Two of the most taboo subjects – class and race – are back on the agenda with two new books “Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class” and “The Likes of Us: A Biography of the White Working Class”. Wes Brown, novelist, blogger and political commentator, reviews this new brace of writings on white working class culture.
What do you call a chav in a suit? The accused. Two chavs in a car, no music on, who’s driving? The police. What’s the difference between a chav and a coconut? One’s thick and hairy, the other is a coconut. From salt of the earth to scum on the streets, the white working class are the minority group it’s OK to discriminate against, and, curiously, it’s not just uppity snobs at it, it’s the left-liberals too.
Owen Jones, an Oxford graduate and former trades union worker has launched himself headlong into the subject. Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class is an invective against the injustices of contemporary Britain and a call to arms for a new class-based politics.
Jones begins with an anecdote about a party of well-to-do liberals where an offensive comment is made, yet, strangely, nobody picked up on it. He then leaps into The Strange Case of Shannon Matthews, and asks, “Why does the life of one child matter more than another’s?” Jones uses the case, the confusion and variety of attitudes, the difference in terms of press coverage, tone and polity to that of the McCanns’ to explore and unconvincingly attempts to debunk the ‘Broken Britain’ argument and the contorted views ranging across the commentariat on the underclass. For Jones, class is clear cut, and he fluctuates between the classic ‘them’ and ‘us’ when he’s being particularly factional; and the more usual tripartite system of working, middle, and upper. Jones makes the assumption that working class are a homogenous block, with shared interests, that are represented by the trades unions and old Left politics alone. Such naiveté is self-defeating. This is the illiberalism of a millennialist.
And it’s not long before Jones’ trades union sympathies and shibboleths begin to appear, the bones of his argument. Ultimately, Thatcher is to blame for anything and everything and started the class war. But what of 13 years of New Labour? They’re Thatcherite too. For Jones, you are either a trades unionist and old Labour, ‘right-wing’, ‘a maverick’ or ‘Blair-like’. The only solutions can come from the old Left, and they know exactly what these solutions are. Beyond nods to The Spirit Level, opposing plutocrats and calling a new society ‘based around people’s needs’ there’s no suggestion of how these aims can be met. It’s true to say the New Economy has its troubles – but we need to recapitalise the poor, not shackle them in restrictive ‘class identities’. The British economy was turning toward the services because they were higher up the value chain. To credit Thatcher with transforming, rather than reshaping the economy is to play into her mythology.
The trouble with the word ‘chav’, like any ‘hate speech’, is the instability of meaning. I may call my brother a chav as part of our brotherly bravado. My mother may call slobs and scroungers chavs because it’s a way of cleaving the respectable from the unrespectable working class. And snobs or bigots may use the word to mock and chide those who are less educated, less wealthy and less fortunate. And, equally, my mother may take offence to this. The origin of the word is contentious. Some plump for the vituperative “Council House And Violent”, others claim the word derives from the Romani ‘chavi’ meaning child. More convincingly, the origin may be the Hebrew word, ‘chaverim’. Which, “[entered] working-class London usage through the East End Jewish mobs, who shared the affection for vulgar and extravagant ostentation in dress and jewellery.”
What may, consciously or unconsciously, be alluring to left-liberals, the revulsion towards chavs is displaced disgust at the excesses of consumer-capitalism, and the supposed vulgarity of those who shamelessly enjoy Sky TV, Burberry hats, gold rings and tabloid newspapers. In the superior worldview of the cosmopolitan multiculturalist, which separates people into identities rather than economic groups, the working class has come to be seen as everything that is reactionary, thuggish and backward about 21st century Britain. They are flag-waving, Sun reading, Little England scumbags.
“Working-class voters were taken for granted as the ‘core vote’ who had nowhere else to go, allowing New Labour politicians to tailor their policies to privileged voters.” Goes Jones’s analysis. By no longer representative the working class and, cosmopolitan liberalism has characterised anybody who disagrees with its assumptions as reactionary, xenophobic hateful, backward, or worse. Such views are typified by the racist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown who claims the white working-class are “Either too lazy or too expensive to compete” and “tax-paying immigrants past and present keep indolent British scroungers on their couches drinking beer and watching TV”.
Such slurring of white working class, sometimes referred to disgracefully as “white trash” is the subject of Michael Collins, The Likes of Us: a Biography of the White Working Class. It’s no so much a biography of the class, as much a memoir taking us through a personal story of his family’s history. Collin’s touches on similar themes to Jones but without the precepts of trades unionism. Orwellian in observation and approach, Collin’s is trying to point toward hypocrisies and cleansing truths. He is an instinctive liberal. He had faced criticism that he can’t have it both ways – scornful of middle-class ‘tourists’ who descend into Elephant & Castle looking for a more authentic way of life (often to abandon their fancies when the reality sets in); and equally scornful of those who disregard the working class. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality so carefully detailed in David Cannadine’s The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain.
While this factionalism may ultimately be narrowing, it does not betray Collin’s aims of speaking up for the working class against the insults of latte liberals, town planners, snobs, class tourists and slum novelists. Paul Gilroy has called Collins, ‘an intellectual outrider for the BNP’ – meaning Collin’s defence of the white working class is tantamount to support of a far-right party arguing for the repatriation of immigrants. This argument is obviously flawed yet reveals more about the mindset of sententious progressives, incapable of counter-argument, and rinsed with hot sweats of outrage.
For while it is true to say party membership of the BNP, and followers of the English Defence League are overwhelmingly working class, these numbers pale in comparison to the vast majority who live alongside immigrants, and have a higher proportion of inter-racial marriages. Yet such realism is rarely reported and instead, the white working class is misrepresented by it’s most extreme malcontents, or as sources of amusement for reality TV shows.
Collin’s thesis is prescient, “Now, middle-class progressives who had traditionally come out fighting these underdog’s corner, or reporting their condition as missionaries or journalists, were keen to silence them, or bury them without obituary.” He goes on, “They loved Gucci; loathed the Euro. More important, to their pallbearers in the press they were racist, xenophobic, thick, illiterate, parochial.”
The resulting chapters vary in interest and resonance – from a curious history of working people and the evolving attitudes of their supporters and detractors, to sometimes less vital passages about Collin’s family and upbringing. His insights are often damning. Seeing a leaflet promoting Southwark, championing its diversity and ‘rich mixture of communities going back centuries’, one community is conspicuously absent:
“They don’t mention the English…You wouldn’t think we’d ever existed would ya?”
In the flight from Britishness, its history and its imperialism has led to an embrace of diversity, and the white working-class seem to have been left behind.
There are no easy solutions are explanations. Both these books are important, timely contributions to a mainstream debate on what has for too long being an ignored issue. Class, at least for the short-term, is back on the agenda. Perhaps what sums up the sentiment of both books best, and the unrest of the white working people, is the T.S. Eliot extract that prefaces Collin’s The Likes of Us:
The good man is the builder, if he build what is good.
I will show you the things that are now being done,
And some of the things that were long ago done,
That you may take to heart. Make perfect your will.
Let me show you the work of the humble. Listen.
T.S. Eliot, ‘Choruses from “The Rock”’
Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class
The Likes of Us: A Biography of the White Working Class
Wes Brown is a 25 year old writer based in Leeds. His debut novel, Shark, was published in 2010.