Owen Jones: Why ‘chavs’ were the riots’ scapegoats

Owen Jones's acclaimed first book was a definitive account of the demonisation of the working class. In this exclusive extract from a new edition, he explains how the violence that swept Britain last August brought the subject back to the top of the agenda

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I wrote Chavs hoping to contribute to the ongoing controversy over class, but the debate took an unexpected turn a couple of months after the book was published. For a few days in August 2011, it looked as though England was staring into an abyss of social chaos – and the demonization I had written about flourished like never before.

It was my birthday and, with celebratory drinks cut short as nervous friends fled home, I cycled past boarded-up shops on Kingsland Road that were being defended by groups of Turkish men. From Barnet in the north to Croydon in the south, London's shops were looted and burned; crowds of rioters rampaged through the streets. On Monday and Tuesday, unrest spread to other English cities: Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Nottingham. There was a sense, even among more rational observers, that the country was descending into chaos. "Not since the Blitz during World War II have so many fires raged in London so intensely at one time," claimed Time magazine.

Amid the chaos, commentators looked at Chavs in a new light. Partly, I suppose, because the word "chav" was being bandied around to describe the rioters, particularly on Twitter and Facebook. Fran Healey, lead singer of the band Travis, described the unrest as the "Chav Spring" in a tweet, referencing the Arab Spring. Fitness chain GymBox – which appears in Chavs as the promoter of a "Chav Fighting" class – announced that it would be shutting early due to the "chav infestation". I was one of the few commentators during that turbulent week asked to challenge the dominant narrative that this was mindless criminality, end of story.

"Children without fathers" was one of the factors identified by David Cameron; it was a point echoed by right-wing commentators. It smacked of the arguments of US right-wing pseudo-sociologist Charles Murray, who claimed that rising illegitimacy among the "lower classes" had produced a "New Rabble". This was classic demonization, reducing complex social problems to supposed individual failings and behavioural faults.

Pervading the backlash was the talk of a "feral underclass". This was the idea of the Victorian "undeserving poor" taken to a new level: the rioters and their families weren't just undeserving, they were barely human. Some commentators took this rhetoric to its logical extreme: right-wing journalist Richard Littlejohn used his Daily Mail column to describe rioters as a "wolfpack of feral inner-city waifs and strays", calling for them to be clubbed "like baby seals". The idea of a "normal" middle-class majority versus a problematic underclass was ubiquitous in post-riot commentary.

Cases were rushed through the courts, but the sentences handed down were, it seems, as much about retribution as justice. Steal bottled water and end up in prison for six months. But not a single banker has ended up in the dock.

What is more, many of the British politicians baying for justice post-riots had, in the very recent past, helped themselves to millions of pounds of taxpayers' money. Two years before, MPs had been found systematically milking the expenses system. Only three ended up behind bars. Some had embezzled funds to pay for the same sorts of widescreen televisions later carted out of shops by rioters, admittedly in a more disorderly fashion. When Labour MP Gerald Kaufman was found to have claimed £8,750 of public money for a Bang & Olufsen television set, he was simply asked to pay it back. Post-riot Britain trashed the myth that Britain's justice system is blind to wealth and power.

It is also impossible to ignore the fact that men featured so prominently among the rioters. Nine out of ten apprehended rioters were men. Britain's rapid de-industrialisation and the disappearance of so many skilled middle-income jobs were particularly disruptive-given that such work often excluded women-to working-class men. Over a generation ago, a young working-class man could leave school at 16 and have a decent prospect of an apprenticeship, training that might open a gateway to a skilled, respected job. But when the jobs and the apprenticeships disappeared, there was nothing to take their place.

Of course, many of the rioters got involved because they saw an opportunity to steal with impunity. For others, it was a vicarious thrill; a chance to show off. Some just got caught up in a crowd, sensing that accepted social norms had temporarily been suspended. Others looked at the shameless greed of the bankers and politicians, feeling that if those at the top could get away with it, why couldn't they? And there were others who felt frustrated, angry, disillusioned, or bored. The specific motives varied; for some, there was a combination of reasons. But what united the rioters and looters of England's hot August was there was not much for them to risk, and a lack of faith in – or outright antipathy towards – the local police.

No one can predict whether there will be a new wave of riots. But it is certain that the most drastic cuts since the 1920s will have a devastating impact on Britain's social fabric. Growing numbers of people (of all ages) will inevitably have a mounting sense that the future is bleak. In those circumstances, anger and frustration will surely only increase – and unless it is organised and given political direction, it could manifest itself in the ugliest of ways.

The new, fully-updated paperback edition of 'Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class' is published on 21 May 2012 by Verso

Backlash: The debate

Inadvertently, I found myself at the centre of one of the ugliest episodes of the backlash. Along with author Dreda Say Mitchell, I was put up against Tudor historian David Starkey on Newsnight. In a now infamous intervention, Starkey began by quoting Enoch Powell's "Rivers of Blood" speech, which warned that immigration would plunge Britain into violent chaos. Powell was – as Starkey accepted – wrong in his prediction that it would bring inter-communal violence. Instead, what Starkey called "black culture" had turned white people into rioting thugs. "The whites", he pronounced, "have become black".

Starkey used a tortured argument to get round the fact that most rioters were not black. His baffling rant took an even more alarming turn when he argued that if someone were to hear black Labour MP David Lammy without seeing him, they would conclude he was white. Almost paralysed by the scene, I replied that he was equating black with criminality and white with respectability.

What unnerved me most about Starkey's rhetoric were the possible consequences. My fear was he had introduced race at a time of intense anxiety, when people were angry and scared. But what sympathy there was for him was not particularly strong or deeply felt. Since the Second World War, struggles against racism had transformed how people looked at race: for example, just over 50 years ago, a Gallup poll found 71 per cent or respondents were opposed to interracial marriage.

The number admitting such a prejudice today is virtually non-existent. Although racism was far from being purged, Britain had changed and the public ramblings of a TV historian were not going to reverse that.

Owen Jones

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