From Powell to Casey: the Mythical White Working Class

From Powell to Casey: the Mythical White Working Class

Shirin Hirsch

Is the working class purely White? You could be forgiven for thinking so after reading the Casey review. In 199 pages of observations and recommendations to the government on ‘opportunity and integration’ there are 18 mentions of the ‘working class’, all of which refer solely to White groups. There are 54 references to being ‘poor’ and again it is White groups who are described as ‘poor’ in the economic sense of the word, in connection to de-industrialisation and employment opportunities. Meanwhile ethnic minority groupings are defined by their culture and, significantly, their cultural deficiency so that being ‘poor’ for ethnic minorities does not have the same meaning as it does for their white counterparts. A key focus of the report is the identification of the ‘poor’ English language skills of ethnic minorities, specifically women from Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnicities. It would appear then that while Whites have class, ethnic minorities simply have culture.

The Casey review is not particularly groundbreaking in its framing of class in this way. The narrative of the White working class has been evident within British mainstream accounts for over a decade. In response to Brexit, the media have turned to the ‘White working class’ in an attempt to explain political rupture, while Black, Asian or Muslim voters are de-classed and their occupations silenced.  This contrast is depicted in terms of antagonistic, racialised groups, pitching the interests of the White working class against ethnic minorities and immigrants. As The Telegraph put it, the White working class are now ‘Britain’s betrayed tribe’, used as symbol for the failures of multiculturalism policy. This ‘ethnicisation’ of the working class reached its peak in 2008 when the BBC commissioned and broadcast a series of documentaries under the suitably named ‘White Season’. The series provocatively asked: ‘Is the White working class in Britain becoming invisible?’

Such a question presents the White working class as an unproblematic category which has always been White, always known they are White, and merely required the arrival of immigrant communities in order to organise around this reality. Instead, the ‘invention’ of the White Race in association with the working class has a more recent history, as researchers have noted. In Victorian Britain, the idea that all residents within the nation were equally White was by no means accepted and Whiteness was fetishized as an extra-ordinary phenomenon, an identity for and by the bourgeoisie. In contrast, the urban working class were sometimes depicted in racialised ways which compared them to the darkened savagery of the Colonial ‘Other’. It was only in the post colonial era that Whiteness in Britain became a wider phenomenon associated with decency, ordinariness and the working class.

Enoch Powell’s notorious Rivers of Blood speech in 1968 perhaps best encapsulates this shift. Here was a Conservative MP who had been shaped by an elite attachment to Empire, with a passion for colonial India and a long cherished dream to become Viceroy of India. However, on returning to Britain from the War Powell was distraught to watch the dismantling of his ambitions, along with the British Empire. And yet by the 1960s Powell had transformed from colonialist to Little Englander, moving towards a ‘new racism’ directed at the figure of the immigrant, those racialised living embodiments of his Empire past who were now migrating to the ‘motherland’. He also began to widen his electoral focus as MP in Wolverhampton, now speaking for and through the ‘ordinary, decent, sensible people’ of England, the (implicitly White) working class.

In the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech this Whitening of the working class is enacted through a vivid racial binary. Black people within the speech are represented by noise, violence and filth sprawled over the streets of Wolverhampton; streets which are nostalgically remembered as once respectable, clean and White. These images are narrated through the crafted voices of the White working class. Powell recounts a conversation with a constituent, a ‘middle-aged, quite ordinary working man employed in one of our nationalised industries.’ While Powell claims to quote this man, the two voices of Powell and the nameless worker blur into one as he states: ‘in this country in fifteen or twenty years time the black man will have the whip hand over the White man’. The history of slavery is racially reversed and it is the Whites who are now imagined as victims, pushed out of their homes as White England crumbles. According to Powell, the enemy of the White working class is neither exploitation nor capitalism, but the black man.

Perhaps what was so shocking about the speech was the response; Powell’s calculated words appeared to have created their own, new reality. The speech constructed White workers as a discrete, racialised unit and within days this Whitened group collectively responded at a time of economic uncertainty. Dockers from East London (who had just lost a bitterly long all out strike) and Smithfield meat porters marched to Westminster in support of Powell. Of course, not all the dockers marched and there were fierce debates within their ranks, so that by 1976 the same dockers were now picketing in support of Asian women in the Grunwick dispute. The White working class did not always act within the forceful category Powell had imagined for them. Powell, too, was eventually ostracised, spending his last political years as an MP in Northern Ireland where his own particular form of English nationalism found a more conducive environment than Wolverhampton had provided.

Yet despite Powell’s descent into the political wilderness, and a wider anti-racist movement that challenged many of his more repellent ideas, the myth of the working class as a Whitened victim in relation to the preying immigrant has proved tenacious within British politics. We can see its sanitised reproduction with the release of the Casey report, almost fifty years on from Powell’s speech. However, as Selina Todd points out in her impressive history of the British working class, there was never a homogenous White working class whose interests and identity could be distinguished from that of black Britons or recent migrants. Indeed, there is nothing ‘natural’ or progressive in the concept of the White working class but is a term which has been born out of and feeds into racism. Only through the forging multiracial working class struggle can exploitation and inequality be challenged and the straightjacket of Whiteness removed.

Further reading:
Schofield, Camilla. Enoch Powell and the making of postcolonial Britain. Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Sveinsson, Kjartan Páll, ed. Who cares about the white working class? Runnymede Trust, 2009.
Todd, Selina. The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010. Hachette UK, 2014.
Virdee, Satnam. Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.


Shirin Hirsch is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Wolverhampton –. She is currently working on a project exploring Powell, race and local working class politics in Wolverhampton. Shirin has previously worked at the University of Glasgow and Manchester on different projects exploring race, migration and labour history.

Image: Wikicommons