Thursday, March 17, 2005

Mind the Gap by Ferdinand Mount

The other day I mentioned this book and posted a link to a review of it. (I might have added a link to a favourable article by Polly Toynbee.) Anyway, here are my own thoughts.

Mount argues that the received wisdom that the class divide in Britain is becoming steadily less pronounced is plain wrong. He argues that the Uppers and the Downers (as he terms them) are growing apart in every way. Though he never defines his terms - at one moment the Downers seem be what others call the underclass, at another they seem to comprise the majority of the population - his argument is always interesting and often compelling.

The book contains many good and unexpected things, such as a convincing discussion of the different and contradictory uses Marx makes of the concept of class. There is also a fascinating comparison of clothing styles today and in the 1920s. Mount shows that, if anything, there are more markers of social class in use today and that 80 years ago one's age was at least as important a determinant of what one would choose to wear.

One of the themes that appears to be emerging on this blog is my impatience with a simplistic view of progress. I am still enough of a Liberal to believe in reform, but every change has its negative as well as its positive aspects and we should not be afraid to recognise this.

Mind the Gap is at its strongest when it looks at the decline of working-class institutions, such as schools and churches, which has accompanied the development of the welfare state. Where once the working class was seen as exemplifying hard work, thrift, cleanliness and all the other virtues, today its members are widely reviled.

Mount's support for localism and co-operative enterprise reminds me of Jo Grimond's last book A Personal Manifesto, and modern Liberal Democrats would do well to absorb some of this spirit. If you don't believe me, listen to Mr Gladstone, whom Mount quotes, Here he is writing in 1836:
It appears to me clear that the day you sanction compulsory rating for the purpose of education you sign the death-warrant for voluntary exertions ... If this be the true tendency of the system which my noble friend seeks to introduce, are we preparing to undergo the risk of extinguishing that vast amount of voluntary effort which now exists throughout the country? Aid it you may; strengthen, and invigorate, and enlarge it you may; you have done so to an extraordinary degree; you have every encouragement to persevere in the same course; but always recollect that you depend upon influences of which you get the benefit, but which are not at your command - influences that you may, perchance, in an unhappy day, extinguish, but which you can never create.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

**It appears to me clear that the day you sanction compulsory rating for the purpose of education you sign the death-warrant for voluntary exertions**

Looks like rubbish to me. I was forced to go to school, yet as a youngster I read widely outside of the curriculum because I found reading enjoyable. Nothing and no-one told me that because education was compulsary, I should therefore "extinguish" the amount of voluntary learning I did outside of school hours.

But then again, I was lucky enough to be brought up in a liberal middle-class atmosphere where reading was encouraged. There are, I'm sure, plenty of families where the head(s) of household think reading a waste of time, and who actively discourage children from such a solitary, self-absorbed activity. Do we make education "voluntary" and risk having these kids choose not to come into school, or do we make it compulsary and hope that school brings out their hidden talents? I think we know the answer to that one.