The other day, while speaking to a US friend online, I described the UK as ‘a damp little island with a tea fixation, and a deeply-entrenched class system.’
Now, we all know that the weather and the tea are non-negotiable elements of 21st-century Britain. If we can fix the climate emergency, I strongly suspect that they will be non-negotiable elements of 31st-century Britain – I’m fully okay with this.
But what of the class system?
Anyone who has spent half an hour with a history book can tell you that the working classes are a relatively modern phenomenon. Before 1381 and the Peasants’ Revolt, and 1574, when Elizabeth I freed the last of them, most ordinary folks were ‘serfs’ – subsistence slave labourers, tied to land and lord, with little freedom.
We don’t know much about what it was really like to be a serf – records are spotty and usually focus on the deeds of kings and lords – but we can imagine it was pretty thoroughly unpleasant.
Then there was a time, between the elimination of serfdom and the beginning of the industrial revolution, where we can imagine things getting a little better. Life still would have been hard, hungry, disease-ridden brutality for ordinary folx, but the lords had less power over them, most could grow a little food to supplement their diets, and at least the air was fresh and free.
Then came the industrial revolution.
For all the great moves forward it brought, it also brought new challenges for ordinary folx. Cottage industries and sole traders could not compete with the new factories (which could produce more, faster, and higher-quality than handmade). Their business dried up, and many of them were forced to abandon the countryside to find work in the factories.
Many of the new working classes found, in the cities, all the worst parts of human existence.
Anyone who has read Dickens will be somewhat familiar with the conditions – overcrowded, dangerous housing, disease, death, awful employers, dangerous factories; the list goes on.
Perhaps worst of all, there was nowhere to grow a little food and the air was no longer fresh.
Now, I am not here to bash the accomplishments of Chartism and the trade union movement. Undoubtedly, without them, we ordinary folx would still be faced with those Dickensian conditions. Genuinely, we wouldn’t have weekends, and our children would still be working alongside us without those brave working-class pioneers. (PS Join a union, folx!)
However, I will stand up and say that things have not gone far enough – not by a long shot. Most of us working class folx still do not have the space to grow a little fresh food, and most of us are still breathing filthy air.
A quick check online shows me that, even when London’s air quality is marked as ‘good’, it’s still 60 percent dirtier with particulate matter (tiny chunks of things like tyres that we can breathe in) than it should be.
Getting the authorities to recognise the damage the air pollution does is a battle. In 2013, Ella Kissi-Debrah, a nine-year-old Londoner, died from an asthma attack. It is only because of the tireless efforts of her mother Rosamund that a second coroner looked at Ella’s death, and made history by ruling that London’s dirty air had contributed.
Our mayor, Sadiq Khan, appears to be doing his absolute best to clean up London’s dirty air, but it’s an uphill battle against an unfriendly government and entitled drivers.
Yes, the Tube isn’t a particularly fun way to get around. But do you know what’s also not particularly fun? Fighting for breath.
As an asthma and COPD sufferer, I think that we aren’t going far enough. Central government needs to get involved. Financial incentives, or even straight swapping fossil fuel vehicles for electric ones, won’t go far enough without significant infrastructure changes. If you can’t charge your electric car, or if the electricity that charges it is generating its own pollution, then the entire exercise is pointless.
So, Rishi Sunak, it’s over to you. You’re breathing in all this crap too. Have you had enough yet?
Or are weekends outside London, which us working classes can’t afford, keeping your lungs nice and pink?