Who’s really afraid of the working classes?

Thatcher isn’t to blame for modern-day chav-baiting and anti-working class sentiment. It was fashionable anti-Thatcherites who made a mockery of the lower orders.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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There is a great book to be written about modern-day elite disdain for the working classes. Unfortunately, this isn’t it. Owen Jones does a fairly good job of scooping together all the bile that has been spat at Britain’s working-class communities by posh politicians and cheap hacks over the past 15 years. But his own political prejudices, and his embarrassingly paternalistic concern for ‘the vulnerable’ and ‘the poor’ who inhabit ‘conquered’ communities, prevents him from making sense of what motivates these top-down tirades against the lower orders. In keeping with the ‘chav’ theme, his book is a bit like a KFC: momentarily tasty, even fun, but ultimately unsatisfying. And if you look at its innards for too long, you might even feel a bit nauseous.

First, the good bits. Jones catalogues quite well, if unevenly, various cultural assaults that have been launched against so-called chavs, who are increasingly looked upon by elite movers and shakers as fat, dumb, racist and lazy. Some of his accounts will be familiar to readers of spiked, where we have written extensively about the new liberal bigotry against the great unwashed: the trendy London gym that offered people ‘chav-fighting classes’; the tourism firm that promised the middle classes ‘chav-free holidays’; the media attacks on reality TV star Jade Goody after she made allegedly racist comments to a Bollywood actress and was held up as an escapee from ‘ugly, thick white Britain’. Jones is on to something when he says ‘working-class people are the one group in society that you can say practically anything about’.

Yet it becomes clear very early in the book that this is going to be at best a partial account of ‘chav-bashing’. Jones, a former researcher for a Labour MP, focuses most of his fury on tired old right-wing arguments about single mums and the feckless poor, as if these caricatures have any purchase outside of the Home Counties these days. This means he misses what is new and distinctive about modern-day prole-mauling. He gets himself into such a tizz about anti-chav columns penned by James Delingpole and Simon Heffer in the Daily Telegraph, and by what he calls the ‘Thatcherite experiment’, and by the out-of-touchness of the Bullingdon-braised New Tories led by David Cameron, that he not only overlooks some glaring instances of liberal snobbery – he also misunderstands the very modern, decidedly post-Thatcherite political outlook that now motors chav-bashing.

Jones’s pro-Labour blinkers, his quaint attachment to a party that really ought to be given a one-way ticket to Dignitas in Switzerland, means he gives an historically patchy account of anti-working class sentiment. More than that, he holds Cameron – that doofus who has never once had an original political idea – responsible for things that Labour actually came up with. So, he frequently comments on the fact that in 2009, after two young boys in South Yorkshire seriously tortured and abused two other young boys, Cameron, then leader of the Opposition, put forward a ‘semi-apocalyptic vision of a Broken Britain’. Cameron exploited this rare crime to talk about a ‘social recession’, complains Jones, in the process demonising working-class communities. Yet it was Tony Blair in 1993, then leader of the Labour Opposition, who first used the term ‘Broken Britain’. Following the murder of Liverpudlian toddler James Bulger by two 10-year-old boys, Blair talked about the ‘moral vacuum’ in ‘lost communities’, exclaiming: ‘Look at the wreckage of our broken society.’ In milking an exceptional crime to paint a picture of morally unanchored communities ‘out there’, Cameron, not for the first time, was only aping Blair.

There are numerous instances when Jones throws his hands up in horror at Tory comments or policies that actually were nicked from Labour. ‘At the centre of Cameron’s political philosophy is the idea that a person’s life chances are determined by behavioural factors’, says Jones, accusing the New Tories of being obsessed with ‘personal behaviour’. Sound familiar? Maybe that’s because in the early 2000s, Labour’s Frank Field talked openly, and sans shame, about ‘the politics of behaviour’, a ‘new politics’ that is about ‘moderating behaviour and re-establishing the social virtues of self-discipline’ and which ‘reinforces what is good and acceptable behaviour’. Jones criticises Cameron for saying that ‘social problems are often the consequence of the choices people make’, and says that the New Tories’ focus on ‘individual responsibility’ for health problems and crime is a way of deflecting attention away from society’s own defects. Yet in the 1990s and 2000s, Labour leaders lamented the fact that many social problems are now seen as ‘entirely structural… we have eliminated individual responsibility from the account’.

At one point, Jones gets upset by a proposal put forward by the Tory Iain Duncan Smith, who suggested that social housing tenants ‘should be rewarded for decent behaviour by giving them a stake in their property’. ‘Rewarded for decent behaviour’, says Jones (his italics). ‘It’s the sort of language used when dealing with prison inmates, children or pets.’ In fact it’s the sort of language used by Labour. Throughout its Opposition years in the 1990s and its authoritarian rule in the 2000s, Labour continually pushed the idea of ‘welfare conditionality’, which was summed up by one writer as: ‘The principle that an individual’s entitlement to benefits and services should depend upon his or her willingness to meet specified conditions regarding behaviour and activities.’ Indeed, the use of welfare to manipulate the behaviour of the hordes has long been an issue close to Labour’s heart. Beatrice Webb, the early twentieth-century Labourite, said of welfare: ‘The unconditionality of all payments under insurance schemes constitutes a grave defect. The state gets nothing for its money in the way of conduct.’ The aloof grandes dames of the old Labour machine were just as keen as Mr Duncan Smith to remould the mob through the allocation or withholding of welfare. They were just a bit more PC about it.

Jones spends chapter after chapter attacking the Tories and only a few pages on Labour’s snobbery. Even then he writes about the ‘private contempt’ felt by New Labour individuals for the lower orders, largely overlooking the vast institutional assaults made by Labour over the past 15 years on the working classes’ lifestyles, parenting habits, political outlooks, socialising mores, morality and receipt of welfare. Perhaps the best example of how his pro-Labour tendencies warp his ability to get a handle on modern-day chav-bashing is his claim that Cameron’s Tories, through their PR response to the South Yorkshire child-torture case and other rare events, have promoted a view of working-class kids as out-of-control, as ‘feckless, delinquent, violent no-hopers’, a ‘feral underclass’. Yet the impact of Cameron’s opportunistic statements in response to occasional crimes pales into insignificance when compared with the sweeping overhaul of the legal system enacted by Labour in response to the murder of Bulger. Then in Opposition, Labour promised after the killing of Bulger by two children that it would abolish doli incapax, the presumption in British law that children under the age of 14 are ‘incapable of crime’. It abolished it in 1998. This reckless act of legal sabotage, driven by a PR compunction to be seen as tough on crime, did far more to institutionalise the idea that those people’s kids are capable of great evil than any half-hour press conference by Cameron has done.

One of Jones’s key arguments is that when Labour unfortunately forayed into chav-bashing territory in the 1990s and 2000s, it was mistakenly trying to curry favour with the middle classes and the right-wing press by carrying on some of the Thatcher regime’s dirty deeds. In short, Labour foolishly copied the Tories. This seems to me to get things the wrong way round. It is true, of course, that some Thatcherite social policy, most notably intervention into the family and the promotion of health panics, was carried on by New Labour. But the most striking thing about modern-day Britain is the extent to which the New Tories, the current rulers of Britain, have been shaped by New Labour – by its politics of behaviour, its nannying/nudging, its belief that it has the right and the power to remould the lower orders’ lifestyles, its focus on the link between ‘bad parenting’ and future crime, its penchant for ‘early intervention’ into poor people’s lives, and so on. All of these Labour projects, all of which contributed enormously to the febrile climate of elite suspicion of chavs over the past 15 years, have been enthusiastically embraced by Cameron and Co. Jones presents Cameron’s Tories as the rehabilitators of the old Victorian view of the working classes as a ‘rabble’, but in truth they are the instantaneous heirs of the more PC, health-focused, pseudoscience-fuelled authoritarianism of Labour.

If Jones’s harshness on the Tories and relative softness on Labour only meant that he gave a skewed account of recent events, that would be bad enough. But I think it’s worse than that. He misses something fundamentally important. Which is that contemporary chav-bashing is underpinned, not by the outlook of Thatcherism, as he claims, but rather by the politics of anti-Thatcherism, by the now mainstream liberal narrative which says that the problem with Thatcherism is that it made people too materialistic and self-obsessed and not sufficiently ‘communal’. It is this which nurtured the eruption of anti-working class sentiment in the 1990s through to today.

At times, Jones’s argument that the ‘Thatcherite experiment’ gave rise to modern-day chav-bashing sounds positively conspiratorial. He says that ‘few men can claim to have had as much influence over modern Britain as Keith Joseph’. Who?, says everyone under the age of 35. Joseph was a leading figure in the Tory right in the 1970s. He was a ‘supporter of free-market guru Milton Friedman’, says Jones (and of course Friedman is responsible for every ill in modern society) and he inspired Thatcher. She went on to demolish working-class institutions in the 1980s, with her war on trade unions, and to champion and institutionalise the Josephite, Friedmanite, unfettered free-market machine. Thus did Joseph, ‘the Iron Lady’s Mad Monk’, rewrite the script of British politics and society, weakening the working classes, strengthening the capitalist class, and unleashing an orgy of bile against the lower orders (which, for some unexplained reason, did not reach fruition until the early 2000s, when chav-bashing really took off).

This is not good sociology. Of course it is true that the 1980s were a very important moment in the history of British class. Thatcher did indeed lead a war against the trade unions, an ideological war against the politicised working classes, which contributed to the historic defeat of that class as a powerful force in public and political life. Yet the 1980s was not, as Jones claims, a decade of free-market triumphalism, in which the right was swaggeringly cocky, ‘the wealthy were adulated’, there was the rise of ‘dog-eat-dog individualism’, and ‘aspiration [came to mean] yearning for a bigger car or a bigger house’. For alongside what are referred to as ‘Thatcherite’ trends, there was also another, very powerful cultural dynamic – one which mocked the ‘Loadsamoneys’ of the working classes who wanted only material goods; one which frequently laid into ‘Essex Man’ and ‘Basildon Man’ and other members of the working classes who wanted cushie jobs and nice cars; one which ridiculed ‘Yuppies’ (wide boys with cash) and which lamented the alleged impact that Thatcher’s rule was having on the self-esteem and mental health of the working classes. (All of this nonsense was later outlined in early Nineties liberal tomes such as Thatcher’s Children and Unhealthy Societies: The Afflictions of Inequality.) Even in the Eighties – now presented to us as a decade of rampant and demented greed – there were powerful cultural forces mocking the desire for stuff and the temerity of material aspiration.

And it is this dynamic, this cultural narrative, which survived the Eighties and which gave rise to the politics of chav-bashing. That is, it was not Thatcher, whose grip on public consciousness was weakening even as early as the mid-1980s, but rather the fashionable anti-Thatcherites, the thinkers, academics, Labour officials and journalists who detested what they saw as the vulgar materialism of the Thatcher years, whose arguments have motored modern-day disdain for the grubby, fat, stuff-obsessed lower orders. For example, you can see the explicit refashioning of the cultural elite’s war of words on Yuppies in the contemporary assault on the ‘bling’ and ‘big trainers’ of inner-city kids. You can glimpse the anti-Thatcher elite’s demonisation of so-called Basildon Man in the continued braying at anyone from Essex who has a mock Tudor house or a fake tan. The powerful Thatcher-bashers’ concern for the loss of tradition and the rise of ill-health amongst the lower orders is visible in the contemporary jihad against junk food and the promotion of allotments and organic fare.

One of the key complaints made by the frustrated anti-Thatcherites in the 1980s was that the working classes had been bought off by Thatcher with the promise of material comfort. And likewise, one of the key reasons that chavs are attacked today is for their alleged slavishness to stuff, their apparently selfish desire to own and scoff and throw away as much as possible. Influential books such as Oliver James’s The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza and Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s The Spirit Level argue that the desire for affluence has made people unwell, even mentally ill; James says that Thatcherism turned Britons into ‘credit-fuelled, consumer-binging junkies’. It is that sentiment, not the outdated, discredited Thatcherite penchant for Victorian values against the feckless poor, which is at the heart of contemporary chav-hatred.

In short, things are vastly more complicated than Jones would have us believe. Thatcher’s assault on the trade unions may have represented the culmination of a long, drawn-out war on working-class independence and power, leaving that section of society exposed to moral assault. But it was the anti-Thatcherites, the liberal elite that came to the fore in the post-Thatcher era, who launched the moral assault, laying into the working classes for their lack of community spirit, their individual greed and their gluttony.

Ironically, these very prejudices are reproduced in Jones’s book. He favourably cites Labour MP Jon Cruddas’s claim that we now have too many people who ‘aspire to own more material things’ and he calls for a ‘total redefinition of aspiration’. His disingenuous contrasting of ‘rugged individualism’ (bad) with ‘the old collective form of aspiration’ (good) leads him to argue that the working classes should be less obsessed with ‘climbing the social ladder’ and more proud of what he embarrassingly calls their ‘working-classness’. He agrees with Hazel Blears, who says: ‘I’ve never understood the term “social mobility” because that implies you want to get out of somewhere… And I think that there is a great deal to be said for making who you are something to be proud of.’ That sounds very much like an updated, more PC version of the old idea that the poor should be happy with their lot: never mind ‘escaping’, just be proud of your roots! When Jones says that ‘rugged individualism’ is at odds with ‘social solidarity’, he misses the point that strong-minded and strong-willed individuals – yes, even self-interested ones – are the backbone of any social movement worth its name. Today, a defence of ‘rugged individualism’ and autonomy against the intervention of a pitying liberal class that wants the lower orders to enjoy and communally celebrate their existing living conditions would be a good start for any radical; Jones does the opposite of this.

Jones accuses old right-wingers of fearing the working classes. And it’s true, many of them do. But if there is one thing worse than fear of the workers, it is pity for them. This book has way too much of that. These are the ‘victims of social problems’, ‘the poor’, ‘vulnerable working-class groups’; sadly there is ‘no sympathy for them’ and there aren’t even any ‘likeable working-class characters’ on TV anymore. In one particularly embarrassing bit, Jones invites his largely middle-class readers to ‘imagine being a poor working-class youth in Britain today… lacking many of the things others take for granted: toys, days out, holidays, good food’. Oh dear. At least the right has a point when it fears the working classes: history shows that they can indeed be a fearsome class. But there is never an excuse to pity them.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Read his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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