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Children's Hour: This was a common sight in the Fifties. But Reith's BBC now seems as old-fashioned as the family values that sustained it 

The riots on England's streets in August confirmed all too graphically the existence of an underclass. The high number of black faces among the young rioters triggered renewed agonising over England's ethnic minorities. But the most disturbing aspect of the new underclass is that much of it is indigenous. 

In the poorest fifth of households, children of the white English working class are now performing significantly worse at school than their black and Bangladeshi counterparts whose underachievement has been the conventional concern of social policy, according to research by the Financial Times last April. They are more likely to get stuck in the bottom fifth of the academic league tables and are even less successful than those children of immigrants for whom English is a second language. The problem is most acute not in London but in the North: in Hull a poor white child has a greater than two-thirds chance of finishing at the bottom of the academic pile. Yet the education system, despite its failings, cannot reasonably be blamed as the sole culprit. The origins of this new underclass lie deeper.

Over the past half-century the English class war has been fought  on two fronts, one economic, the other cultural. From the 1980s the working class lost the economic war: manual jobs disappeared, there was competition from a massive influx of low-skilled immigrants, and social protection through unemployment benefit and the state pension deteriorated to among the lowest in Europe. The English middle class benefited from the consequent cheap labour and low taxes. The working class won the culture war. Fifty years ago there was a single television channel, run by the BBC,  which, from Children's Hour to The Brains Trust, held to the standards set by Lord Reith. Respect — both self-respect and the respect of others — was to be achieved through respectability, defined by the stuffy but functional lower-middle-class virtues of thrift, sobriety, fortitude, endeavour and family. In his magisterial social history of postwar Britain, David Kynaston entitles his volume on the 1950s Family Britain, and he surely highlights its central distinctive feature.  

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Dennis Lewis
December 31st, 2011
2:12 PM
While this article contains many suggestive insights into what is a palpably real phenomenon - the cultural impoverishment of the white British underclass - it also contains several evasions and fallacies. For instance, Collier argues that "The ethnic minorities are more successful than the English working class because, like the middle class, they have built their own subcultures that challenge the dominant degenerative one." Yet Collier also claims that the dominant white working class culture has degenerated due its exposure to the "disastrous" influence of these same ethnic subcultures, including the "swaggering violence" of Jamaican subculture. The irony behind all of this is the fact that the main reason why ethnic minorities are more successful than the white English working class is that they draw on the very English middle class values and aspirations which Collier claims are no longer accessible to the white working class. These values - education, hard work, postponement of gratification, thriftiness - were the very same values drummed into me by my Jamaican immigrant parents, and were in fact the very same values which had been drummed into my parents through their British colonialist education!

David Thornton
October 27th, 2011
1:10 PM
It would pay to read a really excellent article by Jonathan Sacks in The Times (22-10-2011) "Wait twenty minutes before eating the marshmallow".

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