I’ve been writing too much about economics, politics and the class system recently, so I’ll keep this brief to avoid repeating myself. Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, by the rising author, columnist and commentator Owen Jones, takes a unique look at the British class system. He presents his theory that class is not a redundant issue in modern society, particularly as we enter this ‘Age of Austerity’. His main focus is to condemn the demonization working class people face by the media and politicians, of ‘benefit scroungers’ living on council estates – all of whom can supposedly be described as ‘chavs’. He also goes into the reasons for a political shift from working to improve working class conditions to helping people escape working class conditions.
The book is a very thorough examination of the issues. It is extraordinarily well researched – on every page you can expect a a newspaper, politician or campaigner to be quoted, alongside several statistics. I can’t imagine how much effort it must have taken to compile the evidence. This accumulates to build an worthy case for Jones’ beliefs, which I was mostly convinced by at the book’s end. What makes the book truly admirable is that it attempts to understand the reasons behind poverty and antisocial behaviour. In the updated preface, Jones mentions differing reactions to the 2011 England Riots, from “lock up the mindless criminals!” to “maybe we should look at why this happened.” Jones opts for the second, and rightly so; unfortunately there does not appear to be a consensus among politicians over the riots – our leadership seems to be pretending they didn’t happen and, likewise, pretending they won’t happen again.
Despite my deep praise for the book, there are a few points I wasn’t entirely convinced by. Jones argues that Margaret Thatcher’s policies as Prime Minister (1979 – 1992) were terrible for the UK, through her victories against the unions, thus limiting the power of workers to contest their working conditions, the destruction of traditional industries like mining – which have left countless communities shattered, broken and lost – and depleting the council housing stock through the “right to buy” scheme whilst not building any more. On each of these points I mostly agree, but I would question his narrow approach to Thatcher’s policies. Far as I am from a supporter of Conservative policies, I don’t think it’s fair to put the blame for the decline of traditional industries solely on Thatcher. Depletion of core resources, international competition and the loss of a ready-made market through the British Empires had also been causing a decline for many decades; between 1913 and 1970, for instance, the number of coal mines in South Wales had already dropped from 630 to 54. Thatcher’s policies may have finished these industries off, but they by no means caused the decline.
He also seems to glorify the traditional industries. I can accept that industries like mining and manufacturing did form the heart of communities, and that their destruction has helped to cause the social problems of unemployment, drug use, depression etc. that we see today; that holes exist in communities which service-based jobs such as supermarkets have failed to adequately fill. Yet, perhaps this was not his intention, but the book seems to lament the loss of a time when there were pre-made jobs for men to go into, jobs which were passed down from father to son, jobs which generally were not seen as jobs for women. That, to me, seems no better than the state the country is in today.
I am glad, however, that Jones takes a balanced view towards the political parties. Despite being a member of the Labour Party, he is perfectly willing to condemn its policies during its time in power (1997 – 2010). Not as devastating as the Conservative rule, but certainly made no real effort to reverse the changes.
Overall, Chavs is a highly successful book at making you think, and consider things you may have previously thought nothing of. It paints a terrifying view of Britain, a view which is actually quite foreign from my own experiences. Living in Shetland, where we’re sustained by the generally unchanging (for now) oil and fishing industries, I really haven’t witnesses the social deprivation seen in other parts of the UK. I hope the book is at least slightly an exaggeration