s not their skin colour? Like ethnic minorities, “other” whites are concentrated in cities. When it comes to higher education participation, the “London effect” is well documented, with all ethnic groups within the capital attending university at higher rates than those outside. But here we come to the central issue when talking about the white British working class: there isn’t just one.
The relatively short history of mass immigration to the UK has shaped where ethnic minorities live. As such, their economic and educational lives are more homogenous. It is far easier for example to generalise across the British Pakistani population, as whether they live in Ilford or Bradford, they experience similar challenges and opportunities. That’s not to say that diversity is absent from these communities, but to say the diversity across white working class communities is greater.
A white boy in Manchester is going to have a markedly different set of life chances to a demographically similarly white boy in Great Yarmouth. Everything from school funding and teacher quality, public transport and libraries, and parental working patterns will affect how well these children do in school.
There and back again
I am the first person in my immediate family to attend university. I made the journey from outer East London to the University of Bristol and spent four years mixing with a startlingly different class than I was used to. My fellow students had parents who owned businesses I’d heard of; their secondary education cost more than my single mother made in a year. They skied, a lot. While I truly enjoyed my time in higher education, I always knew that I was distinct from my new friends.
But when I hear the term “white working class”, a term that purports to describe me, I’m left cold, because of the diversity I know exists within that group. The few other working class friends I made at university – from Manchester, Cardiff, rural Devon – had lived distinctly different lives to me.
When I think back on my own time in school, what strikes me is the relative ease London afforded me. I had abundant, dedicated, well-informed teachers. When I changed schools for sixth-form with an eye toward attending university, it was only a short bus ride away. A bus ride for which I paid nothing and which came with a regularity that I only appreciated once I left the capital. When my school didn’t have the books I needed or wanted, I took those same buses to one of dozens of available libraries in my area.
Both of my schools would welcome back graduates to talk to students, making university seem attainable. Having since returned to London myself, I know that those graduates made their visits ahead of starting the kind of well-paid graduate jobs which now only exist in cities.
Now that I’ve returned, I see the friends of mine who didn’t go to university, the ones who stayed and used those same free bus rides to attend college, acquire a trade, and now tease me about how much more money they make than me. But I’m still part of my community, still living on the road I grew up on, and our lives go on together.
These structural questions, about who lives where, with what infrastructure, and what opportunities, these are the things that come to mind when I think about what my chances of getting in higher education were. The colour of my skin doesn’t. Those structural questions are of course structured by a history of racism in UK, and there are a multitude of ways in which my race helps me without my always being aware of it. But the material factors remain vital, and are what we should focus on.
I don’t know what life is like elsewhere. “White working class” is a term that supposes I do, that there is one way of being both of those things in Britain. Like so often in British life, it feels like I’m being spoken about without having been spoken to. That stolid, uniform, unchanging view of what the working classes do and what they want gives energy to the worst parts of our politics, to those who wish to pit me against my friends and family of colour.
I have no doubt that most who use the term mean well, just as I know that there are many people across the UK who find that the term suits them well. But if we’re going to solve the issue of so few white working class boys and girls entering higher education, then we need to be more precise and engage with the country as it exists.
Britain is still a country shaped by wealth and class. The way we start to fix that is by looking seriously at how working class people actually live, and that begins by talking to us, not just about us.