Inciting Class Conflict: Ideology or Social Experiment?

by HollieT

Drawing parallels between the class conflict and social unrest of the 1980's and '90s then taking a glimpse at the near future in the UK.

You can't help but jump when you hear the huge iron gates slam shut for the very first time. It's as if the sound reverberates throughout the wing. You could be forgiven for believing that the acoustics of the prison have bounced 'that noise' from wall to wall, repeated over and over again. 'That noise' when first heard, is often mistaken for an echo. Only it isn't. It's the inexplicable sound of prison life, a sound that cannot adequately be described; the sonics of a jail's wing.

Eventually you learn to tune out to the slam and rattle of the gates, keys jangling, trainer clad inmates and leather soled officers pacing the highly polished floors of the landings- shouting to be heard above the almost frenzied, incessant noise, even whilst addressing those standing right next to them. But the adjustment is not an easy one, it takes time.

"Miss, Miss, are you Probation? Are you from the housing miss? Are you from education, can you help me with my reading and writing Miss?"

"I've told you before Johnson, if you need assistance you'll have to fill in a wing request form." Whilst I was musing over the prison officer's directions to the prisoner, which had been given despite the prisoner's apparent difficulties, the officer turned to me "After k wing, I'll show you around the chapel"

Where It All Began.

It was 2003 and my first day on secondment from a Probation Office. The venue; HMP Manchester, or Strangeways as it is more commonly known. I had registered that the officer raised his eyebrows when he mentioned the chapel, but I was unable to process, exactly, why he had.

"This is where it all started" he later informed me. This was my aha moment, he was referring to the riots which had taken place at the prison more than a dozen years earlier. It was difficult to imagine that this calm space, the chapel, in an otherwise frenetic environment, was at the centre of the infamous Strangeways riots. As I reflected on that period in recent history I was reminded that the social unrest, both within the prison walls and beyond them, defined the era. That was Margaret Thatcher's Britain. A cold, dark and unforgiving place; a blueprint for the future?

The 1st of April 1990 marked the beginning of a prison riot which lasted for 25 days, made all the national headlines, and, following the Woolf Report, led to some major reforms in Britian's penal institutions.

Similarly the poll tax, a tax on the poor, had led to social disturbances throughout Britain and  culminated in a riot in London, often referred to as the Battle of Trafalger square, which had gripped the nation's capital the previous day. And just as the Strangeways riot had enforced change within the prison system so to had the poll tax riots, forcing not only  a U-turn from the Government of the day, but the resignation of a seemingly untouchable Prime Minister who had just secured a third term in office.

HMP Manchester/Strangeways.
HMP Manchester/Strangeways.

Class War, Bailiffs and the Miners' Strike.

But this was 2003, society had come a long way since those dark and eventful days. No longer were people introduced to that noise because they couldn't or wouldn't pay their poll tax, or relieved of the contents of their homes by bullying tax collectors and posturing bailiffs. And unemployed, homeless young people begging on street corners for food or a hot drink were also a thing of the past. A bleak moment in our history, always to be remembered but never to be repeated.

In fact, we'd never had it so good, apparently. The days of boom and bust were over, we were told. Low interest rates ensured that house repossessions were almost none existent, which was in stark contrast to previous decades when Interest rates hit a record high and struggling homeowners were forced out of their homes and onto the streets. Those were desperate times indeed. But those were times past, it seemed.

Also gone were the days when we'd scratch around for spare change to throw into a bucket to help the miners.  It was hard to believe that less than 2 decades earlier the nation's miners were unable to feed their families, or heat their homes. They were fighting for their futures, they were fighting bailiffs and poverty, hunger and want, riot police, government and the media. And fight they did. Because after all, the miners disagreed with Thatcher, unemployment was not a price worth paying.

Unfortunately for the miners, their families and local communities, the bitter, hard fought and protracted struggle ended in defeat. Miners who clashed with the police were no longer able to take part in the pickets, unless of course, they were willing to familiarise themselves with that noise.

The well oiled machine of government was in full swing and the machinations of the judiciary could not be ignored; as 200 miners discovered when they paced the prison corridors for the very first time. For the miners, freedom of movement, assembly and arbitrary arrest were not civil rights, at least, not until the strike action had been crushed. But they were not political prisoners we were told.

Tired, impoverished, humiliated and broken, the miners returned to work. Their fate had been sealed. Dole not coal was the future, and not just for the miners. Steel workers, dockers, rail workers and more- the backbone of Britain had gone.   

Brave New World.

Those who are old to remember Thatcher's Britain will struggle to talk about the events which led to her demise without uttering the words class war. The words Thatcher and class war have become almost synonymous, they roll off the tongue together with ease. Thatcher's commitment to a free market economy would give the country a competitive edge, the consumer would have more choice and the workers more opportunity. We would be a great nation once again. And these lofty goals, how were they to be achieved? There would have to be short term pain of course; mass unemployment, homelessness, boarded up shops and ghost towns. But the free market would prevail, it was the solution to all our problems. Still, all that was in the past, we were all middle class now.

And what became of the sons and daughters of the miners, the steel workers, the dockers? What became of the communities in South Wales, Liverpool, the North East, the Midlands? 

The miners: Enemies of Democracy?

The indices of deprivation provide some of the answers. According to the DETR, three quarters of the former coalfield communities were among the 20% of the most deprived regions in England, and the data collected from South Wales was similarly shocking. High unemployment, long term illness, poor educational attainments and the inevitable levels of crime, substance misuse and alcoholism which follow. Were the next generation of miners, dockers, factory workers and more pacing a highly polished corridor at Her Majesty's pleasure? Were they queuing up in healthcare awaiting their daily dose of methadone on the detox program? Surely not.

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A Progressive Dystopia.

Labour's landslide election victory in '97 ushered in a new era, a new marriage, one of the state and the private sector. Contracts were tendered and bids were made, this was the future. The Social evils of crime and substance misuse, poverty and deprivation were to be addressed. We would be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, more than three thousand new criminal offence laws would see to that. And children would be lifted from poverty and the opportunity to attend university would be there for all, for a fee of course.

This was called progress, all the free marketeers said so.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but foresight even better. Back in 1983, 1990 or 2003, who could have possibly envisioned a society of working poor, collecting their groceries from the food bank and not the supermarket, of parents skipping meals in order to feed their children, of young people leaving university with debts amounting to more than fifty thousand pounds. A society where food or heating is the recurring daily dilemma. And who could have known that by 2013 plans to build a new super prison would be underway, a prison so huge that it would be unlike any other we have ever known, and run by the private sector of course. And who could have known that mass unemployment would one day return; that a bedroom tax and poll tax mark 2 would re-emerge. Who could have known all that?

As the rhetoric turns to the unemployed and the single mother, the drug addict and the drunk, the feral youngsters and the under performing NHS, the contracts are out for tender, and the future is assured...

"There's no need for us to talk about drink or laziness," returned Owen, impatiently, "because they have nothing to do with the matter. The question is, what is the cause of the lifelong poverty of the majority of those who are not drunkards and who DO work? Why, if all the drunkards and won't-works and unskilled or inefficient workers could be by some miracle transformed into sober, industrious and skilled workers tomorrow, it would, under the present conditions, be so much the worse for us, because there isn't enough work for all NOW and those people by increasing the competition for what work there is, would inevitably cause a reduction of wages and a greater scarcity of employment. The theories that drunkenness, laziness or inefficiency are the causes of poverty are so many devices invented and fostered by those who are selfishly interested in maintaining the present states of affairs, for the purpose of preventing us from discovering the real causes of our present condition." (The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Tressell, 1914)


Updated: 03/06/2013, HollieT
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HollieT on 03/16/2013

Kathleen that sounds great. I've read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists many years ago but have ordered a copy from my library which should be in next week. Going to write a review when I've read it (I've a list as long as my arm of things to do) I bet the visit you have planned will make great reading in an article. :)

KathleenDuffy on 03/15/2013

Yes, Tressell! I am going down to Hastings when the weather warms u, to visit a mate, and just found out that the museum there has a little section devoted to Tressell who lived there. I was really pleased to discover that - isn't the internet great! :)

HollieT on 03/15/2013

Thank you, Kathleen. I love both E.P.Thompson and Tressell!

KathleenDuffy on 03/14/2013

Loved your article. And so glad to see you are promoting E P Thompson! Thanks for that.

HollieT on 01/28/2013

Thank you afaceristonline, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

HollieT on 01/21/2013

Indeed. Unfortunately however, I have no idea how this can be rectified. :(

katiem2 on 01/21/2013

Hollie, I know what a sad sad state of affairs.

HollieT on 01/21/2013

It does Katie, and so many futures stolen. When I worked in the prison I often pondered the different alternative lives there may have been for some of the inmates, had they been presented with more or different opportunities. But it appears that a profit can also be made from social deprivation and addiction. It's big business!

katiem2 on 01/21/2013

Much has happened to raise eyebrows, a good thing, more of us need to wake up to class conflict deciding how we each can make waves, a difference or support the efforts to meet the needs of our youth in terms of educating the best and the brightest regardless of their inability to pay for a quality education or not. IMHO this is a big part of the tragedy of it all. So much talent and ability goes by the way side due to class conflict. :)K

HollieT on 01/21/2013

The conservatives have treated young people disgracefully, imho. For older people, the nasty party is ingrained in our collective consciousness- I suspect that will now be the case for people of your generation. The Tories couldn't obtain the required majority at the last election, despite the re-branding, I think they're pretty much doomed at the next election, but the damage has been done.

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