The area where I live is blessed with some incredible countryside with the Dales on one side and the North Yorkshire moors on another. Whenever I visit a place of particular beauty, which I try to often, I always end up asking myself whether people who are born and bred there appreciate what they’re living amongst, or whether it just becomes so familiar that it’s simply a barely-noticed backdrop to their lives that it’s hardly a factor in their perception of the ups and downs of life. I hope it’s the former, because it would be a tragedy to live in such a setting and not fully enjoy it.
I had the privilege of going to upper Teesdale with a group of people from one of the poorer areas of our town yesterday – and it was both humbling and challenging to see the wonder and enjoyment that they showed at having a day out in such marvellous scenery. There was a a naked appreciation that made me want to make sure not to take any of my own blessings for granted.
Now imagine a hypothetical person – such as wouldn’t have been hypothetical a century or two ago, when most people tended to be very rooted to their birthplace and unlikely to know much about what other places were like. This hypothetical person has lived in one of those beautiful dales his/her whole life and has never visited a city, let alone a crowded, inner-city area. No matter how much they might hear about such places second-hand, they could never really have an idea what it was like to live there. But as is the way of people in such circumstances, they might well think they did, and have very strong opinions, or even deep prejudices, about those places and the people who live in them.
I’m pretty sure that something similar to that is going on in the minds of Dominic Raab, Priti Patel, Kwasi Kwarteng, Liz Truss and Chris Skidmore – the five ‘rising stars of the Tory right’ who have written a book claiming ‘that “lazy” Brits prefer a lie-in to hard work‘ and ‘criticises the “baby boomer” generation for seeking to raise taxes for young workers to pay for their lavish pension pots‘.
The book goes on to claim ‘Once [Britons] enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor‘. This is demonstrably untrue – Britons work the longest hours in Europe, retire later than people in most other European countries, especially as it rises to 68, and have the fewest national holidays and the lowest statutory leave in the European Union. But hey, why let the facts get in the way of a good bit of demonisation, eh?
A quick look at the wikipedia entry for each MP reveals the unsurprising truth that none of the five comes from a background that could be called anything but ‘comfortable’ at the very least. Kwarteng is the son of immigrants, but won a scholarship to Eton and went from there to Cambridge. Truss is the daughter of left-wing parents (who must be tearing out their hair), but daddy is a professor, so her childhood wasn’t exactly ‘Kes’. Of the five, none has had a job outside politics that could be considered ‘ordinary’ (financial analyst (Kwarteng) and Commercial Manager/Economics Director certainly wouldn’t qualify).
I know a couple of Young Tories in the local area. One is a fine young man from a working-class background and I live in hope that he’ll see sense. But even now, he’s very careful about making any sweeping statements about working-class people – because he lives among them, knows and sees enough to know that the trite accusations of laziness etc just don’t apply. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing for right-wing pontification.
The other comes from a background of privilege – privately educated and living in one of the wealthiest, outlying areas of the town. He’s only 18 or 19, hasn’t the remotest idea of the challenges that face the unemployed and low-paid – the very opposite of the young people I drove up to the dales yesterday. He is more than happy to spout about how the problems of the poor are their own fault. Words like ‘lazy’, ‘workshy’, ‘scrounger’ and ‘skiver’ trip easily from his lips. His ignorance is so profound that he just has no idea what he doesn’t know – so he simply trots out the same nonsense and prejudice that he hears from his parents, and assumes it must be so.
So it is with ‘the five’. They’re like my hypothetical country-dweller or that blinkered and pampered young acquaintance. Ease and privilege are so woven into the fabric of their lives that they have no awareness of how much luck and chance have to do with it and are easily able to:
– fool themselves that they’ve ‘earned’ what they now have through ‘graft’, when in fact most of it, or at least the opportunities to aim for it, were handed to them on a silver platter
– believe that the plight of the unemployed, the poor, the disadvantaged, is the ‘fault’ of those people, because they’re ‘lazy’, ‘workshy’, ‘feckless’ or some other word from the go-to lexicon of Tory dismissives
– argue for ‘meritocracy’ without apparent irony, when in fact merit has so little to do with where they are
and so on. Like my young Tory acquaintance, they have neither the experience nor the self-awareness to realise what nonsense they’re talking when they say things such as those shown above, or trot out the usual Tory tripe like ‘we must get on the side of the responsible, the hard working and the brave‘.
Just to give you some context for my own opinion, I do have some experience at both ends of the scale. I come from a very working-class family, with a dad who worked hard in British Steel and ICI at a manual trade, and a mother from a very poor background but who had aspirations for her kids and encouraged us to aim high at school and beyond. I learned languages and ended up in jobs that have taken me to all kinds of places. I’ve ‘done well’, as most people would see it.
But the difference is, I saw enough, experienced enough as a kid and as a young man (and now as an older one!) to know that not everyone I grew up with could have done as well, enjoyed the same opportunities, ‘if only they’d worked hard enough’. Luck has a lot to do with it. Whatever brains I have, I was just lucky enough to be born with them. Not everyone has parents who are supportive – or who are able to give them the encouragement and help that mine did, even if they would wish to. A little experience is a very dangerous thing for the kind of unthinking superiority evinced by the likes of Kwarteng, Patel, Skidmore, Truss and Raab – and their lack of it means that their opinions should carry no weight with anyone who wants a balanced, realistic view of the world.
Now, on to that ‘Asian work ethic’. One of my jobs was as VP of a ‘manufacturing’ company that had long ago decided that it didn’t want to manufacture any more, but would prefer to go the short-sighted, quick-killing, ‘made in China’ route so common in business these days. As a result, I had to visit Chinese factories and assess them as possible suppliers, as well as to run a sales and sourcing team based in Hong Kong and Shenzhen.
So I can speak from experience about the Chinese work ethic that Raab & co so admire. And what I can tell you is that it isn’t really a ‘work-ethic’ anywhere near as much as it’s a fear-ethic. There’s a small, wealthy business class in China – a country that is extremely neoliberal in spite of its Communist veneer – but the vast majority of its people are poor and vulnerable.
In many of the factories I saw, workers were shipping in hundreds or even thousands of miles from the poorest regions to do back-breaking, monotonous, dangerous work, for a pittance, in factories where ‘health & safety’ was an unknown concept. Most were forced to sleep on the factory grounds in order to keep their jobs and to have a little to send back to their families – and lived in terror of losing their job or even of falling sick, because they could easily be replaced by someone else brought in from subsistence farming. People tolerated conditions that amounted to abuse, and endured risks of grave injury because they were too scared to object. I wasn’t in that job for very long, and I’m glad of it – but I’m also glad to have seen it. Glad to know what things can be like when profit is more highly valued than humanity.
There is certainly a section of the Tory party that would love to see a return to these conditions in the UK – and would think that the country would be ‘better off’ if it did, even though only the ‘elite’ could possibly benefit from degrading the lives and living standards of so many people in such a way. Seemingly ‘the five’ belong to this section, or are at least trying to play up to it, in order to achieve and advance their ‘rising star’ status.
I don’t agree. In fact I disagree vehemently. I’ve seen and experienced too much to be that naive or arrogant. British workers are not perfect. Nobody is, including Tory ‘rising stars’. But the UK – including the Tories – should be proud of living in a country where employees have rights, where health and safety are a legal requirement, where people can join a union, be protected if they fall ill or lose their job, receive free healthcare when they need it, be supported if they’re disabled or suffering a long-term illness. In a country where at least lip-service is given to the idea of a work/life balance and to taking care of those less well-off than ourselves.
That the Tories are not – that they’d consider copying the Chinese model something to be aspired to – is to their shame, and not that of the ‘lazy’ British worker.