EXODUS OF THE MASSES

The Telegraph

A playwright once castigated a BBC wardrobe assistant for kitting out the northern characters in his working-class drama in mufflers and caps. It was the 1960s, the season when there was said to be a social revolution in the air, and yet here was a BBC staffer unaware that the proles were shopping at Burton's. Judging by the reactions to the latest BBC season on the white working class, the corporation is still stuck on mufflers and caps. The series kicks off tonight with the film Last Orders, in which the decline of a working men's club is, presumably, a metaphor for the wider demise of the white working class. But the working class have not become extinct; they simply started drinking elsewhere. Where the numbers of the tribe have diminished is in major cities, and London in particular. In the satellite suburbs of the capital and elsewhere you will find the current working-class generation very much alive, and in some cases, thriving. 

These are the progeny of the white urbanites who moved out of inner-city council homes in an unprecedented number over the past 30 years. The trend was highlighted recently by Trevor Phillips, now chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Phillips used the term "white flight" to describe the exodus from the capital, as though it echoed the emergence of the white suburb/black city phenomenon of post-war America.

It was a comment that marks a shift in the thinking of the race lobby. For years, the exit of the white working class from the capital was celebrated by many a "progressive", as they were seen as a blot on the landscape of a utopian multiculturalism. Now it is not the presence of the white working class but their increasing absence that has been flagged up as an issue - with both arguments detracting from the flawed thinking that is actually responsible for the failure of multiculturalism.

The modern suburbanites, who have taken flight from the urban neighbourhoods in which generations of their families were born, remain culturally working class. Their offspring generally choose work and cash over further education; their social life attempts to recreate the structure of a traditional urban working class culture. This is why the corporate pub, the bingo hall, the social life built around football club and even the golf course are filling in, successfully, for the pastimes of the past.

It's no surprise that in recent years, on the internet and in the archive centres in local libraries, genealogy has become so popular among the working class. It's as though this effort to connect to their own past is a way of reminding themselves that they actually did exist; that they have a history, a culture and an identity. One that is absent in the contemporary dialogue on cultural diversity and ethnicity. It is only within this dialogue that the white working class are extinct.

One example of how much those from the diaspora have moved on since the muffler and the cap is to be found at that testament to turbo-consumerism, Bluewater in Kent. This is a place of pilgrimage for those eager to get their hands on anything by Tiffany, Gucci or Agent Provocateur. Whippets, caps and singlets don't feature.

The accoutrements may have changed, but the rumours that Britain is a classless society are as naive now as in the 1960s, when it was the bleat from a small media clique that had stumbled on popular culture. An unparalleled amount of money has filtered down the social order in the past 30 years resulting in the working class becoming dispersed, sometimes to postcodes where they previously had no footing.

This has yet to have an impact on the long-term unemployed, or the urban white working class who feel landlocked in neighbourhoods they no longer recognise. But a social revolution of sorts, has taken place. For some, the downside is that cash rather than education has brought about the shift. This was the fear of certain religious social reformers at the end of the 19th century; those who wanted better education and health for the masses but worried that if the working class had more leisure and money it would go on drink, gambling and licentiousness.

We see their 21st-century equivalent in those who, in the name of environmentalism - the modern evangelism - attempt to curb the excess of the masses because they spend on the wrong foods, the wrong pastimes, the wrong holidays. It's simply another way of putting the working class back in their place: that is, down on their luck, at a working man's club, in a muffler and a cap.