I wish I could say that some of my best friends are working-class, but it’s not true. I do have Dave — my plumber and political sparring partner. Bright and well informed about politics, Dave loves to tease me because I live in Islington, I read the Guardian, I eat organic food and I was against Brexit. In the Dave scheme of things I represent Islington Man — one of those snooty, sneery liberal elitists who looks down on people like Dave.
Actually, Dave looks down on people like me. He’s a plumber who earns far more money than I do. Dave does not have a white van; he has a new BMW. (I have only a bus pass.) What’s more, Dave thinks I’m ‘well gay’ after he saw the vast collection of fragrant scrubs and skin gels in my bathroom. ‘Shave your bollocks as well, do you?’ he asked with a grin. ‘Oh, I forgot — men in Islington don’t have any.’
Dave loves to bang on about snobbish and arrogant liberals looking down on people like him and how ‘your lot’ got a good kicking over Brexit. And now, post-Trump, Dave is back on his soapbox and putting the boot in.
Usually I just take it like a man — Islington Man, that is. I’m overly apologetic and anxious to please because I don’t want to lose a great plumber. But the last time he did the old you-sneering-liberals routine I said: ‘Dave, why would you possibly care about what a bunch of middle-class tossers in Islington think about you — or anything else for that matter?’
Dave looked mystified by my comment. ‘But I don’t care what those wankers think!’ he said. Which reveals an interesting contradiction that goes to the heart of our Brexit/Trump conversation. On the one hand, as a member of the working class, Dave feels aggrieved by the snobbery of lefty--liberals in Islington. But as a proud, successful and affluent working-class man, he finds the suggestion that he does care what those ‘wankers’ think insulting. So what’s going on?
Could it be that the working classes are learning the art of identity politics — especially the language of victimhood — from other marginalised and angry minorities like blacks, gays, radical feminists and the transgendered? You could argue that they’ve been treated like a despised minority for so long, we shouldn’t be surprised if they do think this way. But do they?
Yes, sometimes. On radio phone-ins and from members of the BBC Question Time audience, you hear a self-proclaimed working-class person mount an angry attack on ‘those snobs who look down on ordinary people like me!’ And it always gets a big round of applause.
But I wonder how widespread and deep this feeling really is? I’ve talked to working-class people in London and in Lincolnshire and I can assure you that yes, they talk about immigration and jobs and how politicians have ignored them with real anger and passion. Yet for some reason they never talk about the sneery, snooty metropolitan liberal elite.
Their self-appointed defenders and champions — mostly middle-class media pundits from the right and the left — do. And they do it all the time with such anger and outrage that you would think that liberal snobbery — which does exist — has become the number one social evil of our time. But I wonder if the people they’re defending share their outrage and anger? If not, why not? Because maybe, like Dave, they don’t really give a damn what these people think?
Let’s be clear: anger about issues like immigration is one thing — anger about what people say at dinner parties in Islington is another. I have lived in Islington, the supposed Mecca of metropolitan snobbery, most of my life and I have never heard anyone express a sneery view of the working class.
So let’s clear up something right now. We middle-class liberals in Islington don’t look down on the working class — we look down on middle-class people who live in the suburbs of south London. We look down on the very rich because they are vulgar — by which we mean they have bigger and better houses than we do. We also sneer at posh people because we wish we were posh. But we don’t diss the working class. That’s taboo.
The idea that the working class are a poor and picked-on minority became popular again with the publication in 2011 of Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class by Owen Jones. Since then a growing band of pundits and politicians have rushed to their defence. And just as multiculturalists changed the way we talk about race, these commentators have changed how we talk about the working class, and mostly for the good. Nobody uses the word ‘chavs’ any more. But our former insensitivity is giving way to a new form of political correctness about the working class. You have to be very careful about what you say — or in the case of Emily Thornberry, sacked in 2014 from the shadow cabinet for her infamous tweet, what you didn’t say.
Poking fun at working-class children’s names like Chardonnay or Crystal can get you denounced as a snob. Essex Man and Essex Woman jokes are frowned upon by their middle-class protectors — but the people from Essex that I’ve met love them.
Working-class people are not poor dears whose feelings must always be defended; they can take a joke — and they often make them about other working-class people. We tell Muslims that they have to accept our satirical humour — but middle-class jokes about the working class are forbidden. The self-appointed defenders of the working class find all sorts of ‘coded buzzwords’ that supposedly conceal elite snobbery.
This snobbery hidden, it’s said, in terms like ‘post-truth’, in the fake grief of Hillary supporters and even in government health warnings about obesity or smoking in front of your children.
We’re trying to turn the working class into this passive, powerless and vulnerable group that needs our pity and protection from people in Islington. Isn’t that the same victim-based identity politics that pushed the chavs into the margins in the first place?