“Class is a communist concept,” Margaret Thatcher told Newsweek in 1992. “It groups people together and sets them against each other.” Just over a decade later, Thatcher’s crude rightwing dogmatism had given way to a kind of all-pervasive centre-right wishful thinking. Towards the end of his reign as prime minister, Tony Blair told a New Labour think-tank “we’re all middle class”, an opinion echoed more recently by both the Daily Telegraph (“We’re all middle class now, dahling”) and the Times (“We’re all middle class now as social barriers fall away”).
The truth, as Owen Jones’s points out, is more complex and more disturbing. Chavs, despite its provocative title, is a lively, well-reasoned and informative counterblast to the notion that Britain is now more or less a classless society. For Jones, the British class system is “an invisible prison” from which, increasingly, there is little escape for those born into working-class families. Without the privilege of family wealth, higher education – and the lucrative careers it provides access to – is fast becoming a no-go area for all but an elite sector of the population. Britain is well on its way to becoming a society run by the wealthy for the wealthy.
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Jones, who is 26 and has worked as a trade union lobbyist and parliamentary researcher for a Labour MP, begins by looking at the rise of “chav” culture. This, he argues, was created and then mercilessly lampooned by the middle-class, rightwing media and its more combative columnists. The crimes committed by “chavs” included being too loud, too flash, too drunk, too vulgar and, most inexcusable of all, too disrespectful towards their “betters”. Somewhere between the rise of New Labour and the start of the current financial recession, the middle classes seemed suddenly surprised and appalled to discover a new “feral underclass” (Simon Heffer) in the place of the old deferential proletariat.
One one level, Jones has written a book about how the dread word “chav” came into being and how it has been bandied about without much thought. (The word’s origins are unclear: it may derive from the Romany word “chavi”, meaning “child”, but it is now usually understood as an acronym for “council house and violent”.) Jones gives some vivid examples of just how loaded the term has become: there is a popular self-defence course called “chav fighting”, run by the fitness company Gymbox. Perhaps predictably, the Daily Telegraph has led the media assault against the chavs, with James Delingpole caricaturing their offspring as “rudderless urchins… downing alcopops and cans of super-strong lager”.
All this moral humbug would be laughable, argues Jones, if it weren’t so pernicious. Since Margaret Thatcher’s divisive reign, he says, the working class have been increasingly disenfranchised politically and economically while simultaneously being caricatured as feckless, lazy, loutish and amoral. What was once gross caricature – Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard – has somehow become a symbol of broken Britain.
For Jones, though, the “chav” phenomenon is really just a starting point. His book develops into a sustained polemic about the perniciousness of the British class system. Taking his cue from a quote from the Observer’s Nick Cohen – “To say class doesn’t matter in Britain is like saying wine doesn’t matter in France; or whether you’re a man or a woman doesn’t matter in Saudi Arabia” – he ranges far and wide in his research, touching on the changing political landscape of post-Thatcher Britain, the ever-widening gap between the wealthy and the rest, and the ways the middle classes find to justify their selfishness.
Jones is good on the causes of what appears to be a new sense of working-class powerlessness – the waning power of the unions, the destruction of traditional jobs and, with them, the communities they fostered, the reckless rush towards globalisation and the attendant deregulation of the markets, which has bred a kind of helplessness among those left behind. His final chapter offers some well-reasoned remedies, all of which, interestingly, call for a revitalisation of the traditional bodies that underpinned working-class struggles of old. Whether the new middle classes would countenance such a ground-up revolution remains to be seen, although a period of austerity could well be the motor for the kind of radical shift in consciousness that Marx once urged the proletariat to undertake. Now, that would be Thatcher – and Blair’s – worst nightmare.