I am reeling from a disconcerting experience, that of reading an excellent column by Madeleine Bunting. Regular readers of this blog would know that Maddy of all the Sorrows, as Norm so memorably christened her, doesn't always go down a storm. This time she has raised important themes connected to a topic close to my heart. She had been to see Lee Hall's play, The Pitmen Painters, a performance also witnessed by Gordon Brown.
The play is about the extraordinary artistic talent exhibited by a group of miners attending a Workers' Educational Association class in the North East. Bunting draws out a number of themes; respect for the working class autodidact tradition, so memorably celebrated by Jonathan Rose, workers' solidarity, the difficult relationship between organisation, autonomy and bureaucracy, community empowerment and the political disenfranchisement of a class through the abandonment of a tradition of Labourism. Her conclusion is powerful and angry without the characteristic hand-wringing.
At another level, the play is much more straightforward: it unashamedly celebrates one of the most powerful traditions of the 20th century, shabbily smashed in the 80s. The organised working class not only fought a war, it reshaped Britain and its achievements still organise our lives - the NHS, universal education and the welfare state. For the best part of three decades, this historical record has been an embarrassment to Labour, and an object of ridicule to the Conservatives. Hall admitted he was worried that his material was "old-fashioned" but rapturous London audiences reassured him. Are we finally ready for a reassessment in which we begin to recognise that a ruthless disenfranchisement, culturally and politically, facilitated Middle England's stranglehold on power?
Part of that disenfranchisement has been implemented through a culture of loathing: the working class is characterised as - and despised for - being fat, smoking, smacking their children, eating junk food, getting into debt and having chaotic family lives. Hall says he wanted above all to remind people of what the working class is capable of: that given the right circumstances ordinary people achieve extraordinary things. They can be much more than passive consumers of a culture they are rarely allowed to create.
There is one thing missing though. She has failed to spot the threat to the very instrument of the recognition and development of the miners' talent; a national, independent adult education service. This service was delivered by a number of diverse bodies, the WEA, University responsible bodies, local authorities, the residential colleges etc. It was able to exist without restrictions on who could participate, whether they had to study for a qualification or not, and gave tutors and students a degree of autonomy that would be unthinkable today. This is not to say that the system was perfect and that there was no room for reform, but changes over the last twenty years have led to the disappearance of much of its work and a severe restriction on its autonomy. One wonders whether an equivalent group to those miners could be supported today.
Adult education still exists, but the last two years have seen the shedding of no less than one million four hundred thousand funded places. The heavily criticised proposals on restricting funding for students who wish to take qualifications at an equivalent or lower level to one they hold already is having a devastating impact on an already diminished university adult education sector. Though successive governments have shied away from delivering the final coup de grace, death by a thousand cuts is in no way preferable.
Universal adult education was never simply a middle class indulgence, as some stereotyped it. It was, and remains, a source of community cohesion and individual achievement, a lifeline for vulnerable people and a route for social mobility. Something special is dying. It is an unnecessary act of cultural vandalism. The Pitmen Painters is a reminder of the value of what is being wilfully destroyed. I hope it can be saved, otherwise the idealism and energy of a new generation will be required to rebuild it from scratch.
Hat tip: A blogger with profound respect for the working class autodidact tradition