You say underclass, we say white trash

Chris Grayling’s comparison of Moss Side with The Wire was silly, but his critics have vilified the working class, too.

Neil Davenport

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Topics Politics

How everybody laughed and mocked. A bald, besuited Tory shadow minister, Chris Grayling, compared Moss Side in Manchester, England, to the fictional American television crime drama, The Wire.

Set in west Baltimore, Maryland, the highly acclaimed HBO series explores the deadly drug trade against a backdrop of police impotency, ineffectual schools, venal politicians and dwindling city finances. The gales of derision that have blown in Grayling’s direction are based on name-checking a hip, much-discussed slice of popular culture. As when Conservative Party leader David Cameron talked about iPod downloads, Grayling’s Wire endorsement is another transparent attempt by Conservative Party politicians to show how ‘in touch’ and ‘aware’ they are of what animates young-ish urbanites today.

Broadsheet editors had a field day lampooning Grayling for not really ‘getting’ The Wire or for making a sensationally crass and inappropriate comparison between Baltimore and Moss Side. Writing in the Guardian, Misha Glenny points out that in Baltimore, a city of 630,000 people, there were 234 murders in 2007. In England and Wales, with a population of 52million, there were 624 violent murders in 2007. So while Baltimore has one per cent of the UK’s population, its murder count is around a third of the UK’s in one year. It is entirely right that Grayling’s stupid comparison should be tackled head on. Flimsy observations dressed up as concerned facts are simply alarmist headline grabbers that do nothing to address localised problems.

It was also cynical and contrived. Grayling knew that by simply mentioning The Wire, liberal broadsheet journalists would jump at the chance of writing about the programme – again – and thus get his name mentioned in editorials. Borrowing the phrase ‘more with less’ from the fifth series, Gaby Hinsliff in the Guardian rightly points out that a politician can be sure to pile up the column inches simply by making reference to any credible popular culture. The former press aide to Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, was also quick to denounce Grayling’s populist touch, before he reminded himself of Blair’s fondness for name-checking Coronation Street and inviting Noel Gallagher over for drinks. Campbell reckoned that at least New Labour had policies behind the populist poses whereas Grayling is just, well, a trying-too-hard poser.

In fact, Grayling’s essential message de-coded from Wire comparisons is a familiar and popular one in Westminster: that is, that a dangerous underclass lacking in family values and moral fibre is ripping the fabric out of our inner cities; and unless enlightened politicians do something to tackle this ‘heart of darkness’ in our midst, Britain’s inner cities will be lost forever. Grayling’s apocalyptic vision and predictable solutions – more police, more prisons, and longer sentences – go to the very core of Conservative Party thinking and policies. That is, a rising tide of human scum is out there to threaten decent folk unless we do something about them.

Grayling’s message and target is exactly the same that right-wing commentators were making in the early Nineties. Is anyone really that surprised that these ideas are now coming to the fore once more? Back then, the American sociologist Charles Murray first made the argument that in the UK a ‘sizeable underclass’ of amoral individuals was growing in Britain’s inner cities. As Murray saw it, these areas were heading ‘the same way’ as some parts of the United States. To back up this rash assertion, The Sunday Times put a bandana-wearing youth on the cover of its colour supplement and declared that Moss Side was now ‘the Bronx of Britain’. Nobody laughed uproariously at this absurd charge in the mainstream press. Rather, it prompted much handwringing, as if isolated shootings in Moss Side touched upon the ‘real state of the nation’.

The killing of toddler Jamie Bulger in 1993 by two 10-year-olds led to further soul searching by right-wing journalists on our behalf. And after the Rwanda massacre in 1994, this obsession with the residuum in Britain’s inner cities took on a grotesque dimension. The Rwandan tragedy was used by some commentators to draw parallels with the ‘heart of darkness’ in places such as Manchester, Liverpool and parts of London. Apparently, millions of the underclass are potentially capable of going on a mass killing spree if left unchecked.

Initially, such poisonous outbursts were the preserve of jaded right-wing journalists and melodramatic Tory politicians such as Peter Lilley. Having successfully defeated the working class politically, and with the Stalinist states in Eastern Europe collapsing, right-wingers could finally let rip at the masses and their appalling tastes and lack of morals.

But mass-bashing was also becoming an issue around which politics was being reorganised more generally. With the economic arguments won, the exhaustion of Thatcher’s project in the late 1980s led to Conservative politicians pontificating about people’s behaviour and lifestyle. If the AIDS panic was the first major shift in this direction, Edwina Currie’s infamous ‘northerners eat chips’ outburst in 1988 was the foretaste of what was to come. Soon, behaviour-based attacks on single mothers, travelling hippies, football fans and inner-city youth were quickly filling the vacuum where traditional, macro-based politics once resided.

The main consolidating force behind the new ‘politics of behaviour’, as one Labour official has described it, and the new authoritarianism that sprang from it, came from the municipal Labour left. The failure of social democratic policies to alleviate social problems, apparent in the impotency of the welfare state, led many old left-wingers also to fear a growing underclass in Britain’s inner cities. The feminist Beatrix Campbell, in her book Goliath, even advocated a return to family values as a way of controlling the apparently atavistic impulses of marginalised, working-class men. These fears were stoked by a crippling slump and compounded by an atomised society wherein ‘other people’ started to loom as an unspecified but unparalleled threat.

The municipal left were also in a better position to articulate these fears in a way that didn’t sound traditionally authoritarian. People on council estates were not singled out for policing because they were poor, but because of domestic violence, racist attitudes towards ethnic minorities and the fact they didn’t eat the right food or look after their kids properly. So while liberal commentators might snigger at Grayling’s scaremongering, they’re hardly above it themselves.

In fact, for the past 15 years, liberals have been the loudest and nastiest stokers of all sorts of moral panics. Extremely isolated and rare cases of depravity, such as the cases of Baby P and Shannon Matthews, end up being transformed into prole porn to prove just how unremittingly awful large sections of British society are. There may be no dad-ish references to The Wire, but the message from these liberals is exactly the same as Grayling’s.

The only difference is that many liberal-leftists actually go much further in outlining a rogue’s gallery of ‘degenerates’ in society. Alongside smokers and public drinkers, step forward fast-food takeaway eaters, supermarket shoppers, cheap-flight holidaymakers, 4×4 car drivers, shopping-mall consumers and those who don’t recycle their rubbish properly. For these commentators, acting as if we’re part of mainstream America is all a bit trailer-trash.

Chris Grayling isn’t the only one who probably doesn’t get The Wire. The series was premised on the notion that the extremities and banalities of west Baltimore life are best understood in terms of specific, inter-related social factors, rather than individual moral failings alone. David Simon, The Wire’s creator, is pointing the finger at those who are running American society, but whose loss of authority and empty vision are failing those they are meant to be representing. Looked at in this way, maybe the UK is ‘just like The Wire’ after all.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

Previously on spiked

Theresa Clifford saw The Wire as a humane portrait of a crumbling American society. Mick Hume looked at what was behind the national panic over knife crime. Rob Lyons reviewed The Future of Community, which challenged the idea that communities are falling apart. Tim Black challenged the notion of ‘feral Britain’ and looked at the revived notion of the residuum. Or read more at spiked issue Crime and the law.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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