Then we were into the 1980s and suddenly the Conservatives were saying genuinely radical things to working-class people: you don't have to stay where you started out in life; you can buy your council house and join the property-owning class; you can start your own business and leave behind your old assumptions about your place in the world. There followed a generation of Essex Men, with their much-reviled "Loadsamoney" mentality and vulgar habits which Left-wing intellectuals found so easy to despise.When I first arrived in Britain from America in the 1960s, I was shocked by the class system. Not because such social divides were unknown in the US, but because there was an utterly different attitude here towards the possibility of moving on from the condition into which you had been born. It was not the poverty or the deprivation of British working class life that staggered me – there was plenty of that where I came from. It was the passivity and defeatism, the ineradicable sense of resignation, of people who believed it was inconceivable that they or anyone they knew should transcend their social and cultural limitations. I had never met people who said, when you encouraged their children to aim for university, "Don't go putting ideas in his head."
My memories of that time had faded over the years, but they were brought vividly back to life by last week's controversy over which political party is the truly progressive one. I was on the Left in those days, a veteran of the student revolution at Berkeley: indeed, one of the reasons I had become an expatriate was my disenchantment with America's capitalist values. So my natural political sympathies hovered between the Trotskyite New Left and the fundamentalist wing of the Labour Party.
There was, at first, something deeply stirring in the message that class solidarity was the answer to the unjust arrangements of a hierarchical society, and that solidarity meant loyalty to your roots. It was easy to romanticise the attempt to make an ideological virtue out of entrenched social immobility. To believe, indeed, that to move out of the working class would be treacherous to your brethren, that it was selfish (a word that was to play an enormous role in anti-Thatcherite rhetoric) – an abandonment of those with whom you shared a common misfortune.
Labour's message to what it used to call "our people" was a mix of trade union militancy ("We hate this unjust society, so we will sabotage it") and paternalist, welfare state condescension ("Stay where you are and we'll look after you"). What it preached, above all else, was that the working class could only triumph collectively: that the true struggle was between one fixed set of people who had been born into disadvantage, and another who had, for illegitimate reasons, every privilege that life could offer.
But the Marxist mystique collapsed pretty readily once you looked at the real consequences. Individual aspiration and self-determination – the things that actually made a life worth living in terms of personal fulfilment – were being devalued or forcibly crushed. Opportunities were not so much being denied to working-class people as being renounced by them. And the party that was most enthusiastic in perpetuating this grotesque state of affairs was Labour, because its electoral power base depended on it.