Brendan O’Neill: High Priest of Prolier-Than-Thou

The UK’s white working classes have no greater champion than the Spiked Online journalist Brendan O’Neill. Day after day, year upon year, he’s plugging away at his Telegraph Blogs account, dedicated to defending the proletariat against the metropolitan liberal chattering classes, which seek to attack and belittle England’s honest workers with such predations as anti-racist activism, independent film, healthy eating, gay marriage, rap music, the Occupy movement, immigration and the Leveson Inquiry. It truly is, as his tagline says, ‘a culture war of words’.

Today O’Neill is talking about social mobility. There is a trendy North London consensus about social mobility – okay, there probably isn’t, but O’Neill needs to say there is so that he can denounce it, so let’s follow his argument.

Is there anyone the great and the good hate more than an upwardly mobile member of the working classes? A raft of abusive terminology has been created to diss these strange creatures. They’re seen as ‘yuppies’ or ‘Loadsamoneys’, waving their wads of cash around with a sneering look of self-satisfaction on their faces. They’re always described as ‘grasping’ and ‘ruthless’. They are treated like fish out of water, such as when The Guardian snottily said that wealthy working-class footballers labour under ‘the misapprehension that drinking champagne is a symbol of class’. And they are always depicted as soulless, as lacking in community spirit, as so selfish that they would rather escape the poor communities they grew up in rather than stay put and muck in […]

And so the Left sneers at these socially mobile workers, because it would prefer that they stayed put rather than unwittingly shining a light on the fact that the Labour Left’s historic talk of boosting everyone’s fortunes has been so much flimflam. Their ambition is slated because it is too much of an uncomfortable echo of the kind of life and drive that Labour once promised to deliver to all. These people should stop focusing on ‘getting out of somewhere’ and instead, in the embarrassing words of Leftist author Owen Jones, celebrate their ‘working classness’. That phrase suggests that being working class is an innate trait, like sex or hair colour. But it isn’t. It’s a social condition, or a social predicament if you like, and like all social conditions it can be overcome and transformed.

While expressed with his usual tinfoil-chewing abrasion, O’Neill’s argument has some sense to it. It’s interesting therefore to look back at his reaction to a piece by Lynsey Hanley, in which she discussed working class racism and conservatism. Hanley grew up on a Birmingham council estate and is now a London journalist. For O’Neill, this made her a ‘self-loathing prole’:

We often hear of self-loathing Jews, but what about self-loathing proles – working-class people who look back with contempt at the communities they had the misfortune to grow up in? There’s a very good example of it in today’s Guardian, in this column by Lynsey Hanley, a woman who has made a writing career on the back of the fact that she grew up on a council estate… Ms Hanley writes of the ‘terrible ignorance’ of the community she used to live in, prior to her moral and mental rescue by ‘metropolitan elite liberal values’.

Perhaps keen to assure her current employers that she is now one of them and has been scrubbed clean of any trace of working-class brutishness, Ms Hanley sneers at the ‘view of life’ that held strong in the community she was born into. These people were ‘paranoid, suspicious, mistrustful, misogynist and racist’, she says. She heaps disdain on the ‘social conservatism’ of white working-class communities, which are given to ‘silently or violently rejecting anyone who is different or who expresses a different opinion to that of the crowd’. Thankfully for her (and let’s face it, probably for the community she was born into), Ms Hanley escaped from this ‘crowd’ (in pre-PC times they called it ‘the mob’) by embracing what she refers to as metropolitan, liberal values.

So, Brendan O’Neill attacks opponents of social mobility for working class people, and at the same time condemns working class people who have the temerity to escape the ghetto.

Okay, these columns are a year apart, consistency is in some ways overrated and anyone can change their mind – still, most writers would allude to the contradiction and talk a little about how their views have evolved.

It cannot be that O’Neill is a chronic and compulsive attention seeker who will say more or less anything to get a few annoyed social media reactions?

Can it?


7 Responses to “Brendan O’Neill: High Priest of Prolier-Than-Thou”

  1. James Bloodworth Says:

    Great post, Max.

  2. Zarathustra Says:

    Brendan O’Neill: Living proof that trolling can be a job.

  3. damon Says:

    ”It cannot be that O’Neill is a chronic and compulsive attention seeker who will say more or less anything to get a few annoyed social media reactions?

    Can it?”

    He certainly shoots from the hip, and his style is obviously annoying to many people, but just yesterday he did an ”expose” on the over the top ridiculousness of the ”Kick it Out” anti-racism football campaign over the John Terry-Rio Ferdinand carry-on.
    He often has some quite good points burried within his pieces.
    People on the left hate him because they refuse to get involved with some of the things he brings up. Sol Campbell has said that Terry was prefered over Ferdinand because he was white. That’s how stupid the anti-racists can get.

    • maxdunbar Says:

      I don’t follow football at all so can’t comment on that. I think though, the idea that there’s no racism in the game is naive to the point of laughable.

      I’ve got a lot of time for libertarian arguments and would probably agree with RCP/Institute of Ideas on things like the smoking ban, it’s just the abrasive attention-seeking style puts a lot of people off. Nothing wrong with being a libertarian, but why would you have to be such a fucking dick about it?

  4. damon Says:

    It’s a pity you don’t get the football race stories, because there were so many of them about recently. You will have noticed though the reaction to the African born footballer who had the heart attack.
    A mass outpouring of good will it was, with some tweeter who said otherwise sent to prison. Not an example of racism being a major problem in English football.

    I do wonder about the Brendan O’Neill and Spiked style. And why it is that they seem to make no effort to engage with the left. I think it might be because they think it’s pointless. That there’s too much ideology and sectarianism in the way. You pointed in the OP to a few O’Neill arguments that I thought were worth engaging with.
    The fascination with the EDL being just one. I tend to agree with him. The anti-racist left wet themselves about quite small groups like the EDL and BNP. And there can be no real discussion across that ideological fault line. I know myself from some of the online rows I’ve gotten in to. It gets unpleasant very quickly. So maybe O’Neill is just not bothering and writes his stuff like he does as a way of showing contempt for the ”useless left” as he might see it.
    I think they are still lefties at heart, but that they can’t communicate with the fundamentalist left we have today.
    Anti-fascists, militant eco-activists and UKuncut direct action type people. I think that they find they just can’t reason with them, so they just mock them instead.
    I’m not entirely happy about this state of affairs either, but it’s the way it is.

  5. Chris M Says:

    That’s a quite generous reading of O’Neill.

    How about he’s not on the left at all, and seeks to rubbish lefties for that reason?

  6. Abu Faris Says:

    This is a really good post and catches the Torygraph’s pet contrarian bang, smack, square between his close-set eyes.

    Excellent stuff.

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