Thursday, 4 December 2014

We're All Skinheads Now

Now that the Autumn Statement has blown away the remaining froth from the Rochester and Strood by-election, it's worth taking a look one more time at Emily Thornberry's iconic photo. Though immigration will remain a lightening rod for social angst up to the general election, it is clear that the most sensitive issue in British politics remains class. This can be seen not only in the panto of Plebgate and David Mellor's "do you know who you've got in the back of your cab?" tantrum, but also in George Osborne's vision of a society of rentiers and patronised, cheap labour. Thornberry's snap was from the same school: a melange of clichéd symbols that would have looked like overkill in a TV sketch show. What these collectively indicate is that class, as understood and "performed" by politicians and the media, is beyond caricature.

While discussion of the Thornberry photo as an image has largely focused on the white van and St George's flags, equally significant in any reading is the West Ham United flag. This, in what should logically be Gillingham territory, suggests "white flight" from the East End and thus speaks directly to the UKIP agenda. Nobody mentioned Alf Garnett, but I'm sure a lot of people thought of him. Another lesser remarked feature was the lonely Doric column of the porch. This became a symbol of aspiration in the 80s due to Dallas's Southfork, itself an echo of Gone with the Wind's Tara (reminding us of the link of property and slavery). It's even worth noting the brick-paved drive, which has become a symbol of cash-in-hand entrepreneurialism over the last couple of decades. In fact, given the way the image packs in so much of Britain's recent history, you can see why it struck Thornberry as notable. Grayson Perry would have had a field day - and a lot less grief.

All flags are lies; or, as Arundhati Roy put it, "Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people's brains and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead". Prior to Euro 96, displays of the England flag were rare. Similarly, football club flags were an oddity before the 90s (though an established tradition on the continent) when the Premier League ushered in a more tolerant attitude by clubs towards displays in the ground (tolerant in the sense that TV wanted more visual colour). In fact, before the replica kit market took off in the 80s, with the introduction of polyester shirts, club crests had relatively little public exposure. What most people identified with were the team colours. Thornberry's snap was entirely made up of recently invented traditions.

The key element of the photo was of course the one that was missing, Dan the white van man himself. That he should so perfectly espouse the manifesto of The Sun (lower taxes, more roads, bring back the cane, reduce benefits, deport immigrants, jail poppy-burners etc) should not come as a surprise, any more than than he should turn up at Emily Thornberry's Islington mansion for a photo-op with a St George's flag bearing the Sun logo. The cabbie that David Mellor insulted also passed his story to Rupert Murdoch's finest, as did the police officers that Andrew Mitchell patronised. The moment that Ed Miliband insisted that the sight of a white van or a flag-draped house triggered a feeling of respect in him was the moment that the last dribble of post-Leveson reforming zeal ran into the sand.

Most middle class commentators have insisted on Dan Ware's working class credentials, though as a self-employed car dealer who resents paying tax he is actually "petit bourgeois". When economic status becomes more precarious, the importance of taste as an act of social positioning (per Pierre Bourdieu) becomes more significant. The power of the image, and the subsequent revelation that Ware is a sometime cage-fighter with a shaved head, arises from our prejudice about his cultural capital. This makes him an object of dread for the middle classes, who fear the "vicious competition" of neoliberalism and the déclassé consequences of job polarisation. The scorn imputed to Emily Thornberry, as the representative of an "Islington elite", is simple transference. And far from being a "hero" to them, many working class people suspect that he's dodgy.

Perhaps the standout feature of Dan Ware in the public gaze is his skinhead cut, a style that has long outlived the subculture that immortalised it (the last knockings in the 80s were retrospectively captured in Shane Meadows' This Is England). Ware is not a skin (he's way too scruffy), but he is assumed to be the modern legacy of skindom: aggressive, uncouth, right-wing. The skinhead has always been a heavily-contested cultural figure, not just in the political dimension of neo-nazis versus 2 Tone, but more broadly as a symbol of working class youth at the peak of its economic power in the 60s and 70s. Significantly, it has been conservative outsiders who have done most to craft and iconify (sometimes accidentally) this dread figure, notably Richard Allen (Skinhead) and Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), coincidentally both pseudonyms.

Allen wrote pulp fiction and owed his fame to the post-Chatterley demand for titillating sex and violence (in the 70s, his books vied with the Eastern Front fantasies of Sven Hassel, a sort of paperback Call of Duty, as the teenage boy's preferred bildungsroman). Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange in 1961 for quick money, when he thought he was terminally ill, and was responding to media panics over late 50s "juvenile delinquency", but Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation (and Malcolm McDowell's mesmeric performance) left the book inseparably linked to the skinheads and suedeheads of the early 70s. The common theme between the two works is socialisation. Skinhead offers the traditional, reactionary template in which communal violence and abusive misogyny are the induction ceremonies of the young adult male. A Clockwork Orange parodies the attempts of the state and "do-gooders" to control human nature, noting (in a final chapter that Kubrick's film omits) that youthful violence and "settling down" are the natural course of things.

A notable feature of Skinhead is the depiction of London as fragmented and under threat: "Every section of the sprawling city had its claims to fame. South of the Thames the niggers rode cock-a-hoop in Brixton, the Irish held Shepherd’s Bush with an iron fist; and the Jews predominated around Hampstead and Golder’s Green. The Cockney had lost control of his London. Even the porno shops were having their difficulties with the parasitic influx of outside talent". These are not really the sentiments of the 70s teenage protagonist (the gangs of Hampstead?) but the nostalgic lament of the author, the Canadian-born James Moffat. This voice lives on among the UKIP-voting pensioner exiles of the coastal towns, demanding their country back and insisting that they're lifelong Hammers fans. Dan Ware characterises a younger generation, uprooted by their parents in the 70s and 80s and bequeathed a culture in which affiliations like football and ersatz traditions like St George's flags attempt to fill the void of meaning left by homogenised houses, sleb-led TV and shopping.

A meme of the New Labour years was that "we're all middle class now". In fact, class divisions are probably more acute than they have been at any time since the 50s. The rising tide of prosperity in the 60s did not blend the classes but enabled a greater autonomy and fragmentation as class consciousness was substituted by consumption preferences. Class became less salient because economic power was diffused through the growth of the public sector and professions, the strength of trade unions, and the historically high demand for labour. Since 1979, class has returned as a key discriminator for access to economic power, a shift that was initially "performed" through the theatre of fogies and sloanes. In denial, New Labour bought the neoliberal con that we could somehow rise above class through education and meritocracy. Now we have an Old Etonian government.

With the traditional working class Tory under threat due to the contraction of manufacturing, the privatisation of public services, and the undermining of trade hierarchies in the name of flexibility, a new ideal of the conservative working class was created in the 80s. Much of this was the work of that other conservative outsider, Kelvin McKenzie. The white van man was male, self-employed, anti-tax and benefits, Southern, anti-intellectual, and anti-politics. This recuperated the destabilising autonomy embodied in the skinhead into maudlin patriotism and a resentment of middle-class, liberal do-gooders (now upgraded to "the PC crowd"). The sense of independence and power has gone, just as the Sta-Prest and the polished Hawkins boots have been replaced by track-pants and Reeboks. All we have left is middle-aged, balding blokes choosing a number 1 cut.


  1. Great analysis. One of the most annoying aspects of the whole saga was the whole media's portrayal of this one man as representative of the entire working class, and the reason why the Labour Party should further pander to the agenda of the tabloids. As you suggest, in many ways this type of person is symbolic of a transition in working-class conservativism, from foremen to white van-drivers, and essentially a residue of Thatcherism. I'm not sure how many of these type of people will have EVER voted Labour.

  2. Indeed, a very intersting read. A couple of points.

    It was notable in this year's World Cup that the Flag was largely absent compared with previous recent tournaments. Maybe because of the sense of inevitability of defeat rather than any loss of underlying attachment, but maybe that defeatism is already well embedded in the "maudlin patriotism".

    "We're all middle class now" was always a con. Like Thatcherism, it played to people's self-delusion. In fact, throughout the Thatcher and New Labour eras, we've had consistent de-professionalisation, as the middle and lower-middle classes were progressively Taylorised.

  3. One thing about the skin head haircut is it is cheap almost anyone can do it with a hair clipper. Coventional wisdom has it that hair clipper sales increase in hard times, although I have yet to find any hard figures on this.

    There may be a similar effect for flags. The cost of fabric has come down in relative terms since the 1970s. Even if there had been a high demand for flags in the 1970s they would have been relatively more expensive. Another factor is influence of the US. The ubiquitous flying of the stars and stripes may have percolated across the pond in the same way as 'trick or treating' or 'high school proms'.

    I would much rather see Kelvin McKenzie jailed and tagged than Andy Coulson. I am still trying to figure out why there are no Murdochs in jail.

  4. Anonymous, possibly unwittingly, raises an interesting point there. In mentioning the transfer of US traditions regarding 'trick or treat', proms and flag-flying, you have the interesting situation whereby the continuing spread of US culture is treated in a very blase fashion by the media and the right-wing when compared with Asian or even Eastern European culture. It has certainly played a far greater part in eroding 'traditional' working-class culture than any trend from Europe or Asia. I'm not sure whether this is because economic and consumerist trends are more successful in permeating into society in a stealthy way, or whether conscious or unconscious racism comes into play. The area I work in is surrounded by Asian-owned food establishments, but curries and kebabs are less common than the ubiquitous burger, fried chicken and pizza joints. (For the purposes of this argument I'm treating pizza takeaways as a US export!)

    1. Anonymous5 December 2014 20:26

      It was unwittingly raised, I post becasue its cheaper than CBT. My view of the spread of US culture is because of US TV and when there was no TV, Hollywood films. A common language accelerates this effect compared to other European Countries. Coventionally people say the UK imports the worst of US culture, but I don't know.

      A recent episode of Paul Sinha's History Revision has a good explanation of the presence of Asian food in the UK.

      The powers that be don't care about working class culture. It seems that every comprehensive school in England will now have some kind of prom whereas 30 years ago it would have been a very low key school disco. It's very unlikely that the public schools of England have taken this up. I've no idea what the Etonian social functions are like but they won't be proms.

  5. A lot of recent US cultural imports are simply European exports that have taken centuries to work their way back. For example, trick-or-treating originates in practices associated with the Celtic festival of Samhain, while proms were consciously modelled on debutante balls. Public schools don't have proms, any more than they had school discos in the 70s and 80s, because they have summer balls instead. They're identical, but a "ball" sounds posher.

    Where there is a real difference between the two sides of the pond is in the attitude to the flag, which has a bearing on the Dan Ware story. Most Brits regard a flagpole in someone's front garden flying the Union Jack as evidence of eccentricity, if not membership of the BNP. Burning the flag does not excite disgust, rather bemusement, which is why the rightwing nutters who are trying to import American-style reverence for national trappings have focused on burning poppies.

    The greater prevalence of flags since the 70s (and specifically the St Geroge's Cross) has less to do with the cost of material and more to do with the ready availability of them, and that in turn has a lot to do with the conscious employment of the flag (and blokes in Crusader gear) by tabloid newspapers. I recall that for Euro 96 the Sun gave away free flags, and you would routinely encounter sheaves of them in garage forecourts. They pushed it big time.

    Personally, I think this identification is skin-deep. Most people do not feel "respect" when they see an England flag. Ultimately, the mobbing of Emily Thornberry suggests a defensiveness on the part of the "patriots". If she had been American and had snapped a flag-bedecked house in the Midwest, there would have been no story. It was only the belief that there are many Brits who do regard the ostentatious display of the flag as a joke that gave it legs. That and Ed Miliband's calamitous response.

  6. Herbie Kills Children8 December 2014 at 12:01

    "A lot of recent US cultural imports are simply European exports that have taken centuries to work their way back."

    I can't buy this for a minute, trick or treat, with its dressing up in costumes etc, is commodification. In my day you didn't dress up you just caused some mild mayhem, it was an independent activity, now it is used to flog useless shit.

    What is interesting is how long it took trick or treating to take off here, since it has been around in the US since the 1920's. I think it is connected to the consumerism of today, it is linked to this neo liberal period. To me it is a form of brainwashing, a clear example of how the system produces the people rather than people producing the system.

  7. I'm with Herbie there. When I was growing up (1980s) Halloween involved lanterns made from swede, not pumpkins, as well as older traditions like apple bobbing and such like. It was essentially a kids' thing, and no adults would have had a fancy dress party with masks and the like. You can compare with Bonfire Night, 'penny for the guy', toffee apples and cinder toffee, which I feel has declined in significance since my youth. The 'Trick or Treat' nature of Halloween does seem to be a consumerist function of a trend that started in the US.

  8. I'm not denying that trick-or-treat is a consumerist import from the US, merely noting that this has been grafted onto older traditions (souling, guising etc). My point is that the categorical difference between the US and the UK is not pumpkins versus swedes, but the attitude towards the flag.

    On the sociological front, trick-or-treat may have started in the US in the 20s (apparently imported by exiled Scots and Irish), but it didn't become culturally dominant until much later. This seems to have been driven by the spread of supermarkets post-WW2, who saw it as a way of shifting seasonal pumpkins and started stocking cheap costumes and other tat that could be sold at a high markup.

    This seems to have been the major driving force in the UK as well, with Halloween acting as a promotional interlude between back-to-school and Christmas. In other words, trick-or-treat looks to have been a byproduct of the spread of big stores from the 80s onwards.

  9. I suppose I've been guilty of not differentiating between 'US culture' and 'capitalist trends that originated in the US'. I think the fact that Halloween now tops Bonfire Night in this country is an example that backs up your argument and demonstrates that flag-waving in the UK is less a rising nationalist culture and more a development of consumer trends that happen to 'sell' identity.

  10. Herbie Kills Children8 December 2014 at 16:42

    "merely noting that this has been grafted onto older traditions"

    This is not pertinent though, what is more pertinent is this:

    "trick-or-treat looks to have been a byproduct of the spread of big stores from the 80s onwards."

    I think the consumerist culture is a US import and the UK is affected more than say France or Germany because of the particular features of US and UK capitalism, as well as some cultural factors (shared language for example). Things like trick or treat are our version of the North Korean big spectacle.