Why did the chav cross the road?
To start on the chicken for no apparent reason
What does a chav get for Christmas?
What day of the year does a chav find most confusing?
Admit it, did you smile?
After reading Owen Jones’s book, Chavs: the demonization of the working class, I think I might be a Chav. Chav – a word that can be used as an acronym for “Council Housed and Violent”. Well, I was raised on a council estate and for most of my life raised by a single parent mother who worked as a domestic cleaner. I went to a comprehensive school. I presently earn less than the national median wage of £21,000. By all accounts, I’m ticking a good number of those chav, underclass boxes. Yet, I’ve never been tempted to wear a baseball cap (and certainly not one with Burberry tartan) or a hoodie. I’m not violent. I have no police record. I went to university and, even got a degree. I’m more likely to be watching some arty-farty stuff on BBC 4, than Jeremy Kyle and his baiting of dysfunctional families. I’m a Catholic priest and, therefore, might be described as part of “the establishment”. Confusing. Maybe, I’m not a chav after all.
Whether I am a chav or not, we all know they are out there – that “feral underclass” of people who are portrayed as “Thick. Violent. Criminal.” There are websites such as “ChavScum” which show these people to be feckless, sponging and immoral proles with no aspirations to better themselves and become middle class. But you don’t need to go on the internet to find them, we can laugh at them from our sofas as we watch Little Britain, Wife Swap, Shameless or slip in the DVD of the horror film Eden Lake, where an affluent couple are tortured to death by some local, dog-owning teenagers. Richard Hilton, the chief executive of Gym Box, provides an articulate, contemptuous description of the chav:
They tend to live in England but would probably pronounce it “Engerland”. They have trouble articulating themselves and have little ability to spell or write. They love their pit bull dogs as well as their blades. And would happily “shank” you if you accidently brush past them or look at them in the wrong way. They tend to breed by the age of fifteen and spend most of their days trying to score “super-skunk” or whatever “gear” they can get their sweaty teenage hands on. If they are not institutionalized by twenty-one they are considered pillars of strength in the community or get “much respect” for being lucky.
Owen Jones’s indignant and persuasively argued book, Chavs, challenges these caricatures of the working class and exposes them as barely disguised forms of class prejudice. He believes the historic roots of this are found in the Thatcherism of the 1980’s:
In only a decade or so, Thatcherism had completely changed how class was seen. The wealthy were adulated. All were now encouraged to scramble up the social ladder, and be defined by how much they owned. Those who were poor or unemployed had no one to blame but themselves. The traditional pillars of working-class Britain had been smashed to the ground. To be working class was no longer something to be proud of , never mind celebrate. Old working-class values, like solidarity, were replaced with dog-eat-dog individualism.
The role of the Labour Party under the leadership of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown also comes under scrutiny and criticism:
In New Labour’s eyes, being aspirational working class meant embracing individualism and selfishness. It meant fighting to be part of Brown’s “bigger middle class than ever.”...New Labour politicians frequently diagnose a “poverty of aspiration” in working-class kids to explain things like poor school results or why poverty is transmitted from generation to generation. For example, former New Labour education secretary Alan Johnson once railed against a “corrosive poverty of aspiration which is becoming particularly prevalent amongst today’s generation of working-class boys.” It is not the lack of jobs and apprenticeships following the collapse of industry that is to blame, but rather the attitudes of working-class children.
Chav-hate, he believes, distracts us from the real issues of widespread inequality within society. Focusing on the “moral attitude” of the working class distorts the debate and diverts attention away from structural issues, such as, employment, housing and just wages. Considering the town of Ashington, seventeen miles north of Newcastle, Jones interviews the local Catholic Parish priest, Fr Ian Jackson, who observes:
For a lot of the younger people, you feel that most of them want to move on and move out, to get out of town really, because there’s nothing for them here! The main industry, I would probably say – you’re looking at the big Asda that’s just been built, and the hospital...I think the young people would say: “What is there for me apart from working in a shop?”
Chavs is a thought-provoking, challenging read. Jones cogently argues that there has been a tendency to view social issues through the prisms of race, gender and human rights. But this ignores the question of class. It is this issue that Owen Jones wants to put back into the heart of the political and cultural debate. Chavs is his provocative attempt to do so.
Chavs: the demonization of the working class, Owen Jones, Verso, 2011