In his novels of the 1840s and ‘50s Charles Dickens expressed the widely held fears of the middle classes regarding the city ‘mob’ and the urban poor. In Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities, he articulated the anxiety the gentrified class possessed about the working classes and the destitute of the newly industrialised cities of the time. Increasing populations, a wider gulf between rich and poor as well as social mobility, entrepreneurship, better living standards and education for some, and the newly created aspirations for material goods and commodities developed into class polarisation: the birth of the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.
In Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Classes Own Jones emphasises that this situation is now exacerbated even further in the early 21st century. He claims in the strongest possible terms that there is still a class war going on, being consciously if not conspicuously fought by the middle and upper-middle political and media class. On the losing side are those termed ‘Chavs’. This, he insists, is not a real term for people of the working classes or those dependent upon welfare support and social housing. Rather, he says, it’s a lazy and short-hand term invented and perpetuated by the right-wing media to deliberately prejudice others against the working classes and instil the same sort of fear felt by the newly suburbanised middle-classes in the 19th century of those ‘others’ outside of their sphere.
‘Chav’ (possibly derived from the Romany: ‘chavi’ meaning ‘little one’) is now so widespread as a derogatory class based insult in British society that the meaning, if there ever was one and any stable definition, no longer really matters. It’s a symptom, says Jones, of the ingrained and casual snobbery that he has heard reiterated across the country. This book was completed before the recent riots and social unrest in the UK over the summer of 2011. There will no doubt be a second edition forthcoming that will take these events into account. As it is, it performs as a prophetic text for exactly that sort of disturbance and criminal unrest. He saw this coming as a result of, according to his analysis, rampant Toryism (dating from the time of Thatcher) as well as actual and perceived economic unfairness.
That’s the crux of this polemical text, that has been short-listed for the Guardian newspaper’s ‘First Book’ awards. Perceptions are as damaging and potent as actual situations and conditions. He cites the case of Shannon Matthews, a girl from a deprived estate in the north of England who, in 2008, was ‘abducted’ it turns out, by her own family in order to benefit from reward money put up by newspapers and sympathy donations from the public. Her mother, Karen, was exposed in the press as a liar and manipulator of her own child and other relatives in order to make the scheme happen.
No doubt, she was a deceitful criminal. However, Jones shows how her class status was used against her and a whole swathe of people from her neighbourhood by the right-wing press. They accused her of ‘chav’ mentality that had led to such actions. Putting it down to her background and upbringing, some journalists labelled her ‘sub-human’. This has recently been echoed by Justice Minister Kenneth Clarke, who described some of those engaging in the riots as belonging to a ‘feral underclass’.
Jones’s book reminds us that the power of language and the branding of certain groups and sections of society as ‘sub-human’ and gone wild can only lead to wider and more damaging divisions. This is a timely and quite depressing read – but a necessary one, I would emphasise. Those of us who have benefited from social mobility and wider more available education over the past decades need to up our game and challenge the prejudices and lazy language of those who are waging an actual class war. It’s time that political correctness and social consciousness came back into fashion. That would be a start.