The new chavs? By Roger MacGinty
In December 2012, Belfast City Council banned the flying of the Union flag outside of City Hall except on designated holidays. The decision caused uproar among Protestant-unionists who saw this as yet another erosion of their identity. And so began the ‘flags dispute’, with protesters regularly blocking roads to draw attention to what they saw as a denial of their cultural rights. Most of the protesters were drawn from an urban Protestant working class who see themselves as the political and economic ‘losers’ in the peace process. Whether that ‘loser’ status is merited is hotly debated, but few can deny that the narrative is popular and truly believed by many of the protesters.
Given that the focal point of the dispute is the flag, the protests are inherently performative – if somewhat predictable (there are only so many ways that one can wave a flag). But an interesting development has arisen – a web-based group that is attempting to parody the flag protesters. Called ‘Loyalists Against Democracy’ (http://loyalistsagainstdemocracy.blogspot.co.uk/), the group is anonymous and seems to come from within the Protestant-unionist community. They have a wonderful collage of flag protesting images set to a Primal Scream soundtrack:
On one level it is a marvelous critique of the flags dispute, and is quite clear in its opinion of those who cause disruption and those who lead them. But there is also something a little insidious going on too. The video contains a lot of classist profiling. It is reminiscent of the way, a few years ago, that English popular culture re-popularised the notion of ‘the chav’. Originally a derogatory term for gypsies, the term ‘chav’ became a more general derogatory term applied to people deemed to be ‘cheap’, tasteless, or tacky. But there was something else located in the signaling associated with the term ‘chav’. It was also a descriptor of the poor – working class, underclass, cheaply attired or engaged in inexpensive and ‘uncultured’ social pursuits.
Watching the LAD video, it is clear that there has been a judicious splicing of the video shots to show the flag protesters as being ‘chavy’: dressed in sports-related clothes, speaking ungrammatically, drinking cheap lager in public, home-dyed hair, and police mugshots. That is not to say that none of these elements were present. It is, instead, to highlight that there is classism running through the LAD video. There is a danger that this parody strays into the territory of the safe middle classes looking down on economically less fortunate groups. The automaticity in which those of a ‘lower’ socio-economic group are deemed as illegitimate or less valuable to society is cause for concern.