Britain is Not Broken: Can We Tell The Complex Story of Modern LIfe?
The Scotsman, July 27th 2009
A spectre is haunting Britain. Fear stalks the land. Older people are scared to go out at night. Younger people are demonised. There is a general sense of malaise about the decline of good manners, respect and trust.
‘Is it Just Me or Is Everything Shit?’, ‘Grumpy Old Men’ and other such titles fill bookshops. These tap into a wider belief that something has gone wrong in society and illustrate the strength of a culture and mentality of pessimism.
Step forward, from the Tory perspective, ‘Broken Britain’. Associated with Iain Duncan Smith and the Centre for Social Justice this argues that the fabric of modern Britain is literally falling apart. Broken families, the rise in one parent households, teenage pregnancies, ‘the dependency culture’ of millions trapped on welfare, the scourge of drugs, and much more.
‘Broken Britain’ has allowed David Cameron, Conservative leader, to talk about once dangerous areas for a Tory. When Duncan Smith articulates the need for male role models for young men or Cameron talks of the ‘need to have a revolution in the way that we provide welfare and education’, something is at work.
The Tories have learned to talk a transformational language, short of specifics, on Labour’s territory. This is smart politics, positioning, utterly Blairite and has caught and partly shaped the zeitgeist.
The centre-left version of this does not have one single snappy title, but can be found in numerous books trying to understand Blair’s Britain. There is the writing of Neal Lawson on the ubiquitous reach of shopping, Sue Palmer addressing the pressures on parents bringing up children, and even a group of ex-Communists going on about ‘Feel Bad Britain’.
This critique lays into the pervasive power of hyper-individualism, the commercialisation of large parts of public life once protected, and the allure of a deregulated, pro-corporate agenda which has left people feeling powerless and helpless.
Some commentators don’t understand the power of these negative accounts and proffer a panglossian positive view of the forward march of globalisation both at home and internationally.
Charlie Leadbeater, one of Tony Blair’s favourite thinkers, wrote an entire book on why the global pessimists were wrong. Instead, he celebrated that we inhabit a world where we live longer, healthier and richer lives. This might be true of most of Britain, but across the globe is a little myopic.
A better case is made by Polly Toynbee, Guardian columnist, who has consistently railed against the all-pervasive pessimism of British politics. She has for years tried to reiterate ‘the good news’ story of Labour in office: crime falling, improving education and health, and Sure Start improving the early years of the most deprived families.
What Leadbeater and Toynbee don’t acknowledge is that the power of the negative accounts have a deep foundation in the crisis of modernity and loss of hope in the idea of progress which can be found across the Western world.
The UK, US and comparable societies have seen fundamental changes in the last thirty to forty years, economically, socially and culturally that have unsettled and challenged existing roles and norms. For example, across the West the role of women and gays has been transformed in a way which most people would regard as beneficial and a good thing.
Yet, these changes raise difficult questions about what it is to be a man, the notion of a ‘breadwinner’, the issue of what a family is, marriage and how we bring up children. Thus, even change which most people regard as positive, releases all sorts of anxieties and fears.
The left and right pessimisms are partial explanations to this. ‘Broken Britain’ is narrow in its list of culprits: the nanny state, lack of personal responsibility, welfare dependency. Like many Tory accounts it over-emphasises the poor as the problem and the solution, while ignoring inequality, bankers and corporate irresponsibility. It is silent on power, how it is used, who uses it and for what.
‘Broken Britain’ in Jim McCormick’s words, of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, does not address ‘for whom is Britain broken and who has paid the biggest price’, namely unskilled young people. He believes ‘Broken Britain’ only offers ‘ghettoised solutions for the poor’ without addressing our ‘dysfunctional banking and credit system’.
The left version can be equally tiresome with little to say about the dangers of the over-reaching state or the endemic welfare dependency and worklessness which has disfigured communities across Britain for two generations. It is unable to give an accurate account of the gains and limits of New Labour: of the one in five children taken out of poverty, or address that we do not know how sustainable those gains will turn out to be.
Our modern age needs new narratives and accounts which dare to offer explanations of the complexities and contradictions of our times. That explain that our sense of loss and gain, emancipation and entrapment, are part of the same processes of economic, social and cultural change. Sandy Campbell, of Working Rite, a project that aids young boys to become men through apprenticeships, believes we need to address a range of things now seen as off-limits by ‘the PC agenda’ such as ‘morality, marriage and commitment’.
There is a need to move beyond simplistic positive and negative accounts of the world and see the complex, nuanced reality of our society: of increased cosmopolitanness which makes it more acceptable to be gay, middle class and successful, while increasingly harsh and uncertain for those on state benefits or low paid jobs.
That requires an honest conversation which involves being truthful about the sort of changes which happened in the last thirty years, what has been gained and what has been lost. People up and down the land across the classes and generations know this intuitively without being told so by politicians and the media. Isn’t it time to have a grown-up debate about who we are, what we became and what we want to amount to as a society?