Respectable (Review)

2016 has been harrowing. Much of which we’ve taken for granted, from pop-stars to physical security, has been snatched away from us. Brexit was one such unexpected demise that left Britain and the world dumbfounded. No more single market, freedom of movement or legal cover in areas of employment or human rights for Britain. What would make a population opt for such an option?

In the immediate wake of Brexit, the nation was deeply divided. Some chose to vent against minority populations, whilst some directed their ire towards the old, or non-Londoners. Yet there was one refrain I kept hearing as attributed to regrexits “I never thought my vote would count”. It was becoming apparent that the more affluent, aspirational Londoners saw themselves as having something to lose while those on the margins had had enough and were treating the referendum as a protest vote, as misguided as that response may have been. I needed to know what would drive someone to feel that they had no stake in their country’s future or prosperity.

I was quite lucky to alight on Respectable by Lynsey Hanley at that very moment. Published not more than 2 months ago, it anticipated, though could not deal with Brexit directly. Written as a study into social class and a personal account of a rise from the working class, ‘Respectable’ traces the identity of the working class in post war Britain and its deliberate dismantling in favour of a new capitalist economic model. The sense of despondency that manifested itself in the Brexit vote, can largely be attributed to government policies that limit social mobility and chipped away at the self esteem of the working class. Hanley explores the subtle demonising and its effect on an entire class.

Hanley uses herself as a case study, illustrating how from primary to high school, the educational system failed to inspire disadvantaged kids to excel, reinforcing class divisions through the relationship between teachers and pupils. As a result, the working class keep their ambitions and that of their kids in check, since they are ignored by politicians they seek comfort in the semblance of a community which is conditional on their desire not to excel.

Hanley compassionately explains how an alienated class can act against its own interest through violent resentment. There’s a desire to smash the system without an understanding of how much more vulnerable they will become.

In stark contrast the challenges faced by the middle class are few and far between. Individuals are wired to succeed, and the best resources are made available to ensure that outcome. They are free from the resentment that burdens the working class and are armed with the language and critical skills to help them assess a situation in their favour. They are destined to be blind to the challenges of the poor and in many cases unsympathetic too.

Through Hanley’s anthropological study of the classes the reader is able to empathize and appreciate how inequality has almost irretrievable divided the population. And whilst many have been indifferent to their plight, Brexit has now shown us that we do so to our own peril.

Aysha Raja

Aysha Raja

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