Black British realities and the return of the ‘underclass’

The re-emergence of a certain vocabulary that stigmatizes the working class, benefit seekers, and the black community, is becoming increasingly mainstream in Britain. So why now, and who stands to benefit?

Nigel Carter
4 November 2011

In his quest for a “new black politics" that's more “socially conservative” than radical, the ‘liberal’ commentator David Goodhart this week joined the brigade of media pundits employing the term “underclass” to demonise the working class: “This is not so much about class as underclass…” he concluded on a recent episode of Analysis on Radio 4.

If only Goodhart had taken heed of one of the other interviewees, Stafford Scott, who stated a few weeks before the programme was broadcast: “When we hear them talking about punishing people, removing benefits, a feral underclass, that is not our reality”.

 IDS is utilising the ‘underclass’ narrative

So why are mainstream commentators like Goodhart, particularly in the wake of England's riots, choosing to present a certain view of reality by returning to outdated ‘underclass’ narratives?

In his excellent book ‘Underclass: A History of the Excluded, 1880-2000’, author John Welshman comments on how Tony Blair’s New Labour, particularly via Frank Field's ideas on ‘Making Welfare Work’, began to adopt the language and ideas of American political scientists Charles Murray and Lawrence Mead in relation to welfare reform.

Taking his cue from the ‘underclass welfare dependency’ discourse popularised by Murray and Mead, Tony Blair declared in a 1997 speech made at the Aylesbury Estate, South London: “There is a case …to tackle what we all know exists - an underclass of people cut off from society’s mainstream, without any sense of shared purpose.”

Under New Labour, the emphasis on tackling poverty was to shift from structural causes towards individual’s behaviour. This speech was a precursor to the launch of New Labour’s Social Exclusion Unit in 1997.

Whilst Blair himself may have used the stigmatizing term ‘underclass’, the advent of the Social Exclusion Unit - whose remit was to focus on issues of unemployment, deprivation, drug use, teenage pregnancy, truancy and school exclusion - perhaps at least heralded a shift away from the negatively loaded phrase ‘underclass’ to the milder term ‘social exclusion’.

Here it is worth noting that the concept ‘social exclusion’ was adopted by the European Commission in the late 1980s partly due to the fact that some member states wished to avoid using the term ‘poverty’.

In the immediate aftermath of the August Riots the tabloid press described the rioters as a ‘feckless and feral criminal underclass.’ Utilising the ensuing moral panic and public outrage for their own political purposes, David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith claimed the riots were the result of “criminality pure and simple”. For Iain Duncan Smith, a welfare dependent underclass was to blame.

But now that the Ministry of Justice analysis of official figures says poverty, not ‘gang culture’, was the main underlying cause behind the riots, will Cameron and Duncan Smith revise their ‘broken society' rhetoric?

Unlikely. In a recent article Tim Newborn notes that the ‘social deprivation’ revealed by the government's official figures would have usually been referred to as ‘social exclusion’. Yet now the quest to bring about the end of welfare as we know it, disguised by the euphemism ‘welfare reform’, has Cameron, Duncan Smith (and fellow travellers like Goodhart perhaps) utilising the 'undeserving poor'/underclass narrative.

We should be keenly aware of the implications of a shift in public language, facilitated by the mainstream media, which via word substitution - for instance changing ‘social exclusion’ to ‘underclass’ - contributes to popular consent for particular neoliberal policy decisions.

So it was that Duncan Smith, following hot on the heels of George Osborne’s massive welfare benefit cut to end the “lifestyle choice” of those preferring to “sit on out-of-work benefits”, announced his ‘Workfare’ reforms to break Britain’s 'welfare dependency culture'.

Interestingly, academic and Glasgow community worker Bob Holman, who famously criticised the behavioural focus and key myths underlying Duncan Smith's ideological predecessor Sir Keith Joseph’s ‘cycle of deprivation theory’, also denounced ‘compassionate conservative’ Duncan Smiths' condemnatory attitude towards the unemployed:

“He seems to be regarding them (the unemployed) with disrespect saying you’re not really a part of society. We’re going to force you to do these, what are really degrading jobs, which won’t equip them for anything, but in a way are punishing them for not working and in a climate in which jobs are hard to get.”

Here also, Iain Duncan Smith’s “It's a sin not to work” rhetoric is reminiscent of one of the major theorists of underclass discourse, Charles Murray.

In 1989, Murray described an “emergent British underclass”, for which the causes and evidence included: undesirable behaviour, drug taking, single parent families, failure to hold down a job, truancy from school and casual violence within certain inner city communities.

Murray wrote that: “When I use the term ‘underclass’ I am indeed focussing on a certain type of person defined not by his condition eg: long term unemployed, but by his deplorable behaviour in response to that condition eg: unwilling to take jobs that are available to him.”

For Charles Murray, the American ‘underclass’ was presented as the UK ‘underclass’ has been described by Goodhart on the radio: as being "disproportionately black.”

And for Murray, as for Goodhart, it is the post-war welfare state - instead of poverty - that is largely responsible for the 'welfare dependent underclass' that they perceive to exist. Likewise, this premise is the key ideological foundation of Iain Duncan Smith's ‘Workfare’ reform, which incorporated the ideas of Lawrence Mead – the key architect of 'Workfare' in the US - as set out in ‘Beyond Entitlement : The Social Obligations of Citizenship’. The reforms have been denounced by the Child Poverty Action Group as a "retrograde step" but Duncan Smith is pressing on.

So now even the BBC’s John Humphrys is writing about ‘Our Shameless Society: How the Welfare State has created an age of entitlement.’ Note Humphrys' comment that: “What Duncan Smith…knows is that …reforms to the benefits system will come about if there is the public will. It happened in the United States because of what was called at the time moral panic.”

Particularly in relation to the August riots, we should watch our language and be more mindful of seemingly innocuous shifts in public language. For, as Ruth Lister reminds us: “In the face of widening inequality, the new consensus on welfare recast the problem of poverty as a moral problem of ‘behavioural dependency’ among the underclass. It helped to change the terms of the welfare debate, thereby paving the way for what President Clinton heralded as ‘the end of welfare as we know it'.”

Nigel Carter is a Community Development Worker from Nottingham currently based in Oxford. Nigel studied Caribbean History at North London University and has a degree in History and an MA in Public History. Nigel is also a part time doctoral student with the Working Lives Research Institute (London Metropolitan University).

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