Thursday, April 12, 2007

"Our Culture, What's Left of It" by Theodore Dalrymple and "Wasting Police Time" by PC David Copperfield

I spent the weekend reading books that are compilations of articles that I could have obtained freely from the Internet. Wasting Police Time is the book of The Policeman's Blog and Theodore Dalrymple's articles can be found at his City Journal archive.

If enough people are like me and enjoy spending time reading books instead of putting in yet more hours in front of a computer then the blog book is quite a good business model. A fair amount of promotion can be done for free through the blogosphere, the popularity of the blog gives some indication that there are people who want to read what the author is saying and the book can be prepared quickly as most of the content is already written. The idea also has something of a precedent. Collections of work by prominent academics (think Friedman's Essays in Positive Economics) usually sell plenty of copies to university audiences who can get the original pieces from journals. Books are convenient and pleasant and plenty of people will pay for that convenience even if they can obtain the content elsewhere.

The two authors have very different styles. Dalrymple is a good candidate for best essayist of the modern era and his writing is impeccable. It has that magical ability to be both easy to read and thoroughly serious. Copperfield's style is colloquial which works well for an account from the front-line. They are also rather different books as one is a broad collection of very structured essays while the other is a selection from a blog.

Wasting Police Time is the funnier book. While few outside of certain public services like the police have had such sustained contact with the madness of the modern British poor all of us have suffered them at one point or other. Even at twenty three, having lived in well off, Conservative-voting areas my entire life and just emerging from university I have already, through a comprehensive education, seen more than enough to recognise the traits of many of the awful inhabitants of Newtown. These personalities have such an effect on the communities around them and exert such a pressure on beleaguered social services they demand so much of. The middle class need to be able to laugh or we’ll have a collective aneurism.

Copperfield’s book highlights the problem of monitoring bias. If we monitor the rates different police forces ‘solve crimes’ we encourage them to focus on crimes easily solved, often those that will not end in any action. Any attempt to improve police performance by more thorough monitoring of specific targets will likely just increase this bureaucracy. Direct democratic accountability for police forces seems the mechanism most likely to keep the police focussed upon genuine local priorities.

However, these and other inefficiencies are not sufficient to explain Copperfield’s account of what is going wrong with modern policing. Clearly a large part of the problem is a social decline which creates many families who are such a massively disproportionate drain on all elements of the state, as well as the police. Copperfield’s attempt to work out where families with these problems come from is limited although his fulsome praise for old people suggests that they have not been around forever.

Dalrymple’s book also has a lot of first hand evidence. Some of the stories he recounts from a life spent as a doctor in troubled communities are shocking and he sets them in the context of cultural collapse in large sections of Britain. However, his work also contains a deeper analysis of the root of Britain’s cultural problem. He asks the question of what has gone wrong to create the breakdown in so many families. His answer is that there has been a massive cultural decline in social standards as morality was written off, intellectually, as judgemental. This intellectual position rose to dominance and became accepted throughout society since the sixties. The physical and emotional cost of this decline has been felt most by the poor. Without a culture of self-reliance, hard work and committed families they fall into dreadful lifestyles. The welfare state prevents financial ruin but this may decrease the likelihood of people tackling the root of their problems. Collapsing families condemn the poor, and their children, to unhappiness and abuse.

These books are part of a revival in British social conservatism. Iain Duncan Smith has, since the end of his time as Conservative leader, been the political face of this revival. In my opinion, before this the social conservatives were far too reliant upon a religious agenda. They spent far too much of their time fighting increasing tolerance of minority activities such as homosexuality or representing religious views in the political discourse. This was always a case which was going to have a hard time in an increasingly irreligious society. It also had little appeal for someone, like me, without such a religious perspective. However, Dalrymple’s conservatism focuses on broader social and cultural concerns. It makes the case for the importance of family and taboo to the maintenance of civilised society.

It is hard, after reading Dalyrmple and Copperfield’s accounts to deny that something has gone seriously wrong in Britain’s culture. Many causes, from the libertarian desire to reduce dependence on the state to the objective of increasing social mobility, will not be achievable without addressing the problems the social conservatives identify. Tackling family breakdown is the key to reducing demand for the state. Solid families produce children capable of climbing the social ladder. This is why, I think, the new social conservative programme is likely to prove politically influential.

Both books are well worth your time if you wish to understand the degree of the problem British society faces. I do not think any political movement can point to a greater challenge to our future as a nation. They should be a wake-up call.


Gracchi said...

Matt is there also an aspect here of the sociological change of the make up of the working class going on as well. The change for instnace from union manufacturing to service jobs would be interesting to plot in this context because the Unions offered a little platoon and often say in the Welsh Mines they offered educational opportunities alongside their role as representatives.

Anonymous said...

If there has been a decline in social standards in recent years, it is far more likely to have its roots in the eighties than the sixties. It was that decade that saw a blowtorch being taken to the industries providing the jobs that stabilised many working class communities. It was that decade that nourished the idea that we should care more about what we could get out of our communities than what we could do for them.

Anonymous said...

You couldn't have read the stuff in Wasting Police Time on Copperfield's blog. His book is new stuff.