Magazine article The Spectator

The One Thing Wrong with Essex Man

Magazine article The Spectator

The One Thing Wrong with Essex Man

Article excerpt

THE STUDY of modern British politics is shrouded in mystery and bedevilled by myth. A dispassionate analysis of electoral statistics during the Thatcher era should provoke a fascinating question. But it has hardly been asked, let alone answered. Instead, the conventional wisdom states that Margaret Thatcher owed her triumphs to her ability to win new adherents to the Tory cause. According to this version of history, Mrs Thatcher used council house sales and the share issues associated with privatisation rather as Henry VIII is supposed to have used monastic lands, to endow a new class who would then buttress her hegemony. This Thatcherite equivalent of the Russells and the Cavendishes was originally identified as the C2s: skilled workers, according to the Registrar-General's classification. 'C.3.3' has a certain poignancy on the title page of `The Ballad of Reading Gaol', but the heroes of Mrs Thatcher's brave new world would not have appreciated any Wildean overtones, and surely deserved more than a mere number.

The Sunday Telegraph came to the rescue. It provided these shadowy figures with cans of lager, rottweilers and Sky TV dishes. It also gave them a geography. In the notorious profile which invented the term, Essex Man is characterised as follows:

Young, industrious, mildly brutish and culturally barren. . .[a reader of] the Sun or the Daily Express. . . [he] has . . . been rewarded with a cheap council house, underpriced shares in British Telecom and the chance of a white-collar job in the service industries. . . . He comes from origins where mutual back-scratching is an essential part of the economic trigger.

That was an influential piece of political commentary. It not only invented one of the most quoted phrases of recent years; it caused acute distress to two different groups of politicians. The Tory Wets, who were still hoping against hope that

Thatcherism would prove to be an aberration, had long feared the existence of something like Essex Man; a Balrog from the social depths that would doom them to permanent political exclusion. Now their worst nightmares seemed confirmed. It appeared that Mrs Thatcher's ability to animate monsters exceeded Dr Frankenstein's, though she lacked his feelings of remorse. He had always known that there was something wrong with Essex, wailed Julian Critchley; it was so right-wing that even the newsagents were white.

Thoughtful members of the Labour party were equally horrified. Some of them were still outgrowing a belief in historical inevitability, whether of the Fabian or the Marxist variety. Now it appeared that historical inevitability did exist after all. It had tattooed forearms and voted Tory.

Though Essex Man was hardly an ironist, the article's timing was ironic. This hymn to the apotheosis of Margaret Thatcher was published in October 1990, less than two months before her downfall. But that had no effect on Essex Man's journalistic career. On the contrary: within weeks of becoming Prime Minister, John Major was being criticised for failing to retain his allegiance. Essex Man survived his mistress, but he ought not to have been able to overcome a more basic obstacle: he did not exist.

There is no evidence that Mrs Thatcher won over any significant social group to the Tory party. Anyone who argued that she did would not only have to identify it; given the low percentage of the vote which she achieved, he would also have to identify the equivalent group whom she alienated. The fascinating, unasked, unanswered question about British politics in the 1980s is a simple one: why were the Tories so unpopular?

The Tory party is a formidable electoral machine. After one difficult decade post1906, it has been able to dominate British politics. From 1918 onwards, the Tories have on average won 44 per cent of the vote at general elections. That percentage is depressed by two periods of relative failure; the twin elections of 1974, and all the elections since 1979. …

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