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  • James Heartfield

“Down with the white working class!”

James Heartfield reviews Race and the Undeserving Poor: From Abolition to Brexit, by Robbie Shilliam (Newcastle: Agenda Publishing, 2018)


International Relations professor Robbie Shilliam’s book Race and the Undeserving Poor is both an account of the development of working-class politics and an intervention into the debate about the 2016 referendum which narrowly committed Britain to leave the European Union. The book exemplifies the contemporary deployment of anti-racism as a means to keep the working class in its place.

Shilliam says two things about the referendum which are not that unfamiliar: first, that the Leave vote was not the voice of the working class, and second that the Leave vote expressed the prejudices of the white working class. Since, as an empirical fact, 89.5 per cent of the working class in Britain is white,[1] these two claims are difficult to reconcile.

Shilliam argues that the constituency of the “white working class” is not a natural or a neutral category of political economy and that “this constituency must be apprehended as an elite artefact of political domination” (p. 6). This should be applauded. Of course the “white working class” is a nonsense as a political idea. But whose idea is it? There is no mainstream political party that situates its claims on the basis of the “white working class”. Very few people think of themselves as “white working class”, unless they are asked whether they are. The identification of “white working class” is almost entirely a category of social scientists like Robbie Shilliam.

The 2016 referendum was not fought on the grounds of black versus white. Nearly half of white people voted to Remain, while nearly a third of black people voted to leave.[2] The question on the ballot paper, “should we leave the European Union?”, was not really about what colour you are.

But for Shilliam it does not matter whether you say you are “white working class” or not, since he aims to “challenge any attempt to pursue social justice in the name of the ‘white working class’, whether explicitly or implicitly” (p. 8, my emphasis). The trouble is that much of what he insists is an implicit appeal to the “white working class” turns out to be just the claims of the working class. As in much of the discussion of the referendum, Shilliam’s characterisation of the “white working class” turns out to be a polemic against the working class, dressed up in anti-racist clothing.

Much of the book is given over to re-evaluations of the development of working class organisation and representation as expressing not so much an enlargement of popular freedom as the ascent of racism. So the agitation for the ten-hour bill (limiting the working hours of women and children) is cast by Shilliam as a pro-slavery movement (pp. 22-23); Chartists are guilty of bigging up “skilled manual labour” — a bad thing, apparently (p. 90); working men getting the vote in 1867 means “as the deserving English working man became enfranchised they also became racialised as Anglo-Saxon” (p. 46); the TUC’s support for sick pay is “eugenics” (p. 50); trade unionism is Powellism, as is dock workers’ militancy (p. 102); trade union opposition to racism is “duplicity” (p. 103); and the general trajectory of trade union organisation in the 1970s is that “all roads lead inevitably to Thatcherism” (p. 106).

It is worth saying that there is a half, or perhaps a quarter, of a point here. It is true that working-class self-organisation in Britain was generally defensive, and mostly (but not exclusively) limited itself to the workplace. It is also true that, confronted with workers’ movements, the ruling classes sought to de-rail class identification and substitute a different, nationally based identity. So it is the case that the Labour and Conservative governments of the post-war period tried to appeal to working people on the basis of patriotic identification with the nation state. At times that patriotic identification meant natives against incomers, white against black.

But even allowing that, Shilliam’s argument is hard to sustain because he has no sense of working-class organisation as self-organisation and specifically as an oppositional movement. None of the ideological attempts to contain the workers’ movement within a chauvinistic frame would make any sense if that movement was not a severe challenge to the status quo. This is the narrative that is missing from Shilliam’s account. There are no working class struggles here, only racist thugs throwing their weight around. There is change, he says, but not really, as he “seeks to chart the consistent shifting of these racial coordinates” (p. 6). This is a view so thoroughly one-sided that you would have to say that it is false.

A great many misjudgements follow from Shilliam’s dogmatic approach. He thinks that when protestors against the workhouse say that Englishmen are being treated like slaves that this is them denigrating the poor as being like black people, “blackened” (p. 173). However, bearing in mind that Britain had, over the years preceding the poor law change, seen a massive campaign against slavery, the polemical point surely is that the poor in England are also worthy of the reformers’ sympathy. Gareth Stedman Jones’s somewhat forced interpretation of Chartism claims that they were pre-eminently a movement of skilled craftsmen, but that is not the view of most historians of the movement.[3] Shilliam contrasts the Manchester cotton workers’ opposition to the Confederates’ pro-slavery revolt of the 1860s with the “Anglo-Saxon” Reform Act that gave working people the vote. But the two are intimately related. Campaigners for the vote were the same people who campaigned against the Confederate cause, like Ted Hooson and George Odger. It is true that some London dockworkers went on strike in support of Enoch Powell. But to isolate that one incident from the extensive and bitter struggle that the whole of the docks went through to fight containerisation and the closure of London’s docks is to misunderstand the reason that the race conflict there broke out and what was at stake.

Seeing everything in racial terms stops Shilliam from understanding things that do not fit that framework. If people say that they voted to leave the European Union because they take sovereignty seriously, Shilliam knows better: it is “in fact a proxy critique of immigration”, he says (p. 159). When the Labour Government raised the question of “community cohesion” after riots in Bradford, Shilliam sees that as “a subterranean commitment, in the minds of policy-makers, to retain a singular racialised filiation to the English genus” (p. 123). But, in fact, the resultant report, drawn up by Ted Cantle and Herman Ouseley, clearly demands that the basis of “community cohesion” is “to meet their obligations under the new Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 and to promote social interaction and mixing”,[4] and that was characteristic of the government’s subsequent approach. Likewise, for Shilliam, the concern that policy-makers expressed over the poor performance by working class children in schools is evidence that the white working classes are seen as more “deserving” (Ch.1, introduction) – not what it is: evidence that working-class youngsters are failing at school.

Shilliam makes the contrast of the deserving and undeserving poor do rather too much work in this account. For him, “‘Deservedness’ is a racialised discourse” (p. 173). It certainly was important in the debate over the reform of the Elizabethan poor laws, and the distinction does survive in different discussions of welfare down the ages, but it had little to do with race, and, since the 1920s it was a distinction as likely to be made by those attacking the point than defending it. More important divisions in the working class have been many and different, and are not reducible to that one alone. In the early industrial revolution, it was the divisions between craft and manufacturing that were decisive, and in the twentieth century, between skilled and unskilled, while today the most important divide is between those with and without degrees (adding an annual premium of £12,000). Some of these are contiguous with racial divisions, but others are not.

Shilliam’s conclusion makes clear that he wants to see social class understood as a racial category, “a first order analytic and ethical engagement with class as race”, as he puts it. In this way social analysis is made subordinate to a racial understanding of class. Shilliam’s vision of the renewed class struggle is that the real movement will come from “the detritus of Empire”, out of which we shall “build new publics” (p. 181). It is a stirring cry, but its substantial meaning is that the working class in Britain should quieten down and take a back seat. For the two decades after the defeats of the labour movement in western Europe and the end of the Cold War, the working class has had very little influence on public life, asked instead to make way for those who know better. But in the last five years, popular movements like the gilets jaunes in France and Syriza in Greece have stirred. In Britain many working people took the EU referendum as an opportunity to kick against the establishment. Despite the many fears that this represented a growing racial resentment, the evidence from public attitudes surveys shows that since the referendum campaign we have seen the biggest shift to more liberal attitudes on race in recent times.[5] Social scientists might be more usefully concerned with understanding these movements than vilifying them.


[1] Office of National Statistics, “Employment by Industry Sector and Ethnicity - 4 quarter average 'Year to September' 2013”. Column C, line 77 (All Sectors): White: 89.5%.

[2] Kirby Swales, Understanding the Leave Vote (NatCen: London, 2012), p. 8. 29 per cent of black voters and 32 per cent of Asian voters backed leaving the EU.

[3] See, for example, David Black and Chris Ford, 1839: The Chartist Insurrection (Unkant: London, 2012), p. 198.

About the author

James Heartfield’s, Equal Opportunities Revolution was published by Repeater in 2018.

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