UK Society

It’s a Theodore Dalrymple moment, I’m afraid. I’ve been watching the news from London and the UK with dismay–but not, altogether, with surprise. The cultural conditions for this orgy of criminality have long been apparent on the streets of many British town centres every Friday and Saturday night: areas simply given over to menacing gangs of feral teenagers roaming around as if they own the place, which they do.

My parents told me some years ago that they no longer dared to venture into their local town centre (Bolton) after dark. I was glad to hear it. For a while I had a flat near Piccadilly Circus in central London. The wall of a building nearby–two steps from the square, mind you, not in a back street–had been designated a late night urinal. To get to my front door late at night, I used to walk past a line of men pissing. Now and then a policeman would amble by this sight unperturbed–though to be fair I never saw an officer avail himself of the facility. Less common was the sight of a young woman squatting to relieve herself–something you would rarely see before midnight, at least on a main thoroughfare such as Haymarket, and probably no more than once a week. (“Couldn’t you at least use the gutter?” I used to think.)

I’ve obviously been in the US too long. My American wife draws my attention to this list from the BBC of Americanisms that have entered British usage and annoy fastidious Brits. Fastidious Yanks would probably feel the same way about most of them. To my surprise I find only a few of the items really infuriating. It’s worrisome. I think I’m more annoyed by the fact that Brits find these terms annoying than I am by the terms themselves.

I’ll make just three exceptions. “My bad [spoken by an adult].” This is in the same category as a grown man on a skateboard. How old are you, you child? “It is what it is.” I hear this constantly and it never fails to make me grind my teeth. Worst of all, “I could care less” instead of “I couldn’t care less”. I think we can all agree that that is despicable. (I recall David Letterman once attacking Michael J. Fox for using it on his show. Funny what sticks in the mind.)

A good piece by Jonathan Freedland about the years of Tory misery that followed Blair’s landslide election victory in 1997, and what the Republicans might learn from them. Three different leaders; two more election defeats…

Only then, staring oblivion in the face, did the slow stirrings of recovery begin. A senior Conservative official, Theresa May, had already warned that the Tories had to shed their image as “the nasty party” with few women or members of ethnic minorities in Parliament. Now, at last, that message began to be heard. A younger, fresher face emerged and overtook more established rivals for the leadership: David Cameron.

Mr. Cameron’s candidacy was built on a simple premise: modernize or die. He told the Tories they had to look as if they actually liked the country they sought to govern, rather than wishing they could turn back time. They could not hope to form a winning coalition without appealing to the Britons whom Mr. Blair had made his own: women, suburbanites, the highly educated. Relying on angry old white men was never going to get the Conservatives much beyond 33 percent.

To that end, Mr. Cameron set about decontaminating the Tory brand. Central to that mission were forays into two areas of political terrain previously deemed forbidden zones. First, he signaled comfort with gay rights, ditching the party’s previous support for laws restricting sexual equality. Second, he championed environmentalism. He may have endured news media mockery when he took a dogsled ride to inspect a Norwegian glacier in 2006, but it did the trick, confirming that the Tories were changing.

Mr. Cameron’s efforts have paid off: recent polls suggest a Conservative victory at the next election. Of course, the lessons of one society can never fully apply to another. But the Tory experience suggests that a defeated party of the right has to move toward the center, abandon divisive social issues and elect a leader who looks as if he or she actually belongs in the 21st century. With Arnold Schwarzenegger ineligible for the presidency and no other accommodating figure on the horizon, the Republicans might have a bumpy decade ahead.

The Tory revival surely owes more to exhaustion with “New Labour” than to Cameron’s rebranding, but Freedland is right that the Tories had to embrace moderation and centrism to become electable again. (The same was true of Labour, of course. After Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979, they were out of power for 18 years, choosing leaders true to the soul of the party, with far too little appeal to the centre. Then came Blair.)

Shame about Schwarzenegger.

I’ve been visiting London and the north of England for the past few days. Since I moved to the US in 2005, I’ve neglected British politics somewhat. I look at the news now and then, but it all seems increasingly strange. The saga of Gordon Brown is completely bewildering to me – his popularity now restored by the worst financial crisis in the country’s history? Whatever happened to “no more boom and bust”? Whatever happened to “prudence with a purpose”? (Allow me to mention a headline I once wrote for The Economist: “Gordon and Prudence–It’s So Over.” Little did I know.) It all seems such a long time ago.

And yet, in other respects, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Mohamed Fayed is on the front page of the Evening Standard still, this time questioned over an alleged sexual assault – which he vehemently denies. Peter Mandelson is back in government, and “Tory sleaze” is a resurgent theme: these stories seem to have the same Russian oligarch in common, which is a new twist, but still. When Mandelson left office for the second time, and the papers were saying his political career was over, I bet my friend and FT colleague Gideon Rachman a fiver that he would be back for a third spell in due course. And so it proved. However, Gideon now denies all knowledge of this wager. Did I dream it? I think not. I am searching for documentary support. Had blogs existed back then, I feel I would be in the money.

Private Eye is the fixed point around which the country revolves. Could anything be more English? The current issue has a disappointingly indulgent review of three new television programmes about America:  travelogues looking at the United States as though it were another (much more vulgar) planet, narrated with effortless superiority by Stephen Fry, Simon Schama and Griff Rhys-Jones. I sampled all three, as it happens, and could not stand to watch more than five minutes of any of them. Simon Schama, striving for intellectual depth as well as flattering visuals, was worried about the water shortage out west. Driving through the Nevada desert, he talked about “paradise lost”. Was it a green and pleasant land before the gluttonous appetites of Las Vegas stripped it bare? Who’d have thunk? Never mind, I am very fond of the Nevada desert.

Also from the current Private Eye, a feature called “Dumb Britain” compiles idiotic answers from TV quiz shows. It has this:

The Weakest Link

Anne Robinson: In education, what is a formal cap worn by academics and also a piece of equipment used by bricklayers?

Contestant: Trowel

As a friend said when I read that out to her, “Aw.” But really, “The Weakest Link” is still in business? And Anne Robinson, I imagine, is still very stern and rude to her guests – who, if they prevail against her scorn and all odds, stand to win as much as Gideon owes me, or even a little more. How come she hasn’t died of boredom?

Back to the Standard, and another very British story. A 16-year old is stabbed to death for no reason. The killer is sentenced to 12 years. He should be out for his 30th birthday. The judge is quoted: “This was an unprovoked attack, but I accept that your intention was not to kill when you used [the knife] to inflict that fatal wound and that you have behavioural and learning difficulties.”

Yes, I dare say stabbing people falls under the heading of “behavioural difficulties”. Calling Theodore Dalrymple. Get me back to the land of the sane.

Sometimes I wonder where I would be without Theodore Dalrymple, the retired prison doctor and pseudonymous essayist with a particular genius for dyspeptic commentary on the state of Britain. He most often appears in the excellent City Journal. I regard him as a public service. I can outsource (he would put that word in inverted commas) what would otherwise be an occasional outburst of dismay at the country’s cultural decay, knowing that nobody could do it better. Oddly enough, I find him very soothing, but the main thing is that I think he allows me to stave off becoming an angry old man a little longer.

Britain is the worst country in the Western world in which to be a child, according to a recent UNICEF report. Ordinarily, I would not set much store by such a report; but in this case, I think it must be right—not because I know so much about childhood in all the other 20 countries examined but because the childhood that many British parents give to their offspring is so awful that it is hard to conceive of worse, at least on a mass scale. The two poles of contemporary British child rearing are neglect and overindulgence.

Consider one British parent, Fiona MacKeown, who in November 2007 went on a six-month vacation to Goa, India, with her boyfriend and eight of her nine children by five different fathers, none of whom ever contributed financially for long to the children’s upkeep. (The child left behind—her eldest, at 19—was a drug addict.) She received $50,000 in welfare benefits a year, and doubtless decided—quite rationally, under the circumstances—that the money would go further, and that life would thus be more agreeable, in Goa than in her native Devon.

Reaching Goa, MacKeown soon decided to travel with seven of her children to Kerala, leaving behind one of them, 15-year-old Scarlett Keeling, to live with a tour guide ten years her elder, whom the mother had known for only a short time. Scarlett reportedly claimed to have had sex with this man only because she needed a roof over her head. According to a witness, she was constantly on drugs; and one night, she went to a bar where she drank a lot and took several different illicit drugs, including LSD, cocaine, and pot. She was seen leaving the bar late, almost certainly intoxicated.

The next morning, her body turned up on a beach. At first, the local police maintained that she had drowned while high, but further examination proved that someone had raped and then forcibly drowned her. So far, three people have been arrested in the investigation, which is continuing.

About a month later, Scarlett’s mother, interviewed by the liberal Sunday newspaper the Observer, expressed surprise at the level of public vituperation aimed at her and her lifestyle in the aftermath of the murder. She agreed that she and her children lived on welfare, but “not by conscious choice,” and she couldn’t see anything wrong with her actions in India apart from a certain naivety in trusting the man in whose care she had left her daughter. Scarlett was always an independent girl, and if she, the mother, could turn the clock back, she would behave exactly the same way again.

It is not surprising that someone in Fiona MacKeown’s position would deny negligence; to acknowledge it would be too painful. But—and this is what is truly disturbing—when the newspaper asked four supposed child-rearing experts for their opinions, only one saw anything wrong with the mother’s behavior, and even she offered only muted criticism. It was always difficult to know how much independence to grant an adolescent, the expert said; but in her view, the mother had granted too much too quickly to Scarlett.

Even that seemed excessively harsh to the Observer’s Barbara Ellen…

Incidentally, here is a good column on almost the same subject by George Will.

Paternalism is the restriction of freedom for the good of the person restricted. AIPCS [American Indian Public Charter School] acts in loco parentis because Chavis, who is cool toward parental involvement, wants an enveloping school culture that combats the culture of poverty and the streets.

He and other practitioners of the new paternalism — once upon a time, schooling was understood as democracy’s permissible, indeed obligatory, paternalism — are proving that cultural pessimists are mistaken: We know how to close the achievement gap that often separates minorities from whites before kindergarten and widens through high school. A growing cohort of people possess the pedagogic skills to make “no excuses” schools flourish.

Unfortunately, powerful factions fiercely oppose the flourishing. Among them are education schools with their romantic progressivism — teachers should be mere “enablers” of group learning; self-esteem is a prerequisite for accomplishment, not a consequence thereof. Other opponents are the teachers unions and their handmaiden, the Democratic Party. Today’s liberals favor paternalism — you cannot eat trans fats; you must buy health insurance — for everyone except children. Odd.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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