Owen Jones (United Kingdom, 1984) has traveled to Tenerife to receive one of the main awards at the Culture & Business Pride festival. He is one of the most important columnists for The Guardian newspaper and has not hesitated to take advantage of his space to act as a speaker for LGBT rights. Claiming and recognizing himself with pride has cost him continuous harassment on the networks and several physical attacks in recent years, also coinciding with the escalation of the extreme right in several countries. "It's not a coincidence," he assures.
The journalist achieved international fame when he was just 26 years old with the book Chavs: the demonization of the working class, highlighted among the ten best essays of 2011 by The New York Times. Since then he has been named one of the hundred most influential left-wing thinkers in the world and has worked as a commentator on various European television channels and media. Despite all these achievements, in the interview he comes across as shy and modest. His priority remains the same: to defend the collective and stop the extreme right.
He has been recognized with the People Award in the middle of Pride month. What does this award mean to you?
It is very moving. Very sweet. But I am aware that all our rights and freedoms have been achieved because there are people who have sacrificed more than me and have paid a much higher cost. There are LGBT activists who have dedicated their entire lives to fighting without receiving any thanks or awards, and I think it is important to emphasize this.
In a recent column he admitted to having been half a victim and half an accomplice of homophobia at his school. How do you remember his childhood in the 90s?
I grew up in a town called Stockport where it wasn't easy being LGBT. I didn't come out of the closet until I was 20 years old. It was a very suffocating environment and homophobia was the way the kids interacted. It was more about policing what a man should be like than feeling disgust for gay people. If you didn't talk to women in a demeaning way, weren't violent or athletic enough, or were maybe too studious, you were going to get a homophobic attack as a result.
Also, at that time, laws against homosexuals were still in force. Of course there were no civil unions or anti-discrimination laws, but there was a rule introduced by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s that prohibited the so-called "promotion of homosexual lifestyles" in schools. That meant that LGBT issues were not discussed at school because the teachers were afraid they would be reported.
There are parties today that seek to rescue something similar to the Thatcher norm and that are against children receiving sex education. In your experience, how does receiving good training and having references change life?
It changes everything. Because of that education, I internalized a lot of homophobia, even once I had already come out of the closet. He used to say stupid things like "I'm not a gay man, but a man who happens to be gay." He was in a bad mood all day for being gay. The idea of being one was pretty scary and lonely. The mood in the 1990s was clouded by the previous HIV pandemic. It also had a lot to do with the fact that gay representation on television was very limited: either their existence was tragic or they only appeared sexualized and portrayed as clowns. Even George Michael was a schoolyard joke.
What was the first cultural product that opened your eyes?
(Smiles) For me, the Queer As Folk series. It came out in 1998 and caused a lot of controversy in the UK. It was very hedonistic and had rough spots, but it was an important milestone because it was the first time that a TV series focused on gay people and obviously showed gay sex. For older millennials, it was our big cultural moment. Now the young have Heartstopper. In that sense, life was much harder in the 1990s than it is today.
On the one hand that is true, but on the other we do not stop denouncing brutal attacks against the collective. What do you think is happening?
In general there is a better environment for a gay child to grow up, there is no doubt about that. But at the same time, hate crimes against the LGBT community have increased: homophobic attacks have tripled and transphobic attacks have quadrupled in the United Kingdom. Our country is very hostile to trans people. You know, homophobia is still a violent means for men to discipline each other and you still see it in schools. But if you look at the polls, the attitude of young people on this subject is much better than any previous generation. More so in Spain than in the UK, which I find interesting because Spain was ruled until recently by a far-right dictatorship and decriminalized homosexuality later than England and Wales.
Things have gotten complicated. The anti-trans campaign in the UK is pervasive and has had an impact on the entire LGBT community. At the same time, women's rights in the United States are regressing dramatically and that's scary. We have seen extreme right-wing extremism grow, from Vox here in Spain and from far-right movements in the United States. Then there is a contradiction. There are better social attitudes among younger people and there is more assertive and violent right-wing extremism.
A few years ago he was attacked by a neo-Nazi, so he has suffered this escalation of violence in his own flesh. How do you live with it?
It's true. I was attacked by a group of neo-Nazis in 2019 on my birthday. It was later discovered that it was a homophobic attack. The main aggressor was sent to prison for almost three years, although I did not support the sentence because I do not see prison as a means to deal with the extreme right or with homophobia. His house was full of neo-Nazi symbols, SS flags, skulls of death and all that. That was the most extreme example. Another time I was surrounded in a demonstration. So yeah, I get homophobic slurs every day and the attacks are getting worse. I've just gotten used to it. It is strange, because I received my first homophobic attack at the age of 30 and in my opinion it is because of the rise of the extreme right. Extremism has been emboldened and legitimized and often has a very crude anti-LGTB character.
Speaking now of the book that made him known in 2011, Chavs. The demonization of the working class, how do you think the working class has changed during these years to become absorbed at times by the extreme right?
The working class has suffered greatly since I wrote it. I already warned in the book that if the left and the social democratic parties abandoned it, the right would take their place. And that's what happened. It wasn't about economics or whether they are exploited by capitalist bosses, it was about culture: they have been convinced that the liberal or left urban elite looks down on them, is trying to destroy them with multiculturalism and immigration and hates their patriotism . Even if they are like Donald Trump, enormously rich, they pretend to get their shoes dirty and get closer to the ordinary life of the common man, which is a lie because they enact policies that help the rich. But that is what has changed. The right has appropriated working class language and subverted it for conservative ends.
Is it difficult for the left to win back some layers of the population that represented its traditional support? Why is it costing you so much?
Culture wars are very toxic for the left. The goal of the left is to argue that there are different interests between the majority and the elites. That the vast majority should receive better salaries, better pensions and better public services, while the elites want to make profits and avoid taxes. But if you have a culture war, as you do in the UK, then instead of the many against the few, it becomes those who stay against those who leave the European Union. That is the new identity.
An underpaid black worker from London voted to stay, is he on the same side as the head of a commercial bank? No, his interests are completely different. But what makes a culture war is that people from different classes seem to be on the same side. That is not the division that matters. The division that matters is who has wealth and power and who does not have wealth and power. But a culture war destroys that and destroys the left.
What seems indestructible is Boris Johnson. After the scandal of the parties held in Downing Street during the pandemic, how do British citizens perceive the Prime Minister?
He is very unpopular because he is a lying cheater who broke the laws he was in charge of and was supposed to communicate to the country. He threw parties at 10 Downing Street when others couldn't hold hands with their dying relatives or had to attend their funerals via Zoom. Homeless people were accused of violating quarantine rules and children were even fined. Right now we have a cost of living crisis as well as a government crisis. Obviously, I think everyone thinks he's a liar, even the people who support him.
And how can it be that it has not meant his political death?
The problem is that Labor offers no inspiring alternative. It seems that they do not even exist as an opposition. Labor should be up in the polls right now, but there was one the other day that said Boris Johnson was still preferred as prime minister over Keir Starmer. How is that possible? People not only don't like Boris Johnson, they're mad at him. But Starmer is boring, useless, and a waste of space who pretended to be on the left. Both are dishonest politicians and the UK is caught between them in the midst of a crisis. It's a tragedy.
We speak with concern about extreme right-wing leaders such as Meloni or Abascal, but the measure that the British Government wants to carry out deport to Rwanda any asylum seeker, wherever it comes from, is typical of the extreme right. Have we underestimated Boris Johnson and the Tories?
Johnson is a danger, obviously. He is someone who has no morals and no scruples. He's not far right because he doesn't believe in anything, you know? But he is an opportunist and believes he can harness anti-immigration and anti-refugee sentiment to protect himself and conservatives. That policy you mention is disgusting. I was at a protest the day before I came here. Deporting anyone who arrives in the UK via legal routes and sending them to a poor country with no human rights is downright obscene.
I am glad that there are big protests, civil disobedience and that justice prevented it. But it is just the sign that the Conservative Party has moved in a very right-wing direction. It is the culmination of years spent fostering intolerance and prejudice against refugees and migrants. There is a part that will encourage the reactionary, xenophobic and racist wing of the British electorate, but I think for many people it is too much and they are absolutely disgusted. But yes, Boris is a dangerous politician because he doesn't believe in anything but he is willing to do anything to maintain his position.
Many politicians have been lying low during the pandemic and the war in Ukraine to strike a blow with more conservative policies and more retrograde speeches. Now that there are no smoke screens, what future awaits us?
When you have a social crisis, far-right movements become more assertive and politicians are more tempted to shift people's anger in a racist and xenophobic direction. My hope is young people, because I believe that many in Britain and Spain are progressive by nature, who have suffered the consequences of austerity and who are repulsed by Vox or Boris Johnson. But I think we're going to see a lot of horrors in terms of right-wing extremism and populism. The potential entry of Vox in the Government of Spain is one of the examples. Things could get significantly worse and it's very depressing. Although I have hope in young people, we cannot wait for them to come of age: we have to organize now.