British politics: How did Prime Minister Boris Johnson become the defender of working-class culture? - GulfToday

British politics: How did Prime Minister Boris Johnson become the defender of working-class culture?

John Rentoul


Chief Political Commentator, The Independent; visiting professor, King's College, London.

Chief Political Commentator, The Independent; visiting professor, King's College, London.

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson

Nothing could better illustrate the Great Class Inversion in British politics than a book to be published next month by David Skelton, called The New Snobbery. Skelton is a Conservative polemicist from Consett, County Durham, who used to be head of research at Policy Exchange, the think tank set up by Michael Gove.

He explains that he wrote the book because he was not prepared to stand back while “left-wing people” found “new ways to describe the working class as bigoted or stupid”. He writes: “I saw prejudice against people I care about and places I love become acceptable in so-called ‘polite society’, in progressive Britain and in parts of the media.”

It is a vivid and well-argued thesis, but what I thought was most interesting about it was how similar it was to another book published 10 years ago, Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class, by Owen Jones. Jones argued that hatred of working-class people was the last acceptable prejudice. His book opens with an anecdote about a joke at an east London dinner party: “It’s sad that Woolworth’s is closing. Where will all the chavs buy their Christmas presents?”

Everyone (presumably excluding Jones) laughed. Jones was furious with his fellow “educated” professionals: “Sitting around the table were people from more than one ethnic group. The gender split was 50-50 and not everyone was straight. All would have placed themselves somewhere left of centre politically. They would have bristled at being labelled a snob.”

If you didn’t know what happened next, you could not have made it up, as politics entered a hall of mirrors in which it is still impossible to tell what is real and what is not. Jones supported Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader partly because, although Corbyn is as middle-class as Jones is, he espouses a quasi-Marxist politics that venerates an old-fashioned ideal of the working class.

Then the EU referendum happened, in which education was the biggest predictor of whether people voted Leave or Remain, and the usual relations between class and parties started to reverse. Under Corbyn, the Labour vote became more middle class than ever, while Boris Johnson reached parts of the working class that no Conservative leader had reached before.

It was as if Jones’s message, aimed at the Labour Party, was heard and acted on by the Conservatives. Thus we have ended up with the paradox of an Etonian prime minister gaining seats in by-elections in Hartlepool and (imminently) Batley while losing one in the home counties heartland of the middle class, Chesham and Amersham.

A decade on from Jones’s book, it falls to a Conservative commentator to take up his themes as Skelton urges his party to embrace its new identity. Parts of Skelton’s book read like pure Owen Jones, condemning “a focus on delivering ‘value’ for shareholders and executives rather than investing in and respecting workers”. Skelton, like Jones, criticises the “myth of inevitability” espoused by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, who argued that there was nothing they could do about global economic change, and that their job was to try to shape it and adapt to it as best as possible.

No surprise that Maurice Glasman and Jon Cruddas are quoted on the cover of Skelton’s book. Glasman, the originator of Blue Labour (as in “blue-collar”), was briefly an adviser to Ed Miliband as Labour leader, while Cruddas, the Labour MP for Dagenham, has just written a book called The Dignity of Labour. Glasman, Cruddas and Jones were all making these arguments before Brexit, but the Brexit vote was the catalyst, and it was the Tory party that found itself better placed to act on them.

Class prejudice is a complicated thing. Most of it is not explicit. It is notable that Skelton relies on quoting unknown people on Twitter to make his point that people who voted Leave and those who voted Tory for the first time in 2019 are routinely insulted by “elitists”. But it is real. You have only to observe how Angela Rayner is treated to know that.

Labour’s deputy leader, incidentally, today demanded “the right to flexible working” for all workers. This is an example of Labour’s problem, because although it sounds faintly workerist, the right to work from home — and the “right to switch off” outside working hours at home — is of more interest to professionals than it is to manual workers.

Who would have thought, when the young firebrand Owen Jones published his book 10 years ago, that it would be the party founded to give the working class representation in parliament that would find it so hard to act on his call to arms?

Related articles