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After a century of advancing from class bigotry, it looks as if Britons are in perhaps one final round of the battle for social equality. Despite great gains to grant equal rights under law for aristocracy and commoners, beginning with popular reform of the Church of England in the 19th century, class warfare has gained new ground in the cultural life of Great Britain. The recent riots and looting are evidence that class unrest is still pervasive. the Church of England and all Christian churches are losing ground, not because of the influx of immigrants of other faiths, but because so many British find the Church to be irrelevant, more concerned with preservation than with growth. Whether the perception is deserved or not, the great stone churches, solemn liturgies and vested processions seem beyond incomprehensible to many modern people, not just in Britain, but throughout the world.
Owen Jones, a young British journalist, addresses the topic of haves and a growing class of have-nots in Britain in his 2011 book Chavs (Verso Press). For those who don’t have any contact with the British popular press, a “chav” is a person, male or female, who lives in government-provided housing, doesn’t work, engages in petty crime and assault, drinks, smokes, uses drugs, is sexually promiscuous, and lacks any useful education. The popular image of a “chav” is someone between the ages of 14 and 50 in fake Burberry tartan clothing or other designer brand rip-offs, tattooed, causing ordinary middle-class people grief by harassment and theft. In dress, “chavs” prefer the sort of pseudo-athletic attire and ornate gold jewelry of American hiphop musicians, with the social attitudes and behaviour of the young people of New York and New Jersey who are lately known as “guidos” following the popular success of the television series “Jersey Shore.” But the horrified disdain that the middle class of England has for “chavs” goes far beyond the fascinated contempt that Americans express for the Jersey beach culture of Snooki and her companions. The respectable working class of England seems to be disappearing because of the promotion of “chav” culture, with those who traditionally classified themselves as urban working class identifying more with the middle class.
My husband, Nicholas, has dual citizenship in Canada and the United Kingdom. His parents came to Canada in 1957, looking for work opportunities. They both grew up in the East End of London, in Dagenham, home to a large Ford plant and a refinery. They lived in row housing where back gardens were devoted to vegetable growing and poultry husbandry. The men in the family worked at the car factory, on the police force, and on the docks. The women kept a spotless house, minded children, and kept up a united front of pinnies.
Bill Perks Sr. was a skilled labourer, though a slag accident in a foundry had badly scarred one foot. Hilda was happy to be close to her family in London; the Baileys and Perks had been in that area for centuries. But Britain did not offer much advancement for young people who came up through the charity schools. They had two children already, and were still living, post-war, with family. There was a major housing shortage in the East End, as the docks and rail yards were bombed extensively, and the collateral damage was in the antique row housing. Bill had served in the war, with an infantry unit sent into Germany. He was underage when he enlisted, just seventeen, but he looked older and by then no one asked too many questions if a lad looked fit for service. Hilda, a couple of years younger, was too old to be sent away to the country, and she had a wartime job in a local boot factory. One day, a bomb exploded in the street outside her home. She had thrown her hands in front of her face when she heard the impact; the windows of the house were blown in. She found grains of glass working through the skin of her hands for weeks afterward. Hilda’s brother Dennis Bailey flew in Lancaster bombers through the war, and one of the squad’s assignments was to blow up the dams that were instrumental to the Nazis’ heavy water scheme.
East Enders – Cockneys – had a reputation for earthiness and humour. They were the working class of the greater city area. The East End had been a haven for disease and crime in the late 19th century, but back then there were plenty of responsible people who were descended from the original riverside dwellers. They had plied small craft in trade up and down the river, or had been employed as stonemasons and carpenters in the building of London, living north of the Thames and east of the City wall. They kept up a tradition of manual and skilled labour.
Class distinction and class struggle have been part of British culture since the Romans. The Second World War went a long way to changing that, although Great Britain has retained an aristocracy, although since the late 18th century, commoners who were financially successful or otherwise contributed to the strength of the nation were elevated to the peerage. (And even in Jane Austen’s day, those recently knighted or ennobled were considered as less important than those who inherited titles; the inheritors rarely had to work for a living, while the new peers always had.) An immigrant population changed the linguistic and cultural landscape, as well. Britain had to change, or be left behind as the European Union, the United States, and what was formerly known as the Third World forged new links of trade.
In Britain, as in the other developed countries, there soon rose a new underclass whose traditional sources of employment were gone, as manufacturing and unskilled labour jobs went offshore to less expensive production markets. (It is a strange, convoluted concept, that the means of production are marketed like commodities. Labour has become a commodity.) There was a cultural backlash; the disenfranchised working class clashed with immigrants who would work under worse conditions for less money. As the unemployed evolved into another subculture, the employed and educated classes became alarmed. It used to be that being working class was no shame in Britain. One endeavoured to get and keep employment, and avoid the “dole” or social assistance benefits. There had always been both upward and downward mobility, as the sons and daughters of bakers and butchers chose higher education in the new universities, and the children of teachers, bankers and government employees took up skilled trade because that was what interested them, or that was where the good money was. There was class discrimination and stereotyping, but the national effort of Hitler’s war had pulled Britons together as never before. Class distinction became less important; class mobility became more common. The recent royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton demonstrates this. Her parents were British Airways employees who opened what became a very successful mail order business. William and Kate do not share common ancestors closer than the 15th century. William’s parents, Charles, Prince of Wales, and Lady Diana Spencer, had a common 18th century ancestor, and Diana’s family was old and titled. Charles’s parents, Philip and Elizabeth, were as close as second cousins in one line, third cousins in another, with Queen Victoria as a common ancestor. Kate’s genealogy, although documented, was of little importance in the decision to marry.
Part of the backlash of achieving commonality in culture is that those who have always assumed on privilege do not easily give it up. Thus those who threaten privilege are demonized and are further marginalized. In looking for images of “chav” culture, I suspected that almost all the illustrations were staged, photographs of university students at “chav” parties or deliberate stereotyping for the photo shoot. Young men in tracksuits with Burberry plaid baseball caps, outrageously sized gold chains, pendants and rings, young women with huge hoop earrings in skimpy tank tops and shorts, with pillows underneath to make them look pregnant; all the models clutching beer cans and cigarettes. They photos remind me of the “redneck” parties of my generation, when female friends would go to a party at someone’s cottage in Daisy Mae cutoffs, with their hair in pigtails, the young men in sleeveless black t-shirts and torn jeans. The refreshment of choice was Southern Comfort or Jim Beam or Lone Star beer, and the music reverberating from the boombox was Lynyrd Skynyrd and Tom Petty. For some it was just affecting a silly costume, but for others I think there was a genuine dislike for the stereotype of the poor American rural Southerner. It was “okay” to call them white trash because we were white, too.
Owen Jones wrote this in Chavs: “To admit that some people are poorer than others because of the social injustice inherent in our society would require government action. Claiming that people are largely responsible for their circumstances facilitates the opposite conclusion.”
Equality for American blacks took government action. We are still fighting the stereotype that claims that blacks and other non-European descended people are inferior in intelligence and ability. We are still fighting a stereotype that characterizes black culture as demeaning and immoral. Here in Canada, the first nations fight the same battle. Their language and culture was taken away by brutally separating children from family so that they would become “white” in speech and behaviour. Their own cultural history was handed back to them and marked as a failure, although it had supported them and their ancestors for generations.
Once a group of people are marked out as inferior, it makes it easier for the dominant culture to exploit them and deny them human rights. It is disheartening to see the trend continue and in fact take on new aspects, especially in the repeated marginalization and stereotyping of the most vulnerable people.
Unemployment in the UK is just under 8%, a bit of a climb over the past five years. Unemployment in the USA is over 9%, and may be even higher because of the way the unemployed are tallied in the US. Canada seems to be holding at about 7.5%. I acknowledge that middle-class workers can feel threatened when they are in an uncertain job market, and both Europe and North America stand cautiously on the brink of economic hardship. Those who are frightened always look for a source of trouble to blame, and the exaggerated response to what seems to be a manufactured “underclass” may be part of it. American conservatives often blame the “welfare” poor for high taxes, although social services is a small part of the American government’s budget.
But maybe we are all falling into unconscious elitism. My husband and I, both with master’s degrees, live in the bottom 10% of household income in Canada. We receive no benefits beyond his Canadian Medicare and his disability pension (a government insurance payout after he had worked for wages and paid taxes for 35 years.) I do not qualify for Medicare, and we pay for my medical care out-of-pocket. We do not receive housing subsidies, aid with prescriptions and other medical needs, nor any supplement to cover our increasing household energy costs. We get by because we deliberately budgeted what we could afford. Even then, we have needed small amounts of financial aid from the church to cover expenses when we had to pay for something beyond our usual budget.
Will we be demonized in the same way that working class Britons have been? If we can’t afford a house with a two-car garage, vacations in the Caribbean, expensive clothes, or new cars, will we be suspected of trying to cheat the taxpayers if we qualify for “benefits”? Will scurrilous rumours circulate about how we don’t pay taxes,how we apply for benefits we don’t deserve, or have strange and secret orgies of drinking and promiscuity? Possibly; those who have lived near large Old Order Amish or Mennonite communities, or any homogeneous Christian group, have heard such stories about the strangers in their midst. And just as most working class residents of the UK pay their taxes, don’t apply for unneeded benefits, and live fairly quiet, normal, even spiritual lives, so do various “outsider” groups in North America, from native Americans to Mormons.
I’m hoping that the “chav” hysteria will die out soon, as a precursor of greater tolerance in the world. It doesn’t look like it, though, with the conservative politicians in the United States continuing to incite disdain and fear of immigrant and underclass groups.