The demonisation of the white working class

“Chav bashing” has become an acceptable replacement for overt racism and fuelled the rise of the EDL

This weekend has seen David Cameron play on racial tensions, declaring multiculturalism to be over. The latest EDL demonstration became a catalyst for discussion about how to prevent the far right from exploiting the upcoming economic instability. Those gearing up for the fight against spending cuts are agonising over how "their" movement can generate wider appeal, while the Labour Party continues to hand-wring about how to recapture support from "working-class" voters. In all these discussions, there is one word that is notable by its absence, a word that has permeated our culture and become the insult that no one wants applied to them.

Chav. A Hogarthian caricature with easily identifiable dress and language which epitomises everything that is wrong with "broken Britain".

It is the ultimate insult in a society where inequality can now only be articulated with language and values a university education produces. Both "left" and "right" quantify success in terms of how far you have moved away from the community into which you were born, and how effectively you have blended traces of "chav" into middle-class, understated blandness. "Chavviness" is clear evidence of a lack of aspiration.

If you come from a community that could be described as "working class", the behaviour you exhibit, your clothing and speech, or the name of your child, if at all "chavvy", can be used to marginalise you. Homophobia and overt racism no longer acceptable, "chav" bashing and fear of Islam and immigration are their acceptable replacements at the dinner table.

Northern towns, once at the heart of our economy, had the industry that sustained them ripped away under Thatcher. The credit-based economy that successive governments have favoured since did not really benefit them. We've had the same economic policies for 30 years, with Labour offering public-sector jobs, and state support to hide low wages and increasingly scarce, low-paid, flexible, insecure employment..

There are districts of Rochdale where 84 per cent of the people need benefits. Radcliffe, proud home of paper manufacturing till the early Eighties, now has a town centre that the Radcliffe Wikipedia page describes as barely viable. In Todmorden, the past 15 years have seen the remaining industrial employers disappear one by one. Local market traders, with the visible examples of Rochdale and Burnley nearby, fear their town is dying because the largest local employer is now the high school. The view of new businesses started in each wave of immigration, distorted by the wilful scaremongering about Islam and immigration by our politicians and media.

It is towns like these where groups like the EDL will capitalise on genuine feelings of alienation. It is in these towns that the fight against the cuts will be most important, and it is towns like these where Labour will hand-wring about how to recapture the "working-class vote". If any of these problems is to be addressed, we are going to have to discuss how our economic policies have done so much damage, and why we have allowed the white working class to be abandoned and demonised so effectively.

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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war