Broken Britain?

by David Wemyss (September 2011)

The riots in the UK last month certainly justified David Cameron’s remark four years ago that Britain was a broken society. And to those of a conservative persuasion the causes look clear.

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 T S Eliot – 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, for many people, the first exhibit in the trial of broken Britain will be the ideological and instrumental destruction of humane education.

The second exhibit will probably be 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 the third exhibit? Perhaps 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 (many of which are not remotely worthy of the name).

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.

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.

How did we end up like this? Here are a couple of illustrations. Before and after the Second World War, Harold Nicolson was a diplomat, politician, literary critic and diarist. And a gardener too – the famous garden at Sissinghurst. He married Vita Sackville West (“Portrait of a Marriage”) and was a fringe member of the Bloomsbury set. All the leading political figures of the day flit in and out of the pages of his journals, including Winston Churchill. His wife had a relationship with Virginia Woolf, whose Orlando was based on another of Vita’s affairs. You get the idea – both partners enjoyed a number of same-sex liaisons – but the marriage, although eccentric, seems to have been a happy one.

In 1945 he wrote to his wife as follows:

I do not pretend to enjoy a socialist system, but I think it right and am prepared to make personal sacrifices for it. But what I do loathe and fear is the decline in spiritual values. Truthfulness is giving place to bigotry. Cruelty is replacing tolerance. And the sanctity of the individual is being blurred by mass emotions. I fear I have not got a communal mind.

Nicolson was a would-be aristocrat who actually thought (at the time of writing – he changed his mind) that socialism was the right thing to do. Nevertheless, he could not shake off the sense that it conflicted with much more than just the freedom to have and retain money. The real offence was that words were being overcome by instrumental humanism. It was beginning to be the case that people were taken to be kindly only if they espoused the correct political views.

Twenty-four years later Enoch Powell said it better – but by then the battle was lost.

Compassion is something individual and voluntary. You cannot compel somebody to be compassionate; nor can you be vicariously compassionate by compelling somebody else. The Good Samaritan would have lost all merit if a Roman soldier were standing by the road with a drawn sword, telling him to get on with it and look after the injured stranger. Because there can be no such thing as compulsory compassion or vicarious compassion, therefore it is a humbugging abuse of language, intended to deceive, to talk about a 'compassionate Government' or a 'compassionate party' – or even a 'compassionate society' – unless one simply means by that a society which happens to contain a lot of compassionate individuals. Nor let anyone protest: 'Oh, but when I vote for a party which will “make provision on an unprecedented scale for those in need of help”, it means I too shall have to pay my whack and so I am being compassionate after all'. Nonsense! The purpose of your vote is not to make yourself subscribe – that you can freely do at any time – but to compel others.

To me, sensing the truth of this is at the heart of a sound human understanding. Mind you, the lily is a bit gilded – supporting the health service or the welfare state has nothing to do with compassion, but it might still be a well-intentioned decision to choose one social policy rather than another. And around the same time as Harold Nicolson was writing to his wife about the sanctity of the individual being blurred by mass emotions, a much spikier left-wing figure was proving that she could rise above those emotions – even though they must have been circling around her and crowding her every hour of every day.

Ellen Wilkinson was Minister for Education in the Labour government until her death in 1947. Before saying more about her, it’s important to make clear to American readers that the move away from academic selection in Britain came in 1967, and so had nothing to do with the “land fit for heroes” which Labour had set out to build after the Second World War. In fact the famous Butler Act of 1944 (guided through its post-war years by Wilkinson) actually established the system of grammar schools swept away by the same party twenty years later.

The fear that some children might be missing out on grammar schools undeservedly was the popular justification for the reforms of 1967, when Shirley Williams turned education into a social engineering project. However, when you consider that her predecessor Tony Crosland was said to have vowed to “shut every fucking Grammar School in the country”, you also have to wonder about sheer vindictiveness – and fantasies about equality of outcome.

Anyway, Ellen Wilkinson could have told them both to think again. She had spoken before her death of her own pre-war education in Manchester as part of an intelligent handful constantly held up and made to wait for the rest of the class, which was why she had rejected all talk of equality of opportunity (even though the idea was well-established on the hard left of her party before and during the war) and emphasised instead the concrete goodwill of finding the clever pupils and helping them to get on, and finding the less able pupils and helping them make the most of their abilities.

To say such things today, of course, is politically incorrect, and so, even though the post-war British Labour Party is in the left’s hall of fame, its educational reforms are now too right-wing for the British Conservative Party to set out to recover in our own time. In other words, what it means to be on the left can change dramatically –  although perhaps Harold Nicolson discerned that it was always likely to change for the worse.

So what’s the moral in all of this? It’s difficult to say. There’s an assumption that creative spirits are imaginative, that imaginative people notice the plight of others, and that noticing the plight of others requires socialism. Of course the second and third of these propositions are nonsensical, and the first is (at best) a useless tautology – but the feeling persists that greatness of spirit inclines towards the common man.

And so it does. But, for a long time now, sympathy for the common man has been conflated with crude egalitarianism. The original modes of that sympathy have been flattened out into featureless doctrine. It inspires no one who isn’t already part of it, but the uninspired can’t put their finger on what is wrong with them – which is why David Cameron’s remark that we have a broken society over here strikes a chord but remains strangely unsatisfying.

It really is a desperately unhappy picture, and the only answer seems to be in the irrecoverable nuance of the (recent) 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. And you have to give credit where credit is due: post-war socialism clearly played its part in this golden age. But those days have gone forever – and socialism more than played its part in that too.

Maybe that’s the final exhibit. An absence.

But what used to be there?

Obviously, you can say the family doctor used to be there. Or the inspirational teacher. Anyone whose self-understanding had not been socialised in the modern sense – and  so was all the more richly social.

Maybe this is what we no longer understand. The point we’re always missing.


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