Has Britain turned into a nation of raging snobs?

Less than a decade after Tony Blair declared that 'the class struggle is over', Britain seems to have turned into a nation of raging snobs. Is the new class-consciousness just harmless, ironic fun? Or does our obsession with 'chavs' betray a nasty social malaise? Terence Blacker investigates

Saturday 17 September 2011 12:42

Here is a short quiz for those who follow social trends. In what year was a musical called Frightfully Non-U, Isn't It? staged at the Edinburgh Festival? When did a leading artist say, "You can lead a working-class oik to culture, but you can't make him think"?

At which post-war race meeting was it widely and disapprovingly reported that servant girls were being allowed to mix with their social superiors?

When did a children's publisher release a comedy book for teenagers called The Diary of a Moronic Member of the Underclass? In which rather sodden year did a satirical magazine carry the headline "Yob Famine Hits Glouc-estershire" and reveal amusingly that, "the floods have caused the cessation of water supplies to numerous fast food chains such as Burger King, KFC and yobbo favourite McDonald's"?

You will be there by now. The year in question is 2007. All these quotes and soundbites are from recent press stories, with only one amendment. Traditional, unacceptable ways of referring to members of the working class have been replaced by a term which is not only acceptable among some comedians, politicians and journalists, but is an almost obligatory part of their everyday discourse: chav. Just when you thought it was safe to drop your h's, snobbery is right back in fashion.

No country could have embraced a newly minted form of social insult with more enthusiasm and expertise than the English have with the concept of the chav. It seems that when it comes to the subtle gradations of class disdain, we remain world leaders. Other nations may try to emulate our easy, natural snobbery but somehow it never quite comes off. Like an English chef working on French haute cuisine, foreigners have the ingredients and the expertise but somehow their snobbery seems forced. With the English, it comes naturally.

It is odd, though, that this new snobbery should flower quite so luxuriantly under a Labour government. The word "chav", Romany for child, entered the language relatively recently in around 2005 but the prototype for its central idea - the hilarious gormlessness of the socially deprived - can be dated back to Harry Enfield's Wayne and Waynetta Slob in the 1990s. Since then, the chav has come of age.

The most successful of recent sketch shows have been largely based on one simple, heartless joke: those trapped at the lower end of the working class are, almost by nature vulgar, ill-dressed, randy, ugly, lazy and, above all else, thick. Where would Little Britain be without the hideous, gum-chewing Vicky Pollard? Where would Catherine Tate's career be had she not invented her am-I-bovvered character Lauren?

It was when the last Prime Minister, with his usual sharp eye for a snappy trend, played opposite Tate in her chav sketch - all for charity, of course - that the new snobbery received an official establishment blessing. By then, anti-chav jokes and prejudice - chavism, it should be called - were everywhere. In football, it was represented by Wayne Rooney, a teenager with a face like a cartoon character and a gauche temperament that was easy to mock.

In politics, John Prescott fitted the bill perfectly, providing smartypants sketch-writers and commentators with a ready-made cliché - the working-class man who is intellectually out of his depth and mangles his language. The very people who deplored the new age of spin and image makeover sneered at the only politician who had remained his stubborn self. They liked it (typical chav!) when Prescott took a swing at a voter. Their glee when he was photographed playing the toff sport of croquet knew no bounds.

Reality TV would have been lost without the arrival of the chav as a national obsession. Now that it was acceptable to be appalled by working-class behaviour, all sort of amusing programmes could be set up.

A chav wife could be dropped into an uptight middle-class establishment for Wife Swap. Over-excited chav lads and ladettes could be followed and filmed getting drunk and having sex for Holiday Reps. Best of all, whole groups of fame-crazed chavs could be locked away in a studio for weeks, and watched on Big Brother as they fell apart. It was clear from these TV shows that class prejudice is no less nasty when the victims play along.

Because nothing is now played straight, the new snobbery is dressed in a self-conscious irony but is as skimpy and revealing as a chav's frock at a film premiere. Jade Goody, the Big Brother star who became a role model for anti-achievement, built a lucrative career around her cheerful, open ignorance about virtually everything.

Briefly it seemed as if she had played the system to perfection: the stupider she appeared to be, the more famous she became and the more money she made.

But beneath the new snobbery's veneer of good humour there lies a resentment, even a rage. A chav who breaks the rules by becoming so famous that her face on the front of celebrity magazines shifts more copies members of that of the real thing - Nicole Kidman, say, or Kiera Knightley - is likely to be reminded that she is, at the end of the day, still a chav.

With a certain sleazy cunning, the producers of Celebrity Big Brother put Goody in front of the cameras with, among others, two like-minded minor celebrities, and added to the mix her strange, loud mother and rather dim boyfriend. Then - genius! - they introduced an Asian girl who was more beautiful, poised, dignified and intelligent than they were.

The seeds of racism and bullying were there from the outset; it was only a matter of time before Channel Four, having earned itself welcome publicity and ratings, could shudder with appalled distaste and condemn the depths to which chav behaviour could sink. It was the ultimate reality TV sting.

Working class lads are quite good material, the media has discovered, but ladettes are far, far better. They add a sexual frisson. When they go off the rails - swearing, violent, knickerless, spewing in a gutter outside a night-club - it causes more shudders of middle-class distaste than anything a mere boy could manage. And that, perhaps, is a clue. Socially-condoned prejudice can act as a safety valve.

During Mrs Thatcher's great quest for the establishment of a property-owning democracy, middle-class snobbery became really quite unfashionable. Money was what mattered and, in search of it, there was a general congregating on the middle ground. The posh toned down their accents and those at the other end of the scale smoothed out theirs.

When in 1990 John Major referred in a speech to Britain moving towards being "a genuinely classless society", he was not as wide of the mark as some thought. Those with power in business, politics and the media had indeed begun to seem more homogenous than ever.

Seven years later, as New Labour came to power, the whole idea of judging people by their social origins had become old-fashioned, incorrect.

Jokes about women, of course, were more frowned upon than almost anything else. Yet, 10 years later, the hippest alternative comedians can appear on TV comedy quizzes and do routines about Cherie Blair's eyes, mouth or even the shape of her body, and poisonous things about her can cheerfully be written in the press. The animus towards her goes beyond the political: it is against women - or, rather, against successful women.

Prejudice has found a way to express itself in the disguise of investigative journalism, comedy or satire. The new snobbery works in the same way.

The Thatcher years did, of course, leave one class unchanged - indeed, it ground it further into the mire. The people who were left behind, economically and educationally, in the great rush to belong to the middle classes, would eventually find a role for themselves in the later Blair years. They would become the acceptable face of class prejudice, the chav. In a self-conscious age in which people have begun to feel as if they are acting like a character in their own reality show, those on the receiving end of snobbery quickly learn how best to turn the situation to their advantage. They become more chav, proud to be shocking outsiders to the respectable mainstream.

What the world calls excess, they call fun. Their lack of knowledge, manners or ambition becomes a sort of badge of honour.

Snobbery has enjoyed previous golden ages. In the 1950s, a Mitford-esque nervousness about whether one's family might possibly be that most ghastly of things, non-U, gripped the middle classes.

The late 1970s and early 1980s saw a weird craving for the respectability of breeding. It was zanily expressed in magazines like the Tatler, then under the editorship of Tina Brown, but there was no doubt that, for all the jokiness, class mattered above almost everything else.

The bible of those years, The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook by Peter York and Ann Barr, was presented as mildly mocking and satirical but it was an open secret that those who bought it may have been laughing at the upper classes, but also were desperate to find out how to be part of them.

The new Sloane Ranger Handbook Cooler, Faster, More Expensive, which is to be launched this autumn, may prove to be a rare false move in Peter York's canny career. Unlike 25 years ago, the mood of the moment is not socially aspirational. We prefer to look down, way down, the ladder and to laugh at those whose style and way of life are still so hilariously and irredeemably working class.

The chavs laugh too, and we are united, sharing our uneasy, thoroughly English joke.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments