The problem with the Prime Minister’s "Broken Society" meme is that it’s not obvious society is more broken now than it always has been. Sure, there are serious problems and some of them are deep-rooted and, perhaps, the overall level of hopeless venality is higher than once it was but, tempting though it is to conclude this might be likely, the fact remains we are much more likely to be aware of contemporary problems and equally likely to gloss over the problems of past ages.
This is especially obviously the case if we pause to consider aspects of modern Britain that, once unthinkable, have become so commonplace we sometimes forget how much better life is now in so many ways for so many people. Millions of women, for instance, have opportunities and choices unavailable to past generations. Something similar might be said of "minority Britain" and gays and lesbians.
Are there problems? Of course there are. Too many Britons lead dull and frustrated lives. Too many children are trapped in schools ill-equipped to serve them properly. Too many struggle to find satisfying or dignifying work. Too many are dependent upon welfare. Too many lead sadly unfulfilling lives.
Nevertheless it is easy to forget that for a long time and for millions of people life was hard, brutish and short. Nor is it obvious that things are worse than they were in, say, the 1970s or early 80s. On the contrary and despite the national penchant for grumbling, there are good reasons to think many things are much better and that this is, for the time being anyway, a kinder, more tolerant, open, liberal society than it ever was before.
And as Chris Cook points out, all this talk of "moral collapse" requires us to ignore ample evidence that some things have been getting better:
Perhaps the statistics are wrong or misleading. Clearly they’re not enough to convince many people that many things are actually better than they once were. The desire to think the past a different country where they did things better is always strong. And doubtless some things have been lost since those halcyon post-war days. But, again, that’s not the whole picture.
For instance: stable families and marriage are good things. But it’s also good that women are so much less likely to be trapped in abusive marriages. It’s a good thing that domestic violence has been stigmatised. A good thing too that rape is no longer viewed so indulgently as once it was. And it’s a good thing that homosexuality is no longer grounds for imprisonment.
Equally, the idea of the Bobbie on the beat, of Dixon of Dock Green and all the rest of it, is lovely. But it’s also lovely that it’s no longer thought acceptable for the police to beat confessions out of suspects, nor for them to fit up innocent people because it’s easy or convenient to do so. And it’s grand that the state no longer executes innocent prisoners.
The present moral panic will, one hopes, pass. We look back on past outbreaks of hysteria and wonder why our predecessors were so exercised by trivial concerns. How silly they look, we say, even as our newspapers try to persuade us that they were all so much more sensible and serious back then. Perhaps they were but I’m not sure that’s so. Because if it’s not one thing it’s another thing and one constant is that the press and political classes are always scared of, or revolted by, whatever it is that passes for youth culture at any given point.
Maybe it is worse today but the Doom and Gloom brigade has never been short of volunteers. We’ve always been headed to hell. So hats-off to Bagehot for this post which offers a bracing catalogue of past episodes of moral panic. Among the choice cuts, many of them culled from a sadly out-of-print-but-available-second-hand book by Geoffrey Pearson called Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears. Bagehot asks Just what happens if we take a time machine back three decades, to the time before the revolutionary transformation identified by Melanie Phillips? Well, this:
"Hooligan" compares the 1958 and 1978 Conservative Party annual conferences. In 1978, buffetted by calls from the floor for a return to the birch and "Saturday night floggings" for football hooligans, it notes, the future home secretary William Whitelaw pledged a new regime of short-sharp-shock Detention Centres modelled on army discipline.
And in 1958? The agenda included a debate on a "disturbing increase in criminal offences", and speakers asserting that "our wives and mothers, if they are left alone in the house at night, are frightened to open their doors", and that "over the past 25 years we in this country, through misguided sentiment, have cast aside the word "discipline", and now we are suffering from it". Delegates fumed over the "leniency" of modern courts and the way that young people were "no longer frightened of the police". Over calls from the floor for a return to flogging, the home secretary R A Butler pledged a programme of building short-sharp-shock Detention Centres, wherein "there should be a maximum of hard work and a minimum of amusement."
Still, no African-American rap music to corrupt the young, at least. Alas, "Hooligan" notes, the country was in the grip of a moral panic about rock and roll. In a 1956 front page editorial, headlined "Rock ‘n Roll Babies" the Daily Mail declared:
It is deplorable. It is tribal. And it is from America. It follows rag-time, blues, dixie, jazz, hot cha-cha and the boogie-woogie, which surely originated in the jungle. We sometimes wonder whether this is the negro’s revenge.
What of parents, surely free to smack and belt their way to discipline in those days?
Not according to the Recorder of Bradford, Frank Beverley, recorded in his law court in 1951 inveighing on the crimes that could be traced to poor parenting:
Parents at this time, unfortunately, do not take sufficient care in bringing up their children. They expect someone else to be responsible.
Back to 1932, and a guide to the work of boys’ clubs lamented:
The passing of parental authority, defiance of pre-war conventions, the absence of restraint, the wildness of extremes, the confusion of unrelated liberties, the wholesale drift away from churches.
There’s much, much more reaching back to the 18th century, taking in the threat of silent films, music halls, panics about "garrotting", the problem of working mothers and much, much else besides.
The point is less that these panics seem quaint now but that they were taken dreadfully seriously at the time. We might, then, consider whether our own response to these latest panics will one day be judged as odd or silly as so many of these from our past. Again, these were tumults thought likely to pull apart the fibres of British society. And yet society survived and even, sometimes, thrived.
Again, none of this means there are not serious issues that need attention. But a measure of perspective may be helpful. No reforms can ever produce total success and, alas, there will always be parts of society untouched by progress. That does not mean we should cut our losses or abandon them, merely that in all societies, regardless of time and circumstance, some have been left behind and failure is a reliably constant a feature of the human condition. So, of course, has moral panic.