It is astonishing how a term for the white working class has been seized upon as a gleeful and permitted version of the racial insult "white trash". I went recently to the South Bank Centre to hear Owen Jones present his arrestingly and aptly titled book, "Chavs - The Demonisation of the Working Class".
Jones' made the opening point that nobody talks about class any more. It's true. "We're all middle-class now, after all" - duped still by Tony Blair's fantasy of a "classless society". And if we're classless, to be poor and white (i.e. having the "advantage" of being white) means you've merely made a lifestyle choice - one that can be mocked openly for it's vulgarity.
But Jones' analysis of the story behind the creation the stereotype was sadly partisan and incomplete. As a history student and a trade union researcher from Stockport, it's no surprise that his thesis relied entirely blaming the Tories, and for the "misrepresentation" of his class by the Tory press.
There's something in that, of course. Thatcherism certainly plays a big part in the story, as does the media. But it is blind of Jones to think that the causes originates purely from the Right. Superficially, from my own reading the Guardian uses the term no less eagerly than does the Telegraph, and my Left-leaning friends employ it as often as my Right-leaning ones. More importantly, some of the fundamental causes of the Chav story are themselves Left or Liberal-Left tenets, notably the welfare state, anti-authoritarian education, and universalist ideas of borderless nations.
Thatcher destroyed the Unions and removed the protectionist buffers to open competition with the rest of the world. It was open season. To put it crudely, the British worker suddenly had to compete with slaves, for compared to the powers that the British worker had acquired through the Trade Union movement and the rights that (Old) Labour had fought for on his behalf, much of the worlds' other workers were effectively in enslaved conditions - chains apart. The assailed British worked failed to defend himself against these reforms, and failed to adjust fast enough to the cruel new reality.
Then Labour - instead of rising to the challenge as the working class bulwark it's name and its history suggests - promptly became "New" Labour and told the working class that they didn't really exist any more. Or if they did exist it was only as one culture amongst a multitude, and not one that had any particular legitimacy or claim to precedence. Problem solved!
Meanwhile the large employers rubbed their hands. With Thatcher's reforms under their belt, they now looked with wealth-maximising glee at - and indeed lobbied actively for - New Labour's avowed push for mass immigration. Here is a paradox of the new Left: it cannot admit whose hands it has played into with it's instinctive prohibition of any talk about class and/or doubts about the merits of mass immigration. For it has handed to Tesco-style capitalism precisely that which it desires most: cheap labour. Indeed, labour whose cheapness is unprecedented in the modern age.
At the same time, state welfarism dealt conveniently with any vestigial social guilt that these companies might have had, and that might have motivated any duty of care towards the working communities they were abandoning. They could simply point at the hopelessly "work-shy" British. And they were right - except it was a disingenuous claim. The British did want to work, but they didn't work because (a) they were being paid by the State for not working, and (b) the wages on offer could only appeal to someone from a country where wages were effectively non-existent.
So the Working Class, through rational choice, became the Workless Class. To further hinder them, educational reforms progressively devalued and abolished vocational education, replacing it with "everyone's a winner" qualifications that nobody can fail to pass and nobody can succeed in using. Everyone became educated... but to what end?
Labour MP Frank Field summarises the whole cocktail:
"...what of those lads, barely able to read or write, who tell me they wouldn't dream of taking a job that doesn't pay three times the rate they gain on benefits, and who refuse those jobs available on the grounds that such work is fit only for immigrants?"
Thus the fully formed "Chav" was created.
Conveniently for the satirists, the Chav can easily be demonised as a racist - although he is in truth only being candid. For the job he might now take in a supermarket will go to someone who is so impoverished that they will happily take its undignified wage, while the "Chav" himself will take the marginally-less undignified payoff of the State. He is not - as his stereotype wants to imply - being purely xenophobic: he's also being statistically accurate, for the Office for National Statistics tells us that in the year to March 2011 the rise in employment levels of 416,000 comprised of 334,000 foreign-born workers. That is over 80 per cent of the total. If the "Chav" is inarticulate, he's certainly not irrational.
In the end, the Right is predictably the Right - whereas the Left was - but is no longer - the voice of the working class. Jones' admits this, but a question for his Old Labour trade unionism was this week raised by Ian Duncan Smith, in a proposal to encourage companies to employ British workers. Why is it that protectionism is good when via trade union membership - but bad when via national membership? I can't answer for him, but it seems to be partially because protectionism itself has become another term of debate prohibited by the Left - even though Thatcherism was all about destroying protectionism. Whereas we are protectionist by nature, as humans, and it is something we should be able to discuss openly.
So the "Chav" is the sacrificial victim of both Left and Right. Thatcher demolished the unions, but in the end it was big business that won, not Thatcherism. Her vision of the benign social outcomes of individual responsibility had no chance against the overwhelming effects of corporate profit maximisation. Welfarism dulled individual will and motivation, and the radically-free flow of international labour made labour-market competition finally impossible for the British worker. The "Chav" is not just the product of Jones' claimed demonisation of the working class; he represents - long before the effects of media misrepresentation - the demolition and the abandonment of the working class. That's not something to mock, it's something to lament.
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