|tags:||Politics & Economics|
CLASS HAS ALWAYS BEEN a defining feature in English society. Politicians rarely admit this, often out of fear of the political consequences. Margaret Thatcher struggled to make class obsolete, arguing that labor unions and class-based socialist policies were detrimental for a prosperous society. Others have tried to unite the entire country under a single class banner, thereby neutralizing the distinction. It was not a Thatcherite but John Prescott, a labor minister, who put it best when he said in 1997, “we are all middle class now.”
Some newspapers liked this idea of an all-encompassing middle class, although not without a certain sarcasm. The Daily Telegraph echoed Prescott (“We’re all middle class now, darling”), while the Daily Mail seemed less convinced: “There are now three main classes in Britain: a scarily alienated underclass; the new and confident middle class, set free by the Thatcher revolution […] and a tiny, and increasingly powerless, upper class.”
Fifteen years later, it is often those on the margins who don’t belong to Prescott’s neo-middle class that inflame England’s political culture. Many Tories who are members of the ruling political elite are ridiculed for being “posh boys” out of touch with the middle classes; the “scarily alienated underclass” at the other end of the class ladder is occasionally portrayed by the conservative press as a political threat that undermines the security and the stability of the country.
Meanwhile, working conditions for England’s low-earners, though more comfortable than the industrial workers of the Victorian age, continue to fall short. People work too long and are paid too little. According to a study by The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, "increasing numbers of call centre workers are being referred to speech therapists because they are losing their voices." The reason: long working hours with little opportunity to even have a drink of water.
As workers are losing their class identity and their voices, British writers are losing something equally precious: a thorough interest in the lives of the underprivileged. British novelists in recent decades have been less interested in the poor and working class than their Victorian ancestors: Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Hardy, and others. Many British journalists are not doing any better: they have nicknamed workers "chavs"; the widespread mistreatment of the poor in the press has become a crucial part of their overall subjectification.
When I visited London on a rainy day last summer, I took shelter in the world's largest Waterstone's, located on Piccadilly street. The long list of the Man Booker prize had just been announced and the entrance floor was decorated with piles of beautifully designed books. But it was Owen Jones’s first book, Chavs, with the rather unsophisticated image of a Burberry cap on its white cover, that won me over. Jones was giving a talk that week, and given the way people were discussing him, it seemed he was, at 27 years old, the new Dickens in town.
Chavs was the best-selling nonfiction book of the year, according to the Sunday Times. E...read more