Gammon: the return of class hatred

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Gammon: the return of class hatred

It’s time we reflected on the horror of comparing working-class voters to pig meat.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
Editor

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Topics Brexit Long-reads

Gammon. Of all the barbs and insults of the ever-more intemperate culture war, this is surely the most dehumanising. This ‘meaty slur’, as the Independent describes it, robs its targets of any semblance of humanity. Mainly aimed at angry men of a certain age who are pro-Brexit and possibly a bit iffy about mass immigration, this fleshiest of epithets reduces people to lumps of meat. Pig meat, at that. It is the closest any side in our maddening culture war has got to likening human beings to animals. It feels positively 19th-century in that sense, like when the Irish were depicted as ‘apes, psychos and alcos’ (often with a very red complexion, strikingly). ‘Pig’ is now all I hear when I witness implacably middle-class leftists hurling the slight of ‘gammon’ at the Brexity masses.

There is a gaping hole in contemporary British commentary where the reckoning with the insult of gammon should be. There has been very little serious reflection on the fashion among Corbynistas in particular for writing off vast swathes of the population as pig meat. Very little contemplation on how it became acceptable in certain circles – including among Guardian writers, advisers to the Labour Party and the broader chattering classes – to speak of those who are ‘heavily concentrated in the vast reaches of England’s Brexit heartlands’ as animalistic; as lacking in sentience; as flesh carved and moulded by duplicitous oligarchs and right-wing newspapers. These pieces of pig meat spout vile opinions that are the result of ‘regular spoon-feeding from the trashy tabloids’, as one left-wing observer puts it.

Sure, many people know the basics. They know the word gammon is used against Brexit-backing white men who have a tendency to get red in the face as they moan about Jeremy Corbyn or Muslim immigration. As one of the definitions at the Urban Dictionary puts it, the gammon slur ‘takes its name from the pork product that is pinkish-red and salty, which perfectly describes the faces of these men’. They know it’s a byword for anger infused with ignorance. Gammon, those pig-coloured people, are always ‘spitting out talking points found in fascist organs like the Daily Mail – or, for those preferring something less intellectual, the Daily Express’. They might know about the ‘Wall of Gammon’ – an image of nine men in the Question Time audience, their red faces further reddened by digital trickery, who symbolise ‘every pub bore I’ve ever switched tables to avoid, the type that complain about how you can’t say anything anymore’, according to the writer who invented the Wall.

But a true reckoning with the dehumanising jibe of gammon – what it really means, how it was popularised, why it won’t die – has been glaringly absent. Which is disappointing because the furious gammon-hate among the middle-class graduate set who have come to colonise the Labour Party and to dominate the broader left in the UK is incredibly revealing. It speaks to the estrangement of left-wing institutions and activists from huge numbers of ordinary people. It explodes the hypocrisy of the identitarian left, who will rage against the use of skin-based or race-based insults but happily take to the internet to brand millions of people as lumps of pig meat. And it captures the casual and brutal intolerance of the contemporary culture wars, where opponents are not to be engaged with, or even just strongly condemned, but rather must be dehumanised, deprived of agency, and reduced to lesser beings deserving of nothing more than mockery and cancellation.

A Brexit supporter (right) argues with a pro-EU supporter on the Millennium Bridge, Newcastle Upon Tyne, 15 March 2019.
A Brexit supporter (right) argues with a pro-EU supporter on the Millennium Bridge, Newcastle Upon Tyne, 15 March 2019.

The gammon slur was back in the news last week when Andrew Neil described it as a racist insult. When a tweeter suggested that many subscribers to the Spectator, of which Neil is publisher, are ‘gammon’, Neil said such commentary is ‘racist’. Later, with his tongue at least partly in his cheek, Neil said: ‘I have chosen to take [the] use of gammon as an attack on my race, as the law now allows me to do. It’s a hate crime.’ Of course there was a furious backlash. Many doubled down on their pig-meat insult. ‘Andrew Neil just needs some pineapple rings and he’ll be less salty’, said one.

Neil was echoing the Democraitc Unionist Party MP Emma Little-Pengelly, who in 2018 also insisted that gammon is a racist insult. It’s a slur ‘based on skin colour and age’, she said, and therefore it unquestionably has racist undertones. Little-Pengelly had a point, certainly in relation to age. The left in recent years has embraced not only identitarianism but also generationalism, dispensing with Marx’s observation that ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’ in favour of obsessing over alleged generational tensions. It is no longer ruling class vs working class, but Boomers vs Millennials. Sixtysomething home-owners vs twentysomething renters in fashionable but expensive parts of London. Privileged oldies vs put-upon young graduates.

This is pure fantasy, of course: the vast majority of the Boomer generation did not go to university and did not enjoy easy, plush lives, and the UK has the worst level of pensioner poverty in Western Europe. Nonetheless, it is elderly-bashing that provides a frisson of conflict to the contemporary left, far more than class antagonism does. Age-based conflict has become the core analysis of much of modern leftism, because it means class can be downplayed and privileged youthful graduates can position themselves as the new revolutionary subject. A left movement painfully conscious of its privileged origins and of its immeasurable moral and political separation from most working-class people far prefers the battleground of age over the war of classes. So ‘gammon’ is undoubtedly an ageist slur. As a BBC report put it, it is wielded primarily against people who are ‘middle-aged, white and male’. It is part of the epithet armoury of the privileged youth wing in the culture wars, whose highly moralistic reading of social affairs leads them to view the greed and ignorance of older people, including ‘gammon’, as the prime cause of the economic and social difficulties they face.

But racist? Not so fast. Yes, as Little-Pengelly and Neil point out, gammon is a slight based on skin colour, in this case the reddish tones of ageing white males. However, that does not make it racist. Indeed, even this aspect of the gammon insult – the way it is used by privileged young activists to mock older working people who have high blood pressure or skin weathered by working outdoors – reveals its class basis, not a conscious racial intent. For the gammon slur is primarily an expression of class hatred. It is a contemporary manifestation of the dehumanising language, as discussed in John Carey’s classic book The Intellectuals and the Masses, that was used by earlier elites against those who read mass newspapers, consume mass-produced food, possess vulgar, half-baked political convictions, and who fail, allegedly, to attend meaningfully to their physical and spiritual health. Virginia Woolf would have called people gammon if the insult had existed back then.

In describing gammon as a racist insult, those who are understandably aggrieved by the depiction of significant sections of society as pig meat end up playing into the hands of the identitarian left. They allow the left to counter that the gammon slur is not racist – on the simple grounds that it is primarily targeted at people because of their political views, not their skin colour – while also allowing the left to evade any serious reckoning with the clear classist dynamic behind the insult and with their own key role in resuscitating class hatred in this new form.

So Guardian columnist Owen Jones can implicitly defend people’s use of the pig-meat slur by ridiculing the suggestion that it is racist. ‘[W]hite men with reactionary opinions are not a race’, he says. The idea that branding people gammon is racist is another example of ‘how the privileged crave a sense of persecution’, he continues (which is beautifully ironic – ‘the privileged craving a sense of persecution’ is a perfect description of many Guardian columnists, including Jones himself).

Strikingly, Jones uses his pushback against the idea that gammon is a racist insult to pre-empt and neuter any suggestion that it might more accurately be described as a classist one. In his short column he uses the word ‘affluent’ six times to describe the men who are branded gammon by the modern left. This looks like a very stark example of protesting too much. Jones bandies about the word ‘affluent’ in a clear attempt to disorientate and displace what is the most important criticism to make of the pig-meat epithet – namely, that is a function of a new form of class distancing and class loathing.

The class component to gammon-hate should be clear to everyone. Even the children’s author who is credited with creating this culture-war barb later tried to disassociate himself from it when it started to be used in a more viscerally classist way. Ben Davis claims he coined the insult in 2017 – at the height of the Brexit Wars, naturally – when he created the Gammon Wall of angry, middle-aged, white male audience members on Question Time. But as the cry of gammon became more popular, especially in radical left circles, Davis expressed regret. Where he intended gammon to be a ‘silly, lighthearted’ insult, from some people’s mouths it became ‘nastier, more weaponised’ – it ‘seemed classist’, he said.

That’s because it was. Gammon emerged at exactly the right time for a new left that was struggling to express its sense of distance from, and contempt for, the armies of lower middle-class and working-class people who had voted for Brexit.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn acknowledges supporters in Huddersfield, 16 May 2017.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn acknowledges supporters in Huddersfield, 16 May 2017.

It is difficult to overstate how disorientating the mass vote for Brexit was for the Corbyn project. In place of their middle-class obsessions with welfare, food banks and improving NHS services, Brexit forced profound political and philosophical questions on to the agenda, most importantly in relation to democracy and power. Where the privileged graduate left derived their moral and media authority from talking about what working-class communities need – sympathy, assistance, validation – working-class voters had the temerity to impress on to the entirety of political and public life what they want: greater democratic power. A left-wing movement, which for all its Marxian pretensions was really a continuation of the Blairite project of managing the masses, was thrown to an extraordinary degree by the masses’ decision to usurp every political issue in the country with the singular question of their own power and rights.

This is why the response of radical leftists to Brexit was so confused and, later, so visceral. Their initial response was to side with Jeremy Corbyn’s muddled position, his flitting from respecting the vote for Brexit to calling for the voiding of the vote for Brexit via the holding of a second referendum. They then tried to demean Brexit as a culture-war distraction, a ridiculous issue whipped up by right-wing demagogues and anti-immigrant newspapers to distract the masses from what they should really be focusing on – their own destitution, their own difficulties, their own ignorance. Most catastrophically of all, the radicals then surrendered to the neoliberal elites’ insistence that Brexit was an act of extreme, morally illiterate folly that had to be stopped, or at least neutered through a stitched-up second vote.

Into this despicable, unprincipled fray came the word ‘gammon’. It was perfect. It lent itself beautifully to the classist fury felt by the graduate left against working people who had dared to use their agency to transform the political narrative of 21st-century Britain. The rage against the ‘pigs’ of the ‘Brexit heartlands’ was testament to the level of exasperation felt by a left whose presumption of an implacable moral purview over the needs of the masses had just been so thoroughly discredited by the masses themselves. These ‘white, middle-aged, furious-faced men who are heavily concentrated in the vast reaches of England’s Brexit heartlands’ became public enemy No1 of the middle-class professionals of the modern radical left.

And class was to the fore. Read, for example, Matt Zarb-Cousin’s defence of the gammon epithet. Mr Zarb-Cousin was an adviser to Jeremy Corbyn, no less. In 2018 he wrote about gammon for the radical left magazine Huck, and it strikes me as one of the most dehumanising pieces of writing to appear in a relatively mainstream publication in recent times. ‘Gammon tends to believe what gammon reads in the newspapers’, the piece says, capturing the extent to which the gammon slur reduced vast numbers of people to an indistinguishable blob of half-humanity, acting in ignorant concert. Zarb-Cousin writes about ‘accidentally stumb[ling] across a nest of gammon on Twitter’, bringing to mind a nest of insects.

The class disdain is apparent even in the sartorial descriptions of gammon. ‘[T]he uniform of the gammon is boot-cut jeans, loafers and an open-collared white polyester shirt’, says Zarb-Cousin. They also have ‘dodgy tattoos’, unlike, presumably, the classier tattoos sported by the more refined middle classes. These people with a ‘red meat complexion’ believe everything they read in the low-rent press, says Zarb-Cousin – gammon is a ‘state of mind, driven in no small part by a regular spoon-feeding from the trashy tabloids’. This idea of certain constituencies being ‘spoon-fed’ their beliefs by the vulgar press is, of course, a classic expression of middle-class disdain.

An anti-masses sentiment is now front and centre in the contemporary left. This is why author and one-time Corbyn supporter Paul Mason can wring his hands over a ‘mass plebeian movement of racists and violent misogynists’. It is why Ash Sarkar of Novara Media can speak about ‘an increasingly reactionary and paranoid majority’. ‘Gammon’ is the more visceral, unhinged expression of this turn against the masses that has defined the left for many decades now, and which intensified following the masses’ rude intrusion into the political life of the nation with their vote for Brexit.

It would be wrong, however, to see gammon as simply a reactive slur, defensively adopted by a left perplexed and unsettled by a democratic working-class revolt against neoliberalism. Because in truth, the gammon-hate of the past three or four years represents a continuation of a longer-term trend: the trend of the left’s political and moral distancing from the working classes they were historically meant to represent, and the corresponding reconstitution of the left as a vehicle for middle-class concerns and metropolitan activism and influence-building. The most important thing about the vile slur of gammon is that it made more apparent and undeniable the long-developing break of the left from the working classes, and the fact that the left is now arguably the most anti-working-class political constituency in the UK.

That this brutal clarification of the recent historic turns of the left should have occurred under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party strikes many people as ironic. After all, weren’t Corbynistas all about ‘the many, not the few’? Weren’t they going to breathe life back into Old Labour? Weren’t they meant to break with the Blairite era’s neoliberalism and its middle-class professionalisation of the Labour Party? That might have been what the Corbyn project said, but it wasn’t what the Corbyn project was about. On the contrary, another thing that gammon-hate made clear is the extent to which Corbynism was a continuation of Blairism’s demobilisation of the working classes and its transformation of Labour into a machine of middle-class management of the fickle, unhealthy, ignorant masses.

Kate Moss and Matt Lucas, as the Pollard sisters Katie and Vicky, perform on stage in London, 22 November 2006.
Kate Moss and Matt Lucas, as the Pollard sisters Katie and Vicky, perform on stage in London, 22 November 2006.

This is why the Corbyn project’s failures over Brexit, and many Corbynistas’ embrace of the epithet of gammon to dehumanise Brexit voters, is so important. Because what the supposedly radical Corbynite Labour Party was reacting against was the agency of the working masses. In the words of John-Baptiste Oduor, writing on the Verso website, ‘One way of thinking about [the] limitation in Corbyn’s project is that it attempted to give the working classes liberation without emancipation’. It tried to ‘offer them freedom from oppression without agency’. In the aftermath of Brexit, Corbynistas came to be gripped by a conviction that ‘the demand for political agency could be subordinated to demands for economic redistribution and interventionism’. In essence, says Oduor, the Corbyn left, in reading Brexit as a distracting culture war, was saying to working-class people: ‘Oh, so you think you care about democracy, are you sure you don’t mean the NHS?’ And this threatened to have a ‘demobilising effect on working-class politics’, he says, speaking to ‘a continuum rather than radical break from the professionalisation and urbanisation of the [Labour Party] under Blair’.

The new left’s preference for the demobilising politics of professionalised middle-class sympathy over the mobilised democratic revolt against the European Union also helps to explain its differing response to the insults ‘chav’ and ‘gammon’. Some commentators have been thrown by the fact that leftists who railed against the use of the word ‘chav’ for certain working-class people should so readily have embraced the insult ‘gammon’, which, whatever they might say to the contrary, has a very clear class element.

Owen Jones captures this seeming contradiction well. He wrote a book called Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Classes, yet a few years later he was defending the demonising slur of gammon in his Guardian column. Again protesting rather too much, he said: ‘“Gammon” is punching up in a way that, say, “chavs” is punching down.’

In truth, the chief moral difference between ‘chav’ and ‘gammon’ is one of agency. People who were branded as ‘chavs’, mostly by right-wingers, were defended by the left primarily because they were seen as victims of circumstance, as hapless, voiceless people, often recipients of welfare, being unacceptably bullied by powerful right-wing figures. They were seen as a largely passive constituency whose existence and experiences allowed the professionalised middle-class left to deploy its expertise, its charity and its virtue. Those branded ‘gammon’, on the other hand, are active, vocal, loud, angry, red. They think for themselves and speak for themselves. They do not need the moral representations of the middle-class left. Indeed, they bristle against them, raising awkward questions of democratic power over the left’s preferred focus on narrow economic needs.

This is where Brexit truly crashed against the pretensions of the modern radical left. These pseudo-revolutionaries hide behind Marx memes and t-shirts declaring ‘I am literally a communist’, but Brexit exposed their deep disdain for acts of working-class agency. Because such agency threatens to disrupt the expertise and virtue that the graduate and professional left believe they must bring to bear upon the life of the nation and its inhabitants. This was the profound contradiction at the heart of Corbynism: it publicly professed its radicalism but it was heavily invested in the demobilisation of working-class power in order to preserve the social influences of the academic, professional left. ‘Gammon’ was their screech of rage against a newly confident and expressive working class.

The new radical left sometimes mumbles about class war. Oh there’s a class war, all right: a class war between the 21st-century’s professionalised dispensers of welfare, virtue and identitarian re-education and vast numbers of ordinary people who are chiefly concerned with the question of their own democratic power. And this war isn’t over just because, thankfully, Corbynism has collapsed. Across the Labour Party, and in much of the technocratic Conservative Party too, doubt in ordinary people’s ability to govern their own lives and communities is rampant. The spectre of democratic revolt haunts them all. As it should. Those people you view as pig meat – they aren’t going away.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

All pictures by: Getty

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