Thoughts on Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class

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

Welfare ‘Reforms’

Having been brought up hearing horror stories about the 1979-1992 Thatcher governments (I live in Scotland), I’ve often vaguely wondered what it would be like to have lived during those tumultuous times, where privatisations skyrocketed and the trade union movement brought to its knees, where traditional industries declined and we became a service-based economy.  Increasingly, I no longer need to wonder.

Almost every piece of news emanating from our current Conservative-Liberal Democrat government makes their policies appear more hateful to those of us who don’t accept allowing market forces to continue concentrating wealth and forcing the less well-off sections of our society into worse and worse living or working conditions.  Just today, new pieces of legislation have come into effect – most controversially the ‘Bedroom Tax’, which reduced the benefits people in council housing receive for having a spare room.  The government fancy themselves as social engineers, I suppose.  I understand the principle of making a more efficient use of housing – even though encouraging the construction of increased council houses would be more effective as well as help limit a growing homelessness problem (blog post on that coming soon) – but this method is not, as Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, maintains, fair, particularly where 2/3 of affected houses include a disabled person (4/5 in Scotland).

Other changes have been introduced today.  Working age benefits will increase by 1%, which is a lower rise than living costs.  Changes have been made to the management of the NHS, which some critics have gone as far as to call it’s ‘death’.  If some genuine attempts were made to stop the wealth gap growing, to clamp down on tax avoidance, to increase taxes on the wealthy – perhaps also introducing some form of a ‘Robin Hood Tax’ on large businesses – then there’d be some credence to the claim that “we’re all in this together.”  As it is, again and again the government appears to only care about their own wealthy elite.  They either really are as heartless as they seem, or have really terrible PR.

I can’t wait until we have the opportunity to boot this government out in 2015.  Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that any future government would be much of an improvement.  Oh, the joys of living in a ‘liberal democracy’.

(Oh, and please take a moment to sign this petition.  It’s rather amusing).