The chav phenomenon reignites old debates about class, social mobility and government policy in Britain. Innit, says Christopher Silvester
IN SPRING 2009, a fitness company named Gymbox started advertising new self-defence classes in ‘Chav Fighting’. ‘Don’t give moody grunting Chavs an Asbo,’ the Gymbox exhorted visitors to its website, ‘give them a kicking.’
Apparently, these classes proved popular, though I have yet to come across anyone who admits to having attended them. Also in 2009, another company, Activities Abroad, started offering ‘Chav-Free Activity Holidays’. In the opening chapter of his talking-point book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, Owen Jones offers these tasteless and pathetic efforts at attention-hungry marketing as ‘evidence of just how mainstream middle-class hatred of working-class people is in modern Britain’.
As further evidence of this noxious tendency, Jones adduces various examples of chav-bashing in the popular press, especially in the Daily Mail. Chav-hate, he says, is ‘class war… It is an expression of the belief that everyone should become middle-class and embrace middle-class values and lifestyles, leaving those who don’t to be ridiculed and hated.’
First, what of the word itself? Chav is derived from chavi, the Romany word for child. It is not an acronym for ‘council house and violent’, as some have falsely claimed. It is used as a shorthand pejorative for foul-mouthed teenage girls who wear gold hoop earrings and drink alcopops, and aggressive teenage boys who walk pit bull terriers. Of course, it is a caricature. But a caricature, properly understood, is an exaggeration of the truth.
Chavs is an attempt by Verso, a publisher predominantly associated with earnest, left-wing academic titles, to produce a bestselling social commentary in a similar vein to Freakonomics. In places it reads like an old-fashioned socialist tract, but for the most part it is a polemic spiced with social reportage. But how thorough is the reportage of this would-be George Orwell for our times? Jones, a twentysomething who has worked as a researcher for a Labour MP, criticises journalists and politicians for being out of touch with real working-class opinion, but then proceeds to interview a handful of journalists and politicians — oh, and one worker in a call centre.
IN SEEKING TO characterise aspirational working-class or lower-middle-class persons as crudely materialistic, it is plain that he has not interviewed anyone who has made the transition from working class to middle class, of which there are millions out there. Is there a genuine fear and hatred of the working class by the middle class, as Jones claims? Or is chav merely another label, along with toff and Sloane, that makes light of social difference?
Central to Jones’s thesis is his belief in the triumph of Thatcherism, which he despises because it destroyed our manufacturing base, broke up traditional working-class communities, and ushered in an era of ‘greed is good’, so the mantra goes. But Jones forgets (or is too young to remember) where Thatcherism came from.
Back in 1976, the financial journalist Patrick Hutber published The Decline and Fall of the Middle Class and How It Can Fight Back. A Labour government was presiding over a period of industrial unrest, punitive taxation and high inflation. Then, it was the middle classes who were ‘being subjected to unprecedented pressures and, at the same time, to unprecedented denigration,’ Hutber wrote. ‘That the middle classes are the scapegoats for the country’s economic ills is quite obvious, and will remain so until those classes are ready to exercise their lungs in their own defence.’
Illustration by Russ Tudor
JONES HAS EMBRACED the arguments of The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone, the 2009 book by academics Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, which claimed that ‘at any given level of personal income or education, someone’s quality of life will be higher if he or she has the same level of income or education but lives in a more equal society’. In other words, if the super-rich and the affluent wish to avoid crime and social disorder, they should be concerned that the gap between the richest in our society and the poorest is fast growing wider.
Jones calls the statistics on which Wilkinson and Pickett relied ‘irrefutable’, though many have refuted their interpretation and, in some cases, the choice of statistics, notably Christopher Snowdon in his book, The Spirit Level Delusion. Indeed, Snowdon says that Wilkinson and Pickett’s decision to correlate inequality with rates of imprisonment rather than levels of crime is flawed, since sentencing policy is susceptible to cultural variation.
For Jones, the working class are mere victims of external forces, whereas in Tory ideology some of them are the architects of their own downfall. He believes that attacks by Tories and New Labour on welfarism, combined with globalisation, have undermined the vigour of the working class. The right-wing media are wrong to assume that chavs stand proxy for the working class as a whole, but in the same way Jones is wrong to assume that the aspiration towards middle-class values on the part of the respectable working class is a bad thing.
In another book just published, Lemon Sherbet and Dolly Blue, Lynn Knight tells the story of her Derbyshire family, which saw three adoptions in three different generations, each by different means, and each representing an upward step-change in social mobility. In the first instance, a couple of fairground workers burdened with too many children decided to leave behind a son when they emigrated to America in 1865, giving him to another working-class family. This boy was Knight’s great-grandfather, who later, in 1909, adopted an eight-year-old girl from an orphanage as a sister for their daughter Annie.
Annie was encouraged in book learning and sewing, won a place at the local grammar school and eventually became a schoolteacher. Having had a stillborn child and being unable to conceive again, she and her husband took advantage of new legislation and in 1929 adopted a baby through an agency.
One of Annie’s proudest possessions was a silver pen-wipe in the shape of a swan, a gift from her father. This object is charged with significance. In Chavs, Owen Jones dismisses the desire of aspirational working-class people to own material things as unworthy, but Annie’s silver pen-wipe was a symbol of her educational attainment as well as of her working-class father’s ability to buy something that once graced the writing desk of an aristocrat. Lemon Sherbet and Dolly Blue is a tribute to the respectable working class between the 1860s and the 1960s.
Jones interviewed right-wing commentator Simon Heffer for Chavs, but he refuses to accept Heffer’s trenchant observation that ‘the respectable working class has died out largely for good reason, because it was aspirational, and because society still provided the means for aspiration’. (It does so no longer.)
WHILE JONES HAS plenty to say that is critical of New Labour’s accommodation of Thatcherism, he has little to say about how Old Labour had failed the working class from 1945 to 1979, principally by degrading Britain’s public education system. It abolished direct grant schools, closed numerous grammar schools and peddled the levelling-down ideology of comprehensivisation. The result was a precipitous decline in educational standards that penalised the very people for whom Jones speaks.
Are the middle class pillorying a feckless, feral underclass as part of a new, more vicious form of class hatred? Are chavs the prisoners of their background, forever destined for victimhood, or are they moral beings, responsible for choosing their own destiny? One person who believed that their ‘conditions of life’ dictated their vile behaviour was Karl Marx, who coined the term lumpenproletariat (raggedy proletarian) to describe ‘the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society’. Marx certainly knew a chav when he saw one.