Monday, August 27, 2007

John O'Sullivan on the nature and effects of social acid

O'Sullivan's piece for the Telegraph is brilliant (while I will pick a few bits out you really should read the entire thing). This old quote is almost upsetting:

"In 1955, the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer described this tranquillity in his book Exploring English Character: "When we think of our faults, we put first, and by a long way, any lapse from our standards of non-aggression, bad temper, nagging, swearing and the like. Public life is more gentle than that reported for any society of comparable size and industrial complexity.""

While Gorer's description may be an overexaggeration Britons certainly did used to be noted for a certain dignity and reserve. What a thing to lose. What a dismal trade we have made in selling such decency down the river for our modern, crummy libertinism.

His conclusion sets out how hard it will be to undo the damage:

"Rebuilding a united democratic nation that governs itself with decency will be a difficult task. As Geoffrey Gorer pointed out in 1955, however, his gentle Britain had been sculpted by the Victorians from the recalcitrant marble of a brutalised society very much like today's Britain.

It will take leaders in the Victorian mould to do it, though."

I'm not sure that he isn't overly optimistic. Is there an audience, a market, for leaders in the Victorian mould?

There probably is among the masses. The genuine shock at the decline of decent values among the broader mass of Britons is reflected in the right-wing press, which always outsells its left-wing rivals.

However, the danger is that any leader hoping to represent those masses and put the policies their good instincts recommend into practice would run straight into institutional quicksand. A Civil Service asked to manage new policies that they do not understand or agree with can make a mess of them. O'Sullivan describes how the "police have become little more than the paramilitary wing of The Guardian" - the same has become true of much of the rest of the criminal justice system. With such tools political leaders would find the going difficult even if they were cast in a Victorian mould. Of course this does not excuse our present leaders who instead of being frustrated in attempts to make things better have made them immeasurably worse but it should give conservatives attempting to tackle the problems of breakdown Britain pause for thought.

That may be why social conservatism, or at least the labrador conservative version I find most attractive, needs to think about seemingly unconnected themes like the way our public services are delivered. Leave aside the courts for now as I'm currently having something of an intellectual crisis over them. So long as services like the police and education are directed through centralised bureaucracies unnaccountable to the people they will have the means to impose cultural liberalism and to corrupt or frustrate any attempt at improvement. To think that they can be bent to our will by politicians of the Right is dangerous naivety.

Without reform of the way our State works no changing of its priorities is practicable.


Vino S said...

Matt, its good that you point out that Britain in the 18th century had similar problems and social maladies to Britain today. There does, though, seem to have been a period between about 1880 and the 1950s when crime was notably lower than before or since [prior to the mid-19th century, crime levels were much higher. it is estimated that someone had more chance of being murdered in London in 1800 than 2000].

I, though, would say that some of the causes of the loss of social capital since the 1940s and 1950s have been the effects of the market economy. The market economy is itself a form of social acid that dissolves bonds between people other than the cash nexus. In addition, as society becomes more materialistic, perhaps people value themselves and others more based on their material possessions than on other factors. This contributes to a marked callousness in society that would not exist otherwise.

Mountjoy said...

The problem is exactly this: that the courts (and other such agencies/bodies) are institutionally liberal.

Matthew Sinclair said...


I'll respond with a new post.