1970s >> 1974 >> no-844-december-1974

It’s the Poor What Gets the Blame — Official

One way of assessing Sir Keith Joseph’s comments on “whole groups and classes of people” is to imagine a speech he would have made if Britain were at war. Would he then have said a large section of the working class was moronic, lecherous and irresponsible, and should be stopped from breeding the criminals and lowlifes who are its heirs? Ah, no. “Social classes 4 and 5” would be the bulwark of civilization, and their babies — however many — deserve orange-juice and vitamin pills. These kinds of bombast are exchangeable as an organ-grinder’s tunes, though the underlying contempt remains the same.

Joseph’s speech was made to Conservatives on 19th October. He suggested they put aside economic affairs —“never really the main thing”—and instead aim to “remoralize our national life”. His case was that present- day society is a decadent morass. It has been made so by “socialist intellectuals” and “permissiveness” and, in particular, letting the working class into universities. As an example of the ruin these tendencies have led to, “our human stock is threatened” by the persistent breeding now from parents unsuitable to have children:

Many of these girls are unmarried, many are deserted or divorced or soon will be. Some are of low intelligence, most are of low educational attainment . . . They are producing problem children, the future unmarried mothers, delinquents, denizens of our borstals, subnormal educational establishments, prisons, hostels for drifters. Yet these mothers, the under-twenties in many cases, single parents, from classes 4 and 5, are now producing a third of all births.

It may be useful, before going further, to say what is meant by “classes 4 and 5”. The groupings are made by the Government on the basis of the job of the family breadwinner, and these two divisions comprise semi-skilled and unskilled workers If they are assumed to be about two-fifths of the population, Joseph’s protest because they have one-third of the births is absurd. Summaries from the 1971 Census, given in the Sunday Times on 27th October, show that family size is practically the same in all five groups—about three-and-a- quarter persons.

Capitalist Hacks Unanimous

The central point of Joseph’s attack might have been, had it come from a more thinking person, a demonstration of the uselessness of social — including “moral” — reform as tried equally by the Tory, Labour and Liberal parties.

  Real incomes per head have risen beyond what anyone dreamed of a generation back; so have education budgets and welfare budgets; so also have delinquency, truancy, vandalism, hooliganism, illiteracy, decline in educational standards.

But he was only reviving his political forefathers’ dictum that if you give the undeserving poor money they only get into trouble, and if you teach them to read they write rude words on walls. The working class is used to this sort of thing, and being told it is to blame when capitalism has problems. Indeed, Joseph was being unfair to his Labour opponents: they share that standpoint. Following the Budget on 12th November the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, announced on TV that if he failed to stop a slump or inflation it would be the fault of “the British people”:

   The choice is yours. If you really prefer mass unemployment and rising prices you can always have it.

To add more, practically no-one in the chorus of critics of Joseph denied his thesis. Other Conservatives thought it “a sad mistake . . . which would inevitably cause serious doubts about his political judgement”. Frank Field of the Child Poverty Action Group acknowledged Joseph’s “problem” of breeding by sub-standard people, and “blamed this on the failure of the family planning system and suggested that the solution was to give women more incentive to limit their family size”. (Both quotations from The Guardian, 21st October.) The Bishop of Southwark put it down to “Conservative policies of 50 years ago” (Observer, 20th October) and “human nature” (News of the World, 27th October).

Official Labour replies were on the same lines. Ian Mikardo, the party chairman

   appeared to accept the gist of what Sir Keith Joseph said in his controversial weekend speech on the nation’s morals, but he neatly turned it to Labour’s advantage . . . he blamed individualist, self-centred Conservative doctrine.
(Guardian, 25th October)

Mrs. Castle, the Secretary for Social Services, accused Joseph of wrong statistics and expressed herself as equally anxious over the problems named. And Renee Short, another Labour MP, spoke of the need for a minister to deal with population problems and said:

     It is absolutely right for Sir Keith to say we need considerable extensions of education about family planning, but it is not only needed in the fourth and fifth social groups.

All agreed that the working class must be kept decent, and sneered at one another for legislation having failed to do so.

Class and Intelligence

None of the critics appears to have noticed one extra
ordinary implication of Joseph’s speech. Like the Victorian moralists, over human behaviour he wants to have things both ways—people are born bad but also influenced to be bad: the teaching of Eric, or Little by Little. But, in addition, Joseph was propounding what looks like Lysenko’s theory that acquired characteristics can be transmitted. Given mothers of “low educational attainment” who have learned immoral attitudes, there will be babies destined to be illiterates and criminals. Since reform cannot change heredity, the prevention of birth is the only answer — “the lesser evil”, he said.

This kind of rubbish was exploded long ago. However, there is a more cogent answer to Joseph’s contentions. Being in classes 4 and 5 — or any of the others — has nothing to do with intelligence or probity. People are in these “classes” because of their relationship to the means of production: specifically, because they own nothing and have to work as capitalism allows them. In fact the groupings are not social classes at all, but lists made for administrative purposes. The only two classes are of owners and non-owners of the means of living. People are born not into “free choice” but into one or the other class and all the implications of its position.

If intelligence were a factor, we should like to be told the intelligence quotients of, say, shareholders in big companies; the royal family; or politicians who have their speeches written for them. Would Joseph say that breeding by any number of these who were of “low intelligence” was a threat to human stock? Of course not. There are, in any case, different answers for them. The slow-learning or recalcitrant offspring of the well-to-do are put out to private tutors in country vicarages to get them in shape for Oxbridge. The idea of intelligence is irrelevant to that sort of life. It is a yardstick-concept by which the ruling class picks over the working class for its own purposes; the working class insults itself by accepting it.

Different Meanings

Joseph spoke about “responsibility”. The fact is that the capitalist system which he represents and upholds depends on irresponsibility. To hand over control of one’s life, have its activity appropriated and accept the say-so of leaders and rulers, is irresponsible. Yet that is precisely what Joseph requires, the “choice” he wants exercised. It is not a question of Doublethink, but of class terminology. For his class, following its interests, the working class acts “responsibly” by not following its own!

If you look at the occupations which make up groups 3, 4 and 5, the matter becomes clearer still. They are nearly all useful occupations — manufacture, building, mining, transport, the essentials for social existence. Not so most of the occupations in groups 1 and 2. A few are; the majority are about as useful as a tapeworm. What do “intelligence” and “educational attainment” mean when they are put to the non-uses generated by capitalist society? A former drama student has remarked to the writer that when he sees acquaintances on TV it is always in commercials: singing the praises of canned soup, zooming through space with packets of Tasty Morsels. For this, they studied Shakespeare and toiled at voice and movement—now, humans behaving like idiots.

Let us tell Sir Keith Joseph and the co-diagnosers of his “problem” the truth. The working class is the intelligent, educated class which makes the wonders, and competently carries out the humdrum tasks, of the world we live in. Without that being so, there would be no electronic marvels or university buildings. Nor would there be the sumptuous dinners from which capitalist politicians rise to make their self-important speeches. Or dividends for the shareholders of Bovis Ltd., of which Joseph is vice-chairman.

Moral Humbug

The so-called moral questions can be put in perspective by referring to the 1949 Report of the Royal Commission on Population. This was concerned with finding ways to induce people of all groups and grades to have more children: to maintain the work force, for “military strength and security”, and for “the maintenance and extension of Western values and culture”. There was no talk then of threatening the human stock, or the immorality of girls under twenty having babies.

Of course the family as a socio-economic unit has largely broken down, but Joseph’s conception of why this happens is extremely naive. Apparently he believes a currency of “immoral” ideas is the cause of such a breakdown, whereas the opposite is true. The family’s life and functions were disrupted by the extension and intensification of the division of labour; following that, fresh ideas of morality were generated — without, however, affecting the existence of capitalism.

But what kind of society are we living in? Sex and reproduction are the strongest of human instincts and pleasures. The tragedy for the poor is being swindled out of enjoyment and fulfilment by poverty, inadequate housing, worry, and living on the edge of a high-priced culture. Many girls in that situation, said Joseph, are unmarried or deserted or divorced: how nice of him to point it out, from the comfort of Class 1. How nice of Mrs. Castle too, to deny that “socialism is synonymous with permissiveness”. Indeed, she is right. “Permission” means condescending to allow, and that has nothing to do with the free, responsible world Socialists envisage: Mrs. Castle’s “socialism” is not synonymous with Socialism.

It will not be too long before the working class demonstrates its intelligence, and its contempt for the Josephs and Castles, by getting rid of the system they stand for.

Robert Barltrop