Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, by Owen Jones, Verso, June 2011.
Owen Jones has taken on a big job documenting the way most of the citizens of these islands are commonly portrayed. It’s a task long overdue given the changes that have turned “the salt of the earth” into the target of routine abuse by The Sun and Daily Mail, the patronised guests of Jeremy Kyle and the caricatures of Little Britain.
“Chavs” - a 21st century acronym for those of our fellow Britons styled Council Housed And Violent - have become representative of the feckless “underclass”. They are those who choose benefits over hard work, who prefer drunkenness, obesity and drug addiction to fitness, who elevate racism above decency and single motherhood above respectable family life. They are the people locked well outside the communities of Middle England and those above such communities, to many of our politicians, journalists and commentators they are natives of a foreign land.
Owen Jones argues that we are light years from those poor, brave inner-city communities who could take it during the Blitz and who could make it when we were the workshop of the world. Those we see at the cenotaph each year and on WW2 anniversaries, that we venerate for their courage, wisdom and quiet dignity, sprung from the same places that now, we are led to believe, can only produce those lacking in any of these qualities.
Travel to large parts of Britain today and you will see the hollowed-out husk of communities whose inhabitants struggle to survive. Their portrayal, rarely flattering in the good times, has become markedly more nastily caricatured in the decades of dog-eat-dog individualism.
When we briefly honour at Prime Minister’s Questions the dead of our current armed forces, we hear little about those working-class communities who have given many of them life, and to whom their coffins are returned as invisibly as those who come home breathing, but whose maimed lives will never again be the same for themselves or those who love them.
So what has changed, asks Owen Jones? Mainly, he says, the fact that the working class no longer has work. “The old industrial heartlands contain the highest levels of people without work and dependent on benefits. The root cause is lack of secure jobs to replace the ones that disappeared.”
There are some jobs to be had, to be sure, but for fewer than a quarter of those needing them, and they are often unskilled, low-paid and insecure. Very rarely are they the jobs that were at the heart of communities who created things we could sell and often take pride in. Largely gone, too, are the opportunities to develop skills, earn reasonable money, grow confident, build families - and still have time for community life from watching affordable football to singing Bach, Handel and Mendelsohn in the chapel down the road from the mill.
Margaret Thatcher was strong on preaching “personal responsibility”, preferring to attribute her own affluent success to the virtues imbibed in the Grantham shop than to her wealthy marriage. David Cameron, of solid stockbroking stock, follows the same line when he says “social problems are often the consequences of choices people make”. From saying that the less fortunate have only themselves to blame for their situation, it is only a short journey first to rationalising social inequality and then to justifying the benefit cuts now being visited on our “chavs” and their families.
And what of the non-Tory response to this fundamental change in our social and economic circumstances? Jones says: “Only when the BNP was breathing down its neck did New Labour start talking about the working class again.” Jones adds:
“If people observe that even Labour holds the less fortunate to be personally responsible for their fate, why should they think any different? No wonder the image of communities teeming with feckless chavs has been so ingrained in recent years.”
Jones is more nuanced than this short summary might suggest. He raises important questions as to how Labour was diverted from its traditional working-class constituency to the aspirational “hard-working families” mantra, and into worthy areas of identity politics that largely expunged “class” from its agenda.
But we also need to move a bit deeper than Jones’ characterization of “chaz demonization” as traditional class hatred, “the flagrant triumphalism of the rich who, no longer challenged by those below them, instead point and laugh at them”. It is that, of course, but British history goes back a bit further than 1979 and the Tory damage to manufacturing and the social fabric of this country he so well describes.
The weary victor of the Second World War, admiring ally of the United States in the Cold War and its “terror” successor, and home to the City of London seeking new ways to assert its influence after the formal disposal of empire, the United Kingdom needed postwar leadership of an order few nations in decline seem able to muster.
Margaret Thatcher was the main beneficiary of the unearned bonus of North Sea energy, but there seems to have been little effort to use that potential for any purposeful national renewal. Trade unionists in engineering led imaginative campaigns for a future not based on arms sales, but they received little support from politicians locked into Cold War orthodoxies. And, until the crash, there was widespread acceptance among decision makers and opinion formers that financial services were the future.
And what now? The sheer scale of our economic difficulties presided over by a government of Old Etonians bankrolled by their City friends does not of itself guarantee change: Mrs Thatcher pushed up unemployment to over three million and stayed in power. Cameron and company, which may or may not include the Liberal Democracts, may repeat her electroral success. Will our “chavs” have to scramble forever for poorly-paid work in call centres and supermarkets in a country of growing inequality, separateness and demoralisation?
Jones records the depths of despair, but also sees the chance of a different future for our country and for those who historically have been its working backbone. “The campaign for good jobs could be the catalyst for far-reaching social change,” he says. “Class politics with a green tinge” would see a commitment to rise to the challenge posed by the housing and environmental crises, reform of the tax system and much else that would make our country a home for all.
This is not just an agenda for the poor, says Jones: “Most middle-class people cannot afford to go private, and want good, properly funded local schools and hospitals. Polls show that middle-class people support higher taxes on the rich.”
Many of our “chavs” have been on the wrong end of bad political leadership all their lives - from the neglect of industrial strategy to divisive housing policy, from the worship of the City to the incestuous self-preoccupation of the political class. As ever more of the relatively comfortable are pushed into lives of not-always-quiet desperation, we shall soon see if Jones’s hope for a new class politics starts bearing fruit.