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The riots in the UK last month certainly demonstrated that David Cameron had been right to say that Britain was a broken society. I think the causes are clear and the cures unattainable.
First of all, in the sixties, the Labour government moved away from the post-war system of grammar schools for bright children (those who passed an “eleven-plus” examination) and secondary moderns for those less able (those who failed).
The safety net for those who were unlucky to fail was insufficient, but the broad principle was inspirational. For doctrinal egalitarians, though, it was not enough that bright pupils had a strong chance of doing well regardless of socio-economic disadvantages. In 1967, education was recast entirely as a social engineering project - in the name of (so-called) equality of opportunity.
Since then, the sentimental idea that the intellectual differences between children are not real - or that they are real, but too upsetting to acknowledge - has taken hold of the popular imagination, whereas once such nonsense could only have been believed by a sociologist.
My son went to one of the comprehensives that replaced academically selective grammar schools. He is now studying law at university. Since he was likely to be correct about which of his peers would have passed and failed the eleven-plus had it still existed, I asked him if any of the likely failures had gone on to do surprisingly well under the comprehensive system.
Not one. I then asked if any of those whom he would have expected to pass the eleven-plus had gone on to do less well than he would have expected.
And then of course there is the question of the content of the education, even for those who “do well”. My son would be quick to acknowledge that he is an academic success but that he knows virtually nothing of British or European literature prior to the twentieth century. Indeed, he knows little of British or European history, even including the twentieth century. He knows nothing of the Bible, or the Christian tradition. Luckily, he is genuinely intelligent, and has a magpie-like gift for intellectual theft, seeing much of an idea from even the tiniest stolen morsel.
Though less intelligent, I did much the same myself when I was at school, and for the rest of my life. It was just that I had been given bigger morsels to work with. When I was sixteen I was genuinely immersed in Charles Lamb and Pliny, but the connectedness with other things was lacking. It was a map that helped me find my way to Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein and Virginia Woolf - but I was always going to need the notes at the back to get to grips with “The Waste Land”.
So there you go. Others will be better than me at teasing out more of the sad story, but the first exhibit in the trial of broken Britain has to be the ideological and instrumental destruction of humane education.
The second exhibit is another disaster from the sixties: the emergence of the orthodoxy that the traditional family is at odds with freedom. The freedom of men to walk out on their children - and the freedom of women to have children without their father(s) being involved at all - received intellectual and moral assent in this decade. And a few years later we had reached the point when Michael Ignatieff could call it an act of liberal imagination for a father to walk out on his children. Ignatieff actually saw desertion as a moral action, resisting as it did the devouring claims of family life.
And now the third exhibit. This is the way in which the humanities departments in our universities are now largely given over to producing those who will work in (and vote for) the perpetual inflation of the public sector, by which I mean local and central government, the health service and schools - and the universities themselves.
When I was unemployed in 1977, I worked on a so-called job creation scheme where the Council would intentionally deliver building materials to the wrong part of a building site - so that we could then shift them to where they could have been delivered originally. Much of the public sector in Britain is like this, but few working within it can see the truth. Obviously, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, but it’s more subtle than just blatant cynicism.
Even repression doesn’t catch it well enough. If you try to imagine thousands of young people with degrees in inverted negative methodology - people who have been to university to learn that intentionally delivering building materials to the wrong part of a building site is actually desirable - you might get a whiff of the absurdity here.
Here’s a simple illustration. Committee meetings in local government require a great deal of administrative preparation to avoid them descending into chaos. You need not only a pre-meeting but also a “pre-pre-meeting” before it, and an agenda meeting even earlier. And a meeting of the corporate management team at the very beginning of the whole process, so that all senior managers can be warned about all reports envisaged on all subjects for all committees. Agreed?
Well, no. In fact, everything in the preceding paragraph is nonsense, but there are a lot of people nowadays who are qualified to degree level in articulating and defending an Alice-in-Wonderland culture in which nonsense is the new sense and common sense is colonialism. The truth is that local government meetings don’t have to descend into chaos if you don’t do all this preparatory work, but it sounds plausible that they might. Then it becomes obvious that they would - if you’re talking to someone with a degree in Strengthening Local Democracy (Honours) from the University of South-East Goole.
All to support a society free of the devouring claims of family life, I suppose.
Of course the example of managing committees is just a tiny one - known to me from my background in local government - but it should allow my reader to imagine thousands of variations on its basic theme, all lodged inoperably deep in the jargon and doublespeak of a public sector unable to be reformed, not least because it considers itself to be the extra-parliamentary opposition to any Conservative government that would try to reform it.
It’s easy to say that the public sector should just be abolished altogether, but this is mere fantasy since its older purposes are worthy and its enormous workforce cannot simply be dumped on the dole - even though more acerbic critics probably think that this should happen. But the truth is that it shouldn’t happen and won’t happen, and that privatisation - which obviously has to be contemplated as some sort of possible long-term solution - is certainly not to be romanticised. I’m not at all sure that the money-men are less delusional than the ideological left.
It really is a desperately unhappy picture, and the only answer seems to be in the irrecoverable nuance of the past, when people in Britain managed to go in for a little bit of this and a little bit of that. These were the days when your family doctor came out in the middle of the night to visit a toddler with a temperature, even though Mum was probably just being a bit fretful. But those days have gone forever.
And there’s your fourth exhibit. An absence.
But what used to be there? Obviously, you can say the family doctor used to be there. Or the inspirational teacher. As Wittgenstein put it, value shows itself.
So maybe we have no real values.Of course we have plenty of codified rights (if rather fewer obligations) and lots of politically correct excuses for relativism. But the original modes of human sympathy have been flattened out into featureless doctrine. It inspires no one who is not already part of it.
There are no values left in our burnt-out society. But spirits hover above the ashes.