Gerry Hassan: Remembering is one thing, learning another

Even John Major has woken up to the realities of class and privilege. Picture: PA
Even John Major has woken up to the realities of class and privilege. Picture: PA
Share this article
Have your say

Scots and their sense of working class self have changed over the years, yet the challenges we face have not, writes Gerry Hassan

Scotland has been informed by the experiences and memories of working class life and culture since the Industrial Revolution.

A majority of Scots see themselves as working class and more people do now than in 1979.

In a strange turn of affairs, being working class post-crash is all the rage nowadays. It might not be the sixties when being working class was associated with the age of meritocracy and tearing down the old elites, but change is in the air.

The mantras of the long British bubble now seem from another age: the prospect of “a classless society” invoked by John Major, and Tony Blair’s delusion that “we are all middle class now” look preposterous. Even Major has woken up to the realities of class and privilege.

What it means to be working class has shifted through the years. Claiming that identity today evokes something very different compared to 1979 or 1949. There are economic, social and cultural factors, changing patterns of employment and trade union membership, and business attitudes.

Some of this came into the open in the recent Grangemouth oil refinery and Govan shipbuilding controversies. Both recall something of an age when men were men and did “real” jobs. This was a time of often conservative trade unions defending demarcation lines and established ways of working, and even more insensitive, obstinate management.

Both of these episodes showed that our politics, media and culture struggle to deal with conflicts which both draw from the past, and deal with the present and future, of how work can be both meaningful and productive, and the absence of any substantive form of industrial democracy and participation. They also draw on the power of what has been called “radical nostalgia” which has always been present on the left. It could be seen in the pastoral communism of William Morris, but in recent decades it has come more to the fore.

Once the left was defined by an optimism and belief that the future could be shaped as progressive. Now the left is characterised by remembering better times and fearing change and the future.

Ken Loach’s film The Spirit of ‘45 offered a beautiful testimony to a politics which seems to think all its best days are behind it. It jumped from Labour’s Brave New Dawn of 1945 to Margaret Thatcher’s election victory of 1979, as if nothing happened in-between and Thatcher had just appeared from nowhere like some anti-democratic coup d’état (which isn’t a very helpful view of the past).

Closer to home is Theatre Workshop Scotland’s film The Happy Lands about the village of Carhill in the Fife coalfields, the 1926 General Strike and its aftermath. This is, unlike Loach, a dramatisation of working class life, struggles and hardship, the choices confronting people, exploitation by coal owners and repression by government.

Movingly, The Happy Lands paints a full, rich picture of the Fife coalfields. This is a world filled with humour, songs, the occasional magistrate siding with those in poverty, and the appeal and reactionarism of Harry Lauder.

Memories of class, of exploitation and solidarity fill the often unwritten working class tales and folklore many of us grew up with. Stories were passed down from grandparent and parent: of the General Strike, the 1930s and mass unemployment, or in the Dundee I grew up in, of the women-led jute industry strikes, of the men as “kettle boilers”, and radical Prohibitionist Edwin Scrymgeur defeating Winston Churchill for one of the Dundee seats in 1922.

The Scotland of the last couple of decades has had its own tales: deindustrialisation which was nearly as fast and brutal as the industrialisation of the early 19th century. There was the Scotland of the lament Bathgate no more; Linwood no more; Methil no more; Irvine no more.

This period has seen unprecedented wealth in Scotland and the UK alongside record inequality in an economic and social experiment which has spectacularly failed. Yet Prime Minister David Cameron and his allies want to extend this into every aspect of public life, making a “leaner, more efficient state”. The late Scottish-based academic Henry Drucker argued that the culture of organised labour was made of up of a world divided into “them” and “us” and shaped by a vague sense of past wrongs and defeats.

Yet meanings change as well. Trade unions are less powerful than at any point since the 1930s. Employment has dramatically altered, and living standards have suffered their biggest reversal since records began, with wages down in real terms 6 per cent over the last five years and Scotland 9.7 per cent.

What it means to be working class in this context is very different. A large part of a generation of people in Scotland born to working-class parents experienced higher education and social mobility and entered professional work, and have defined themselves as working class. This “inbetweener Scotland” has played a significant role in how we have embarked on a very different path from that of down south.

Somehow we need to nurture a mature, democratic conversation about work, class and the lives, identities and memories we shape around it. The conservatism of British trade unionism even at its peak was a product of the capitalism it opposed, while the limits of management and capital were glossed over but magnified in the Thatcher and Blair eras.

“It is important to learn from your history,” says one of the main characters of The Happy Lands, making a link to today’s struggles.

Our collective memories matter, but we cannot be prisoners to our past either, and need to have an optimism of believing in the power of change and of working people coming together. Solidarity has never been more needed in the age of hyper-individualism but has to adapt and learn to the times.