‘Chavs’ and the working-class
One of the most frequent criticisms of my book is that it supposedly conflates ‘chav’ and ‘working-class’. They are two completely different things, the critics say. ‘Chav’ is a word widely used – and that includes by working-class people as well as middle-class people. Indeed it’s argued that working-class people hate ‘chavs’ – so in what meaningful sense can ‘chav’ be used to demonise working-class people?
Although the book is called Chavs: The Demonization of the Working-Class, it could easily have been called The Demonization of Working-Class Identity (not as catchy, admittedly). Polling organisation BritainThinks has just conducted a detailed survey into attitudes to class: a staggering 71% self-identified as middle-class, compared to just 24% who felt they had any working-class identity. But the most interesting – and disturbing – finding in my view was this:
There was a strong feeling in the focus groups that the noble tradition of a respectable and diligent working class was over. For the first time, I saw the “working class” tag used as a slur, equated with other class-based insults such as “chav”. I asked focus group members to make collages using newspaper and magazine clippings to show what the working class was. Many chose deeply unattractive images: flashy excess, cosmetic surgery gone wrong, tacky designer clothes, booze, drugs and overeating. By contrast, being middle class is about being, well, a bit classy.
The ‘working-class’ label was no longer something people felt that they could be proud of. Far from it: it had become effectively synonymous with ‘chav’. For that reason, many who most of us would describe as clearly working-class rejected the label because they felt it was a pejorative. The demonisation of working-class identity has had an impact on the attitudes of both and working-class and middle-class people. With a political consensus that we should aspire to become middle-class, and with few positive representations of working-class people, this is as unsurprising and it is depressing.
The book could also have been called ‘The Demonization and Airbrushing of the Working-Class’, but that’s even less catchy. As Simon Heffer put it, “something called the respectable working class has almost died out. What sociologists used to call the working class does not now usually work at all, but is sustained by the welfare state.” It has, instead, given way to a “feral underclass”. Now I know for a fact that Heffer would never dream of using the word “chav” – but what he is doing here is using the “chav” caricature. In other words, we’re all middle-class now – apart from the people that could be called “chavs”.
Both New Labour and the Tories have, similarly, tapped into this chav caricature. Both argued that we were all, effectively, middle-class – with one big exception. For the right, this was the “underclass” – often conjured up in the form of ‘Broken Britain’ by David Cameron and his allies. Where there were social problems outside the middle-class majority, they were to be understood as being due to people’s individual problems.
For New Labour, the term was “social exclusion”. As Matthew Taylor, Blair’s former strategy advisor, put it to me:
There has been a general view which is – and it is in the move from ‘class’ to ‘exclusion’ as conceptions – that exclusion is something which kind of suggests that ‘I am excluding myself’, that there is a process, that my own behaviour is replicated in my social status. Class is something which is given to me. Exclusion is something which happens to me and in which I am somehow an agent. And so I think, yeah, absolutely, there was a sense not that you should blame the poor for being poor, although there was a bit of that as well, but that poverty was a process in which people were active in one way or another… not simply the result of great impersonal social forces.
So, again, outside New Labour’s mainstream middle-class majority, there were the ‘socially excluded’ whose own behaviour had a big part in creating their situation.
In the first chapter, I looked at how journalists and politicians used the strange case of Shannon Matthews as an example of how this played out. Shannon Matthews was a young girl who disappeared in Dewsbury, a working-class community in West Yorkshire, in early 2008. Journalists’ interest in the case was markedly less than the hysteria that accompanied Madeleine McCann’s disappearance in 2007: but, as India Knight put it about Maddie, she had vanished from a holiday resort “which specialises in providing family-friendly holidays to the middle classes.” The joy of these resorts were that they “were populated by recognisable types” where you could sigh in relief and think, “Everyone is like us”. They were not places you would expect to meet “the kind of people who wallop their weeping kids in Sainsbury’s.”
Journalists were often honest about why there was less interest in Shannon’s disappearance. “It is ‘up North’, it is a bleak mix of pebbledash council blocks and neglected wasteland, and it is populated by some people capable of confirming the worst stereotype and prejudice of the white underclass,” wrote one Times journalist. Melanie Reid argued “we are as removed from that kind of poverty as we are from events in Afghanistan. For life among the white working class of Dewsbury looks like a foreign country.”
When it was discovered Karen Matthews had kidnapped her own daughter to extort thousands of pounds from the tabloid press, open season was declared on the community: they were called a Shameless council estate, for example. Carole Malone wrote that she used to live “near” a council estate: “It was full of people like Karen Matthews.” Melanie McDonagh argued in the Independent that: “What was once a working class is now, in some places, an underclass. It is a decline that this unfortunate woman seems to embody.” All of this was linked to the idea we’re all middle-class, apart from a ‘chav’ rump of the old working-class.
Iain Duncan-Smith was among politicians who used the case for political purposes. He argued that, with the revelations of the Matthews saga, “it is as though a door on to another world has opened slightly and the rest of Britain can peer in,” as though people are running around council estates kidnapping their own daughters. His thinktank, the Centre for Social Justice, then linked it to proposals that ten million or so social housing tenants would be “rewarded for decent behaviour” (a phase normally used with prisoners, children or pets) with a stake in their property. In other words, he linked Karen Matthews to people who lived in social housing, nearly all of whom would have been as repulsed by the case as anyone else.
But although the book seeks to take on the false theory that “we’re all middle-class, apart from the ‘chavs'”, that’s not to say ‘chav’ isn’t used in a class-ist fashion. I open the book by discussing an anecdote: I was having dinner with people from an exclusively middle-class, professional background, and one quipped: ‘It’s a shame Woolworths is closing. Where will all the chavs buy this Christmas presents?’ What he was saying could easily be rewritten as: ‘Where will the lower orders by their Christmas presents?”
Several ‘chav-bashing’ books have been published which come up with definitions of those they are attacking. According to The Chav Guide To Life, as well as being “loud and lower class,” “Most chavs come from not well-off, working-class families on council estates”. The bestselling Little Book of Chavs goes through a list of ‘chav’ jobs: supermarket checkout workers, cleaners, hairdressers, fast-food workers, etc.
As an example of how the wealthy and powerful associate ‘chavs’ with working-class people, it’s worth recalling how Prince William dressed up for a ‘chav-themed’ fancy dress party at the end of his first year at Sandhurst. When the other cadets demanded he “put on a chavvy accent and stop speaking like a Royal”, he couldn’t do it: “William’s not actually the poshest-sounding cadet, despite his family heritage, but he struggled to pull off a working-class accent,” one cadet told The Sun.
The fairly nauseating website ‘ChavTowns’ (which has added me to its banner – a badge of honour) goes through a number of working-class communities, writing them off in their entirety as, well ‘ChavTowns’. My own hometown of of Stockport gets a repeated beating: take one article attacking the town – “To be fair, Stockport has some very wealthy areas. Unfortunately, it has more than its fair share of scummy ones too.” Another article attacking the local population similarly moans: “I have to admit I feel ashamed to have to write Stockport on my address, despite being from one of its much, much nicer suburbs (yes they do exist).” Another article on Stockport attacks people living in council houses, written by someone describing themselves as living in “my charming village of Cheadle Hulme”.
Or, for a Southern example, check out an example of eloquent chav-bashing directed at Basildon, which is described as a “seething mass of chavite humanity”.
For many, Vicky Pollard – the invention of two wealthy, privately educated comedians – is a symbol of the ‘chav’ caricature. A few years ago YouGov ran a poll of people who worked in TV: the majority thought that probably the most famous ‘chav’ icon out there, Vicky Pollard, was an “accurate representation” of the white working-class.
Of course the actual term depends on who says it. For example, ‘queer’ means something differently depending on whether a gay or a straight man says it; as does ‘paki’ depending on whether a British Asian or white says it; as does the ‘nigger’ word depending on whether an African-American or white person says it. So for example, Chris Rock once did a sketch comparing ‘niggers’ to ‘black people': not something a white comedian could ever (rightly) get away with. It’s when those who are privileged attack people who haven’t enjoyed their advantages in life that ‘chav-bashing’ becomes class hatred.
The book also looks at how divisions within the working-class were widened by Thatcherism, not least because of council housing. While it was once supported mixed communities, the combination of the ‘right-to-buy’ policy that sold off much of the best stock, and the failure to build new stock, meant that it became prioritised for those most in need. In effect, governments treated it like a social dumping ground – more so now, given the Tories’ policy of scrapping lifetime tenancy.
It’s also true that anti-social behaviour and crime are more likely to affect working-class people rather than middle-class people. It is sometimes presumed that hostility to supposed “benefit cheats” is the preserve of middle-class Daily Mail readers. But if you are scraping by in a low-paid job and feel that someone down the street is enjoying a higher standard of living without working, that will rile you more than anyone else. The BritainThinks study reveals deep anger aimed at those deemed to be “sponging” off the state. Right-wing politicians and journalists know all this and exploit it ruthlessly.
That is not to say that people do not understand why long-term unemployment has increased. As one put it: “We’ve now got this benefit generation which started when Thatcher closed all of the industries.” And counter-riffs can be presented: that benefit fraud represents less than 1 per cent of total welfare spending, is eclipsed by tax evasion, and that there are simply not enough jobs to go around. But it will be a challenge to refocus hostility on multi-millionaires who are distant and somewhat abstract, away from those visible locally.
BritainThinks also exposed the differences in how “chav” was used. Unlike “middle-class” self-identifiers who conflated “working class” with “chav”, working-class self-identifiers (which, remember, was just 24%) used “chav” differently: above all, to distance themselves from undesirable elements in the community. It was those most in danger of being demonised as “chavs” who were particularly emphatic in their hostility. For example, a long-term incapacity benefit claimant was most vociferous about “chavs” in one focus group, as were two unemployed teenage mothers in another. Rather than classist contempt, this speaks of an insecurity of being lumped in with a despised grouping.
Of course the problem with the word “chav” is it’s not a sub-culture in the sense that people think they are part of it: you get the odd person half-seriously saying something like “I’m a bit of a chav”, but other than that it’s used as an insult against ‘someone else’.
But it’s the book’s argument that the actual working-class has been airbrushed out of existence by the “chav” caricature. And that is why, in however modest or limited a way, I wanted to re-open the debate about class.