Neighbours From Hell

Following Steve Potts' look at Islington, the spiritual home of New Labour, Observer columnist Nick Cohen confirms all his suspicions.

This is an edited version of Nick Cohen's article, first published in the August edition of Red Pepper.

I live in a district like no other. To most eyes, my patch is not a network of streets and parks, encircled by council boundaries, but a shorthand note for a social mentality and a political programme. I live in the cliche that is Islington. As my neighbours dominate much of what passes for metropolitan government and intellectual life, it may be worth your while getting to know them.

At first glance, they look remarkably convivial. The neighbours believe they have dismantled the old barriers within the middle classes - the sneers against trade, the worship of the professional man, the unteachable snobbery of the shabby-genteel - and overrun the higher barricades of sex and race. Women friends who give up work worry they will have nothing to say in a polite society where female career achievement is taken as a given.

If you're gay, you can be - you are practically required to be - open about it. Racism is an unforgivable sin. Although its easy to mock the neighbours, it is, to say the least, a relief not to be forced to choose between wearing a fixed grin or starting a scrap when cracks about our 'coloured brethren' are dispensed with a complicit wink.

Now I think about it, I'm surprised to have been naive enough to have hoped for more from them. For all their apparent tolerance, there are many groups barred from Islington dinner tables. If I'd been paying more attention, I'd have thought earlier about the gaps in the guest list. There's a brilliant study waiting to be done on the effects of London's urban geography on the government of Britain.

Like all political classes, the neighbours assume their views and experience are shared by every one. They can be evenly divided between those who think north London is the centre of the world and those who think it is the world.

Parochialism prevents us seeing the peculiarity of our lives. In most cities, the bohemian middle-class district has a bodyguard of comfortable suburbs fanning out behind it. But the neighbours' rear is exposed. We are surrounded on all sides by slums. All the jokes about politically correct Islington person and polenta socialists miss the fact that Tony Blair lived in a rich island in a sea of poverty.

Sixty per cent of Islington residents live in council housing, half are without a car, nearly a quarter have no work at all. The solid suburbs are miles away and our isolation makes us frightened that the neighbours we prefer not to know will break in through our roof terrace windows, and obsessed with keeping our young away from the rough boys at local schools.

I said they were frightened of the poor, but that's not quite the right word. The failure of socialism has meant that there is no pressure to buy off discontent. Thatcher has taught the neighbours that protest can be marginalised even when there are four million unemployed. In a prophetic essay, 'The SDP and the New Middle Class' published in 1982, the late historian Raphael Samuel said that the old sense of humility before the working class and a desire for camaraderie which inspired Hugh Gaitskell just as much as middle-class Marxists had gone.

The working classes were now 'anachronisms... yobs deeply sunk in lethargy'.
The new middle class 'are not, in the conventional English sense, snobs,' he wrote, 'because they don't feel anyone can threaten them. They believe they earn every penny they get.'

A faith in meritocracy may seem innocuous, even admirable, but Samuel and dozens of other thinkers have pointed out that when the rich feel they deserve their wealth because they made it by their own efforts, they lose all sense of guilt, privilege and duty. The poor are poor because they are stupid and feckless. You don't respect a skilled carpenter for mastering a trade, but despise him for not doing more with his life, for not striving to be you.

Such prejudices not only exclude the refugees, the poor and the working class from the neighbours' parties, but teachers, public sector workers and manufacturers. They are all stuck in the dirty, old world far from the clean and outstandingly lucrative sun-rise industries of the Internet, media, finance and biotechnology. For the neighbours have become very wealthy. Cautious estimates put the joint income of Tony B and his barrister wife at about £350,000. When you are surrounded by neighbours making similar amounts, your bank balance is normal rather than exceptional. You regard yourself as a 'regular guy', not a lucky freak.

At the beginning of this piece I said that the neighbours appear to be open. And so they do. But their self-confident insularity is destroying their promise to bring openness to the rest of us.

If you believe your kind of people are the natural leaders of the country, you regard democratic attempts to hold them to account by the millions who have not 'succeeded' as not simply impertinent, but all but incomprehensible.

Reproduced from RA Vol 4, Issue 3, Oct/Nov '99