English alternative rock band ‘Pulp’ released their iconic song ‘Common People’ in 1995. At such time, the UK were recovering from the reign of Margaret Thatcher, who was British Prime Minister from 1979-1990. Prior to her leadership, British working class boasted secure and well-paid jobs. Thatcher however, demonised them into unemployment, poverty, and shame. Her policies planned for their obliteration.
Thatcher’s reign of terror was sponsored by deindustrialisation, which led to thousands of job losses, as well as the ‘right to buy’ scheme, which minimised the already overwhelmed housing market, and she crushed community spirit – an important and noble aspect of working-class areas in Britain. She replaced such community with a Darwinian ‘every man for himself’ ideology. The consequences of Thatcher’s ideology and policies are still strongly felt in working class areas across Britain today, and so the song ‘Common People’ still rings true.
The song ‘Common People’ is narrated by a working-class man, who upon her request, shows his way of life to a privileged middle-class woman. The song addresses some of the inequalities still burning across Britain, such as in education, housing, opportunity, and prejudice, almost forty years after Thatcher lit the match.
The song begins by immediately recognising the female protagonist’s middle-class privilege: ‘she studied sculpture at St Martin’s College,’ ‘she told me that her dad was loaded’. Her ability to attend such a prestigious school is linked to the wealth of her father. A BBC analysis found that young people in the wealthiest areas of the UK were 18 times more likely to attend university than those in the poorest areas.
One attribution to this shockingly high statistic is that university fees in the UK remain some of the highest in Europe. UK students are paying a whopping four times as much as their European counterparts, making it the fifth most expensive study destination in the world, with fees typically setting young students back £9,250 per year.
Furthermore, from a young age, children in the UK are tested and segregated, often based upon as little as one test score – for example, the eleven-plus test taken in the final year of primary school, which determines a child’s ability to attend a grammar school. Children from wealthy families can afford the luxury of additional tutoring for this examination, while those who cannot are rendered less able to compete. Education in the UK remains under the spell of Thatcherism, promoting elitism and unfair competition.
Despite the great advances in education equality, such as the much more accessible student loan scheme which provides financial aid for university students of families who cannot afford to pay up-front tuition fees, inequality remains. For children of working-class families, living in poor industrial estates, attending a university is often not even encouraged as an option. Entering employment is a much more realistic future for these young people, who often feel economic pressures to earn money more immediately for themselves and for their families.
The song continues to highlight another working-class woe – no alternative. To share with her the working-class life, the narrator encourages her to ‘rent a flat above the shop’. This touches on the housing crisis experienced by working-class people who spend years on the council house waiting list, but the key lyric is when he says, ‘when you’re laid in bed at night, watching ‘roaches climb the wall, if you called your dad, he could stop it all’. She has what working-class people don’t – an alternative. That is why privileged middle-class people will never understand the reality of being down and out. Try as some might – for example Prince William spent the night sleeping on the streets with a homeless man in an honourable attempt to understand the actuality of homelessness. But the very next night, the prince was back in his palace, while the homeless remain on the streets. Even during the night, a security team were at the ready to whisk William away at the first sign of real trouble, a safety feature that isn’t part of the reality of homelessness. Like Prince William, the female protagonist of ‘Common People’ can be bailed out of a difficult living situation by money. Privilege makes those who have it utterly blind to the hopelessness of those who do not.
And so, that is why former Eton pupils don’t make for good Prime Ministers. They simply cannot comprehend, represent, and therefore tailor policies towards alleviating the working-class struggle. An astounding only one in every 100 Tory MPs come from working-class backgrounds. They are blind to the struggle of the bottom of the pyramid. No positive change for working-class people can come about until they are properly represented in government.
The lyrics then explain the consequences of policies masterminded by those without the working class in mind. They “dance, and drink, and screw, because there’s nothing else to do”. This concept was well-expanded upon in Owen Jones book ‘Chavs: Demonisation of the Working Class’. The lack of positive opportunities and employment made available to working class youths can explain the increase of anti-social behaviour in estate areas housing the working class. Their ‘don’t care’ attitude stems from the fact that they feel they have little future prospects. Jones also attributes boredom as a factor of troublesome youths, since leisure activities and community spaces have decreased under New Labour. Instead of blaming the youths for their behaviour by giving them ASBOs (anti-social behaviour order), consider instead why they act in such a way. Providing positive opportunities in employment and education while funding local youth and community centres will inspire those in run-down estates to work towards a goal.
The last line of the final verse of ‘Common People’ is my favourite. “They burn so bright whilst you can only wonder why”, tells that the powerful community spirit in working class areas, something that is difficult to comprehend if you have never experienced it, cannot be crushed. Hard times truly bring people together, and the selfless community volunteers in working class areas across Britain are the proof. Neighbours look out for one another, while the children who keep each other company during family hardships never forget one another. The working-class communities of Britain should be cherished, for their values are undoubtably strong, kind, and determined. Despite the lack of respect from our government, working-class citizens are key members of Britain, who deserve to be treated as such.
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