Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Polly Toynbee, the baroness and the chavs

According to Julian Fellowes, patrician Tory peer and creator of Downton Abbey, "‘poshism’ is the last acceptable form of discrimination". On a recent edition of Loose Women, he explained the other day, one of the panelists said "I hate posh blokes" and the audience cheered. His cause was taken up yesterday morning on the Today programme by James Delingpole, who cited David Cameron as an example of a "posh bloke" who instead of taking pride in his superior eduaction at Eton "has been compelled by our prevailing social mores to behave as if it’s a toxic liability".

Oh well. Cameron's political career hasn't suffered too much from anti-Etonian prejudice, all things considered; nor, ultimately, did background destroy Fellowes' prospect of winning an Oscar. Besides, if "poshism" is an acceptable prejudice, aren't there others even worse? "Chavism", for example. Polly Toynbee, writing in the Guardian this morning, certainly thinks so:


Wrapped inside this little word is the quintessence of Britain's great social fracture. Over the last 30 years the public monstering of a huge slice of the population by luckier, better-paid people has become commonplace. This is language from the Edwardian era of unbridled snobbery. ... The form and style may have changed – but the reality of extreme inequality and self-confident class contempt is back.


In linking "chav jokes" with ruling-class triumphalism and decreasing social mobility, Toynbee takes her cue from Owen Jones. Jones argues in his book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class that displaying open contempt for the tastes, aspirations and culture of what might be called the traditional working class has long since passed Sayeeda Warsi's dinner table test. Conditions that might be expected to evoke pity - poor housing, joblessness, hopelessness, educational failure - instead arouse among some liberal professionals emotions bordering on physical disgust.

Increasingly, he maintains, the phrase "white working class" has become shorthand for an interlinked set of unattractive and backward-looking characteristics: fecklessness, benefit-scrounging, racism, teenage pregnancy, casual violence, alcoholism, over-eating. While such people may exist, Jones's claim - which Toynbee picks up on - is that the caricature has real political bite. It impinges directly on those who, while not well-off, do not embody the Daily Mail stereotype but are nevertheless damaged by it.

Thus the belief that incapacity benefit claimants are cheating the system leads to crackdowns in which genuinely disabled people may lose money. For politicians, it's easier to blame the unemployed for their predicament than to fix a broken economy. They have become "unpeople".

Toynbee points to a recent DWP press release which played into Chav stereotyping with a list of "the 10 top worst excuses used by benefit cheats". In fact, there's twice as much fraud in the finance industry as in the benefits system:

But never mind, benefit stories are eye-catching and they do the job intended: they make us mean and ungenerous, stifling protest at Duncan Smith's monumental £18bn benefits cut. Such tales spread a wider loathing of a whole perceived class, of anyone on benefits. With most of the poor in work, that includes battalions of the low paid whose miserable pay is topped up by tax credits to stop them starving. But a few choice anecdotes are worth a ton of statistics.

So who does Polly single out as the latest egregious manifestation of this ugly prejudice, this "class abuse by people asserting superiority over those they despise"? Some swaggering Tory toff, his boots still muddy from the grouse-moor? A braying banker, perhaps, smug in his sense of entitlement to a vast taxpayer-funded bonus? Mr Justice Cocklecarrot? Prince Harry?

None of the above. In fact, "this time it was a Lib Dem peer on the Equality and Human Rights Commission": Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece, whose offensive Tweet was as follows:

Help. Trapped in a queue in chav land. Woman behind me explaining latest EastEnders plot to mate while eating largest bun I've ever seen.

She maintained that she was just being humorous. But this is no laughing matter.

Lady H-E, as we shall call her, sounds at first sight not entirely unlike Polly herself. Her CV records a smooth ascent through the ranks of Britain's quangocratic elite, a succession of increasingly powerful publicly-funded non-jobs - from a stint working for the borough Race Equality Unit in her native Islington, health service management (as chief officer for Haringey Community Health Council and latterly Chair of the Islington Health Partnership Board) - to become at length a Commissioner at the Equality and Human Rights Commission. In the meantime she served several terms as a local councillor in both Islington and Hackney. She joined the Lords in 2010.

Not, then, the sort of person one would expect to be party to a Right-wing conspiracy to grind down the poor. But then Lady H-E's professional biography is only half the story. She and Polly T may be fellow members of the Liberal Left elite, but while Toynbee's background is impeccably grand (she could give Lord Fellowes a run for his money) Meral H-E is the daughter of impoverished Turkish Cypriot immigrants. One of her great-grandfathers was a Sudanese slave, seized by Ottoman traders at the age of 13. She could undoubtedly teach Polly Toynbee a thing or two about social mobility.

About chavs too, perhaps. Did you know - did Polly - that Lady H-E's second cousin is Tracey Emin? That's Tracey Emin from Margate, who once famously photographed herself stuffing money into her vagina. Tracey Emin, the woman who turned chavdom literally into an artform. Indeed, Emin once appeared on a celebratory documentary by Julie Burchill, entitled Chavs, in which she advanced an early version of the Toynbee-Jones thesis, blaming the poor self-image (and public image) of the white working class on Thatcherism and industrial decline.

Did Toynbee bother to learn anything about her victim before villifying her? Possibly not. "She would presumably never say nigger or Paki," she proclaims. I wonder if she realises that, shortly after her Tweet got picked up and criticised (by Owen Jones, then by the left-wing blog Political Scrapbook, finally as a piece of filler in the Sunday Times) Lady H-E began receiving "anonymous racist hate mail". "Labour whipped it all up," she Tweeted. "My family and I get fallout."

I don't want to second-guess Lady H-E's motivations, but I doubt that partaking in a grand Tory conspiracy to scapegoat the poor and take away their benefits is high on her list of priorities. But that is, of course, the point. "Chavism", that superior shudder at the perceived uncouthness of a section of the population - of a type of person, of a real or imagined lifestyle - is not necessarily, or even mainly, about money. It is about taste and behaviour. It is not the rich laughing at the plight of the poor. Chavs are not essentially poor; indeed, it takes a certain amount of money to maintain a proper chav lifestyle. Stereotypically, chavs wear designer labels and spend large sums of money on alcohol, holidays, oversized jewellery and boob jobs. Not to mention cigarettes, junk food and other "inappropriate" things. Some of them - fooballers, mainly - can even afford their own superinjunctions.

Like middle-class English snobs down the ages, "chavists" are asserting a cultural rather than a financial superiority. A high proportion of them probably read the Guardian.