Basildon Man: beyond the shell-suits
The authors of a major new survey, Basildon: The Mood of the Nation, challenge the old and new stereotypes of Essex Man.
Basildon, a postwar new town on the outskirts of London, first acquired its doubtful celebrity status in the 1980s.
‘Basildon Man’ was the epitome of the working-class conversion to Thatcherism. He and his bride, Essex girl, formed the Frankenstein’s monster lurking in the shadows of the body politic; and commentators from the old left and right crossed themselves and sought out the garlic-crusher to ward the creature off.
Remember ‘Loadsamoney’ – the deeply unpleasant creation of Labour-supporting comedian Harry Enfield? His Basildon Man was a shell-suited, tasteless, XRi-driving twentysomething. The Essex girl from the same mould had a short skirt, white stilettos, large hoop earrings and a pronounced estuary accent. Her one escape from mediocrity was to break all records for sexual availability.
Basildon Man’s stereotype outlived the decade. In 1992 then Tory minister Stephen Norris characterised Essex Man as having ‘a great deal of money and very little taste’ (1). In other words, Basildon Man may have been a Tory voter, but you wouldn’t want him in the golf club.
Of course, ‘Basildon Man’ didn’t really exist. These crude lifestyle caricatures attempted to define a new group of workers with a new Thatcherite ideology to match – but the caricature said more about the snobbery and prejudices of its purveyors than it did about the people of Basildon. Our survey of Basildonians in 1992 found that they had quite a different concern to that promoted by their stereotypes – and our follow-up survey in 1997 discovered that, as New Labour came into power, their hopes and concerns shifted again.
Basildon’s working class was not recognisable as traditional cloth-capped, pigeon-fancying, horny-handed sons of toil; but neither was this a morally degenerate, feckless but ultimately pitiable ‘underclass’. To conventional politicians of both right and left, then, these workers seemed brash, aggressive and threatening.
In fact, Basildon Man was neither Mr Thatcher nor Mr Tasteless, but Mr Aspiration. As early as 1992, 24 percent of respondents to our survey rejected all Tory policies, and by 1997 this figure had risen to 39 percent. The only policy the respondents considered favourably was the sale of council property, which went right to the heart of what Basildonians had always wanted.
The original stereotype became even more confused when mixed with that other famous 1980s phenomenon, the yuppie finance broker. Yet, despite apocryphal stories of colonies of Rolls-Royce owners, Basildon Man was not surfing the wave of City speculation. In our 1992 survey of skilled workers we found that two thirds (64 percent) of our respondents earned less than £15,000. Basildon’s workers were no better off than their fellow workers elsewhere; in fact, they were relatively poor by the standards of south-east England.
Our 1997 survey found that 60 percent earned less than £15,000. Thirty-two percent of the 1997 sample earned less than £10,000, the regional average wage at the time. New industries and service sector jobs have not brought loadsamoney to Basildon – but the present reality has not defeated the drive to achieve.
The challenging characteristic of Basildon Man that has always been missed is his aspiration, and the way that, given half a chance, he can do it for himself. There is an historical explanation for this character. Basildon was the largest and last of Britain’s seven postwar new towns. Its first wave of residents may have been moved there in a pragmatic wave of slum clearance, but mostly they made the choice to move. They got on their bikes long before the Chingford skinhead Norman Tebbit coined the phrase.
Basildon’s residents were not just displaced by the Blitz, but were actively seeking a new life. This made them different from their contemporaries, who remained in East Ham and Dagenham, and from skilled workers in similar northern towns. So different in fact that the first Basildonians regarded themselves as pioneers, and made a settler’s covered wagon the first tenants’ logo.
Basildonians are alive to the notion that their new town harbours a new population ‘on the move’. Many we interviewed stressed that they wanted to ‘get on’.
In the early days, the first wave of inhabitants felt themselves to be at the forefront of the hopes and challenges involved in the reconstruction of post-war Britain. Their hopes and aspirations did not go away; but over 30 years their belief in the welfare model for Britain was eroded by the experience of second-rate and shoddy services.
The Basildonian desire for self-improvement hooked up with Thatcherite notions of possessive individualism. During those years, Basildonians certainly became property owners, but in accordance with desires that stretched back to the postwar slum clearance and relocation programmes rather than any fulfilment of a radical Conservative mission.
For most Basildonians, and for millions more throughout Britain in the 1980s, getting on in the jungle of the free market was not an equal struggle for the survival of the fittest, but an illustration of privilege and affluence going to those who started off in positions of advantage.
In both our surveys, between 73 and 75 percent of the respondents identified themselves as working class. More crucially, whereas in 1992 60 percent felt that class discrimination was important in determining life chances, in 1997 75 percent believed this. The disillusionment with bureaucratic inefficiency was replaced by disdain for the self-serving sleaze that surfaced in all areas of public life.
The Thatcherite second way had a lifespan of much less than 20 years. Thatcherism enjoyed negative success, being a corrosive force that broke down the certainties of old forms of social life. What emerges in Basildon now is a landscape where individuals stand out in isolation, without much reference to each other and with only minimal relationships to other institutions and organisations.
What this means in Basildon is an increased emphasis on the private, the local and the familial. In conventional political terms, even at the height of New Labour’s post-election popularity there were no signs of new allegiances being formed. Indeed, New Labour lost as much core support, around five percent, as the Tories. Almost six out of ten Basildonians (57 percent) believed that no political party genuinely represented their interests and concerns. Twenty-six percent were hostile to institutions of government; and dissatisfaction with the British political system had increased from 37 percent to 48 percent.
In itself, this is not a problem. On the contrary, the reaction is quite sensible. But the retreat from any form of civic engagement is not confined to political parties. Basildonians do not commit to anything except the family, which for 73 percent is the most important thing in their lives. Political institutions, trade unions, the church, the monarchy or any big ideas have no hold over them.
This is not to say that Basildonians see themselves as predators in a life which is nasty, brutish and short. Making a medical or scientific discovery came top of a list of ‘most satisfying personal achievement’, endorsed by 23 percent. The problem is that, outside the family, there is no way of linking an individual project or set of hopes and aspirations with collective fortunes and endeavours.
This applies even to leisure. Going to the pub is the most popular leisure activity for about 12 percent of the respondents. Aside from this, Basildonians go swimming, clubbing and to the gym, where they share space with fellow users in an accident of timing, rather than by any specific arrangement. The balance of social activities in Basildon is skewed fundamentally towards individualised activities – to the practical exclusion of communal and even joint interests.
We found further confirmation of this trend when we looked at club membership in Basildon. More than half of 1997 respondents (55 percent) said they did not belong to any club. Nobody bothered to mention their trade union membership in this context, and only one or two mentioned their church. For many others, who were members of leisure centres, their membership gave access to facilities and resources but told us nothing about any shared set of experiences.
What does this mean for Basildonians’ broader outlook on life? The lack of shared experiences means that Basildon Man finds his personal optimism transformed to social pessimism behind his back. Fifty-seven percent of our respondents believed that their quality of life would get better in the near future. But only five percent believed that Britain was becoming a much better place to live, while 15 percent thought that Britain was becoming a much worse place to live.
In these circumstances, thrown back on their own devices, educational success seems to offer a way out. Optimistic Basildon Man would have a fair crack at getting to £64,000 on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? but might stumble at £125,000, because both he and his phone-a-friend lack the sort of formal education that might be required then. This is why Basildonian aspiration now takes the form of prioritising their children’s education. For 45 percent of our respondents in 1997, education was their biggest concern – up from 27 percent in 1992. Fifty-nine percent saw education as the way to advance their careers.
But pessimistic Basildon Man does not hold out much hope of getting the opportunities through education that he wants. Forty-six per cent thought the next generation would have fewer opportunities, and despite youth unemployment standing at under three figures, 53 per cent thought that unemployment was the biggest problem facing young people.
It would be difficult to find a more poignant expression of the dislocation between individual lives and the sense of social possibilities. This snapshot of Basildon reflects a wider disengagement from politics in Britain. It also shows the failure of New Labour to convince Basildonians that its ‘Third Way’ has anything to say to them.
Basildonians were pioneers of the First Way, emblems of the Second Way, and we believe they have much to tell us about living in Britain under the Third Way – not least how fragile contemporary society is, even in comparison with what went before.
Dennis Hayes is head of the Department of Post-Compulsory Education, Canterbury Christ Church University College.
Alan Hudson is director of studies in social and political science at the Department for Continuing Education, University of Oxford.
Basildon: The Mood of the Nation, by Dennis Hayes and Alan Hudson, is published by Demos. Download this book (.pdf 357 KB)
A new edition of Who are the C2s?, by Dennis Hayes and Alan Hudson – with a new introduction, ‘Basildon revisited: change and continuity’ – is published by the Education and Work Research Group. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)
(1) Thurrock Gazette, 1 January 1993
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