Monday, 29 March 2010

Britain is the stuff of Red Tory nightmares

Red Tory by Phillip Blond is published today. Here is the opening paragraph:


Something is seriously wrong with Britain. This is an intuition that everybody, whatever their politics, shares. But what is this malaise from which we suffer? We all know the symptoms: increasing fear, lack of trust and abundance of suspicion, long-term increase in violent crime, loneliness, recession, depression, private and public debt, family breakdown, divorce, infidelity, bureaucratic and unresponsive public services, dirty hospitals, powerlessness, the rise of racism, excessive paperwork, longer and longer working hours, children who have no parents, concentrated and seemingly immovable poverty, the permanence of inequality, teenagers with knives, teenagers being knifed, the decline of politeness, aggressive youths, the erosion of our civil liberties and the increase of obsessive surveillance, public authoritarianism, private libertarianism, general pointlessness, political cynicism and a pervading lack of daily joy.


Blimey! So how does Phillip Blond ever summon up the courage to leave the house?

And don't even think of disagreeing: "This intuition is not a private opinion held by a disgruntled few but a public discernment universally shared though seldom addressed", writes Blond. (It turns out that these are mere symptoms of the malaise which "reflects, and is caused by a wholesale collapse of British culture, virtue and belief", a collapse "best understood as the disappearance of British civil society").

The "general pointlessness" and "pervading lack of daily joy" sound pretty subjective, but that single paragraph catalogue of despair contains more than a dozen verifiable, empirical claims. So the curious may wonder how much of it might be true. Some of Blond's claims may stand up - but in several cases, the opposite is true.

On "lack of trust and abundance of suspicion", international evidence suggests Britain is a comparatively high trust society in which trust has increased. The Pew Global Attitudes (2007) found 65% of us think "most people in this society are trustworthy", up from 55% in 1991. So Britain rose to 4th in the 47 nation study, behind China, Sweden and Canada, but ahead of Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the United States.

On the "long-term increase in violent crime", violent crime has fallen significantly across the last 15 years: that unprecedented, sustained fall has largely reversed and eliminated the steep rise in the '80s and early '90s.

Certainly "longer and longer working hours" have in fact been falling, whether one takes the long or short view. Average hours worked for full-time workers dropping from 38.7 hours to 37.0 hours for full-time workers from 1996 to 2008. The average was over 50 hours a century ago, before this fell steadily to 35 hours by the end of the 1970s. Working hours then rose in the 1980s and early 1990s, before starting to fall again from the mid-1990s to now. Despite that fall, more Brits do work longer hours than elsewhere in Europe; though fewer than do so than in the US, Japan or Australia.

On "the rise of racism", I am confident that racism in Britain has declined significantly in my lifetime. The British Social Attitudes series shows gradual but sustained intergenerational falls in racism and indicators associated with racial prejudice: for example, 60% of those born in the 1910s oppose mixed-race marriages compared to 24% of those born in the 1970s. The 25% saying that they regarded themselves very (2%) or a little (23%) racially prejudiced in 2000 had fallen from 35% (5%, 29%) in 1985. In a 2002 MORI poll, 59% of us agreed that Britain is a place with good relations between people of different ethnic backgrounds, while 20% disagreed (+39%); interestingly non-white Brits were more optimistic (+51%), agreeing by 67% to 16%.

On "seemingly immovable poverty" and "the permanence of inequality", there is clearly something important in concerns about the concentration and generational transmission of poverty and disadvantage. But there is much less evidence of a permanent, entrenched and immobile 'underclass' in the UK (contrasted to the US) than is commonly asserted.

On the long view, Britain had the most volatile and changing (so "movable" and "impermanent") levels of inequality across any western country in the 20th century, largely because we have been a 'swing state' between different conceptions of what's fair. This shows that levels of inequality are not permanent and immutable, but products of our social and political choices. The sharp falls in pensioner poverty, the modest falls in child poverty alongside an increase in poverty for single adults of the last decade again reflect the importance of social, politivcal and policy choices.

***

So a good deal of the evidence about Blond's specific charges again supports The Economist's earlier detailed rebuttal of the general 'broken society' thesis, offering the measured and convincing conclusion that:


It would be idiotic to claim that Britain is perfect. But the story of broad decline is simply untrue. Stepping back from the glare of the latest appalling tale, it is clear that by most measures things have been getting better for a good decade and a half. In suggesting that the rot runs right through society, the Tories fail to pinpoint the areas where genuine crises persist. The broken-Britain myth is worse than scaremongering—it glosses over those who need help most.


***

Blond makes a somewhat more nuanced claim about what's better and worse on page two, albeit as part of an attack on "university lecturers in cultural studies departments [who] claim that everybody has always thought that things were better in the past":


Historically, however, we know now that our elders (who for the most part are our betters) are right. Though some things were clearly worse (income levels and general health), many things were better in the past (familial security, human associations and the percentage of carbon in the atmosphere).


And some of the Europhile liberal-left may be pleased to hear Blond's Will Hutton-like paean to the economies and societies of continental Europe in explaining why it doesn't have to be like this:


Even one trip abroad to France or Germany will show that this arrangement need not prevail. On the continent they still have what one can call a society and they still practice public expressions of a diverse culture. Partly this is because they long ago decided that the interests of the state and the market don't necessarily coincide.


Yet later we have this


It is not too much of an exaggeration to speak of a totalitarian culture developing in Britain ... A culture of suspicion has developed that would be familiar to anyone who has seen The Lives of Others, the great film about the East German Stasi


followed by, when discussing "public drunkenness followed the radical deregulation of pub opening hours, and "the marketing that children are subjected to by our toy and clothing manufacturers":


We fondly imagine that we differ in our private thoughts and opinions - but this is Solzhenitsyn's mechanism for imagining freedom while imprisoned in the Gulag.


I don't think exaggeration really covers that.

There are many things right and wrong about British society - and we can vigorously debate different views of what they are. Let's more vigilantly defend our civil liberties too. But what a misleading and pointless insult to those who have lived in societies of almost total, stifling unfreedom of thought and speech, without any political or civil rights, to pretend that we can not see any moral difference between our society and theirs.

9 comments:

Robert said...

What civil liberties for god sake we are watched all day spied on, told to inform on each other, what a lot of New labour crap.

richard.blogger said...

The whole Broken Britain narrative is nasty. I also think it is counter-productive. It is saying "you are shit, now vote for me", who would think that is a sensible thing to say?

I suggest Blond has a read of CJ Stone's Guardian columns from the 90s to see what Broken Britain was like under the Tories. Then perhaps he might see that his lot are far worse.

Stuart White said...

At least Phillip Blond is right about civil liberties!

Stuart White said...

Actually, to develop this point, I do think there is an important germ of truth in Blond's characterisically (and silly) exaggerated talk of 'totalitarianism'. As so often, his exaggeration converts a potentially good point into a daft claim. But I think the germ of truth is about the changing character of the state's relationship to the citizen. As I argue in a review of the book of the Convention on Modern Liberty, over at OurKingdom, I think there is a lot of solid evidence - certainly, testimony - about how how recent legislation and police practice are corrupting this relationship, the underlying message being: 'We, the state, start from the premise that you are suspect and we are entitled to treat you, the citizen, arbitrarily.' We shouldn't let Blond's rhetorical overkill get in the way of acknowledging this.

Sunder Katwala said...

Stuart

i agree about that.

The Solzhenetsyn point is not about civil liberties, but appears to be directly about the impact of marketing and advertising on society, particularly towards children. Again, I am in favour of the substantive point being made: ie tightening up considerably and sympathetic in principle to stopping entirely TV advertising aimed specifically at children (eg toys, etc). But its a very inappropriate comparison/analaogy.

Sunder Katwala said...

I will be hosting a conversation with Mr Blond at Foyles on Wednesday night (6.30pm) in which I will be in somewhat less combative mode. But we can also look forward to a Red Tory riposte, as Mr Blond tweeted this about 3pm today:

"I will give a riposte to the rather sanguine and a historical stuff on next left - right after I have finished my speech for tonight ....."

I struggle with how the particular facts cited on eg working hours or racism can be "ahistorical", but look forward to finding out ...

badconscience said...

Stuart,

I agree with your points - but I'd find it easier to credit Blond with the same insights if he hadn't just been in the USA prattling on about the terribleness of "rights-based societies".

Whereas sensible people think "ok, the state needs to go back in its box and respect individual citizens, for example by taking seriously and respecting their individual rights", Blond thinks "hmm, authoritarianism - let's just get rid of rights altogether and encourage Virtue!"

Whatever "virtue" happens to mean for Blond this week.

And I'm sort of tempted to say that it's unhelpful to have Blond prattling about authoritarianism: he brings along so much excess baggage that those with genuine concerns in this area are likely to be swamped by his concomitant jibberish.

Even if he means well on this front, I'm not sure he's going to be helpful.

badconscience said...

"I struggle with how the particular facts cited on eg working hours or racism can be "ahistorical", but look forward to finding out ..."

Perhaps you are labouring under the middle class leftwing relativism that believes that history is all just opinion, and that all facts are thereby historical.

Those on the right - Iain Dale, say - are also labouring under misunderstanding; they think that facts are "just facts", objective truths that are ahistorical.

But the truth - as you will learn tomorrow - is that history is both context-dependent and objective, such that both the left and right are wrong. We need to recapture this lost way of thinking and embrace the virtue of history.

(See, I'm the online automatic Blond-generator. no need to bother going to Foyle's tomorrow, just ask me. My answers will make about as much sense and contain roughly as much wisdom.)

Tim Worstall said...

"Certainly "longer and longer working hours" have in fact been falling, whether one takes the long or short view. Average hours worked for full-time workers dropping from 38.7 hours to 37.0 hours for full-time workers from 1996 to 2008. The average was over 50 hours a century ago, before this fell steadily to 35 hours by the end of the 1970s. Working hours then rose in the 1980s and early 1990s, before starting to fall again from the mid-1990s to now. Despite that fall, more Brits do work longer hours than elsewhere in Europe; though fewer than do so than in the US, Japan or Australia. "

Well, sorta. You really should be including the decline in hours spent in household production as well. In which case total working hoursw have been falling strongly over the entire period, without that uptick you note.