Thursday, July 14, 2005

The British Working Class, Channel 4

Michael Collins’ adaptation of his own polemic makes interesting, but frustrating, viewing. Following roughly the same course as the book, Collins aims to expose a new era of derision towards the white working class, exemplified by the rise of the ‘chav’, that social outcast providing the tabloids with so much of their fodder. Websites such as chavscum detail this particular sub-group with relish and Collins traces it back to the MacPherson inquiry into the Lawrence murder and the opprobrium heaped on the five accused, white working-class boys.

Beyond that, Collins investigates his family's life in Elephant and Castle in the last 150 years and turns up pretty much your average "gor blimey guvnor me rosy-tin'id specs are on and no mistake" view of the pre-sixties working-class.

Collins has a point, it does seem as though racism and prejudice sometimes becomes acceptable as long as its about the poor, white natives; its true that the working-class have always been down-trodden and remain ever more so, despite the best intentions of the do-gooders, city planners, demagogues, Thatcherites and whoever else has taken an interest. The demonisation of ‘chavs’ does make me uncomfortable. When I first came across the phrase, it was out of the mouths of people who were scared of youths I thought they should have smacked around a bit. But as the chavscum webmaster points out, the people most up in arms about ‘chavs’ are the people who have to live among them, ie. the ‘respectable’ working-class.

But in so many ways Collins wants to have his cake and eat it. For example the white working classes are both entitled to protest against enforced multiculturalism (and march for Enoch) and yet are the best racially integrated of all social strata. That these might be different people seems to have completely escaped him. And this sort of example shows precisely where Collins goes wrong, in his lazy and gratuitous lumping together of countless different types of people under essentially two banners – the salt-of-the-earth, misunderstood and downtrodden working-class and the pretentious, interfering, prejudiced and privileged middle-class.

Which raises a slightly ad hominem point - which of the two groups does a working-class born and bred yet now successful journalist and film-maker fit into? Much praise for this book from the likes of Julie Burchill, who's made much of her working-class roots despite never clocking on for work in her life.

Others have produced far better dissections of Collins’ book than me. Andrew Anthony, Mike Phillips and particularly Ed Barrett offer thorough and interesting rebuttals of the weak-points of his arguments while all agreeing that there is something to his complaint.

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