‘Symbols of Urban Malaise’: Past and Present

Rather than a brand new post here this week, I’ve written this for the MBS Birmingham blog on Cameron’s approach to so-called “sink estates”, or as Michael Heseltine believes, everyone knows that they’re “slums”. As you can imagine, that got my back up a bit.

Language, as Chomsky, Foucault, Lefebvre or any number of other critical theorists will tell you, is crucial. It sets the tone and the scope of debate, it stigmatizes and divides, it creates problems and solves different ones. For Lefebvre, it’s an integral part of the production of social space – describing a housing estate as a slum automatically sets a tone and starts a debate, whether there’s any basis for this or not. It’s even more specific this week: Cameron is targeting language itself as a cause of extremism, of segregation, of division and modern cultural problems. Statistics fly around about the number of women, in particular, amongst Muslims, in particular, who are not learning the Queen’s Own English. Like slums, these are myths – not to say there aren’t truths hidden in there but they are obfuscated by larger, disingenuous distractions. The effect of these is to redirect public opinion away from the wider benefits to society that learning a language can bring (which the last government’s free ESOL classes sought to help) and towards the stigmatisation of small sections of society which can be blamed (women; Muslims; foreigners). It’s all highly distasteful, and a major problem of modern political debate.

Modern British Studies Birmingham

simonSimon Briercliffe

Simon Briercliffe is a doctoral researcher in the Department of History at the University of Birmingham working on Carribee Island in Wolverhamption during the 19th century. He blogs at uptheossroad.wordpress.com and you can follow him on Twitter @sbriercliffe.


David Cameron last week set out his new plans to wage “an all-out assault on poverty and disadvantage” by investing £140 million into revitalising 100 post-war housing estates in the UK. These, he holds, are totemic of the social problems facing our cities: “those built just after the war” in particular “actually designed [crime] in,” they are “self-governing and divorced from the mainstream”; “decades of neglect have led to gangs, ghettos and anti-social behaviour” and “spatial analysis” has shown that 2011 rioters “came overwhelmingly from these post-war estates.”

He was supported in his analysis by Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Greg Clarke who was interested in…

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