When Plato described man as a featherless biped, Diogenes the Cynic came to his Academy with a plucked chicken proclaiming “this is Plato’s man!”. The Plucked Chicken Award will be awarded every year to the human being that best represents the folly of our idealization of our species.
Plucked Chicken Award 2019: Workington Man
It is the third installment of the Plucha (remember, every award needs its shorthand) and a memorable one, being the final year of a putrid decade. One in which fascism arrived on the shores of the Anglo-Saxon world that just seven decades earlier fought to save Europe from it. It is the decade that that brought us austerity and lost futures for a generation that will not have it nearly as good as the ones before it (and if you’re among the ones buying Steven Pinker’s whiggish optimism, read my upcoming book). And I haven’t even started talking about the music. At least in previous times of turmoil, we had a kick-ass, riff-laden soundtracks to bear through it. Now we have Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber duos. It has come to this.
There is, of course, no shortage of candidates for an award like this, with people like Donald Trump having a standing invitation on the shortlist. Or Australia’s Scott Morrison who continues to deny climate change while his country burns as I write this. Or former WeWork CEO Adam Neumann who is this year’s living example of Silicon Valley’s pathological narcissism and hubris, blessed with an aura of messianic, new wave bullshit. Elizabeth Holmes and Elon Musk, we hardly knew ye. But no, this year, I’m making it special. It’s not just one person. It’s thousands. Possibly millions. And yet it’s no one. I’m talking about Workington Man, the mythological British electoral beast that was mocked for being yet another offensive London stereotype of Northern working class men.
Until Workington Man won the 2019 election. For all the wrong reasons.
According to Onward, the Conservative think-tank that coined the term, Workington Man represented white, male voters from Rugby League towns with no college degrees and who had traditionally voted Labour. They were defenders of the so-called “Red Wall” of Labour-supporting former industrial towns in the North that had been ravaged for decades following Thatcher’s de-industrialization, New Labour neglect, and post-crisis Tory austerity. Unlike most traditional Labour constituencies (particularly those in the larger cities), Workington Man voted for Brexit and thus presented a tempting target for the Tories in the December 12th general election: focus on Brexit and Workington Man would be tempted to abandon Labour. It also did not help that Workington Man was strongly socially conservative and did not feel particularly drawn to the “avocado-munching Marxism” from Jeremy Corbyn’s Islingtonian bubble.
It is not so much the fact that Workington Man fulfilled its prophecy: Workington overwhelmingly swung to the Tories, only the second time it turned its back on Labour since 1918, as did many other Northern and Midlands towns like it. Rather, it’s the way in which it did so. It starts with the fact that its new MP, Mark Jenkinson, is a former UKIP member which means the town didn’t just swing to the Tories but to the extreme right-wing of the Tories (increasingly indistinguishable from its moderates). Then there’s the statements from voters themselves. “Labour has taken us for granted for too long. They thought they could ignore us and we’d keep voting” said one who clearly didn’t get the memo that the Tories have dictated economic policy in Britain since 2010. “How can you trust a man [Corbyn] who doesn’t know when the Queen’s speech is on Christmas Day?” said another, oblivious to the pathological lying of Boris Johnson on every issue of national importance. “Jeremy Corbyn just doesn’t represent me, mate”. Surely an Old Etonian with billionaire friends does.
And then there’s the elephant in the room of modern British politics: racism. Denied by racists themselves and then weaponized as victimhood against the liberal chattering classes (the “if you didn’t call us racist we wouldn’t be voting for racists” line), it is as much rooted in the loss of Empire as well as the loss of hope for what Britain could be in the 21st century beyond a paradise island for plutocrats. Worse still is how it is also weaponized as post-colonial victimhood against the very victims of British colonialism: the immigrants whose countries were plundered in the name of the white man’s burden. No, not every Brexit voter was racist but every single racist in England almost surely voted Brexit. “We’re not talking about nationalising trains or anything up here. It really is just about immigration.” This was in Teesside, on the opposite end from Workington, where three of its six constituencies voted Tory in 2019 compared to just one in 2017. And in Leigh it was said that “once you peel off the Brexit and Corbyn plasters, you find a community left powerless and desperate for someone to blame.” Leigh voted Tory for the first time since 1922.
“Hear this, comrade — the working class do not want handouts. They are not victims. They can’t be bought with glass beads, shiny trinkets and promises of free broadband. And they do not think they should apologise for being British and for loving this country and its history.”
– The Sun (15/12/2019)
It seems strange that a left-leaning blog chooses the victims of modern Anglo-Saxon hyper-capitalism and globalization as its most unsavory “person” of the year. But taking working class victimhood at face value denies Workington Man the very agency that he deserves. Workington Man wasn’t forced to vote Tory. He chose to. And if he chose to because immigration was his number one political consideration, then he doesn’t deserve any more sympathy than an unrepentant Rust Belt voter across the pond. Someone who may have had no shortage of good reasons to stick it to the establishment by voting for Trump and yet remains unfazed by his president locking immigrant children in cages and dog whistling for white supremacists. And all the while allowing an even more rapacious form of capitalism to continue devouring the prosperity built when the working classes of the West knew who the real enemy was.
In the end, the folly of Workington Man is a microcosm of the tragedy that was this decade. Tragic, because we voted it to be so. There was nothing about working class identity or economic suffering that made this tragedy inevitable: contrary to popular view, it was the middle classes that swung most strongly for Brexit and Trump. “We’re all gutted, James”, claimed a life-long Labour voter in a call to James O’Brien’s LBC radio show. “No one wanted to do it. We don’t want Boris. We’d no choice.”
Yes you did, mate.
Yes you fucking did.