'Broken Britain' can learn from Asian conservatism
Britain may have a Conservative-led government, but it has lost the virtues of a conservative society. Instead of criticising Asian countries, it could learn from them.
It takes a few days for a feeling of normality to return once your home has been at the centre of a riot. On Monday night, we double-locked the back and front of our north London flat after the roars of bottle-wielding thugs became so loud that we realised they were in the street outside.
We went to bed to a soundtrack of running battles with police, sirens and smashing glass, awakening unharmed, but in shock. But it wasn't just us.
All Britain is taking stock after this week's orgy of violence and looting left parts of the country's cities looking like war zones, and ordinary people fearful that nowhere was safe. Politicians and commentators attempted explanations. It was the cuts. It was the effect of social media. It was the result of heavy-handed policing of the black community. It was the failure to deal with an excluded underclass.
But the truth is that there is no one, single explanation for what happened, and the challenge ahead is far greater than the recent mindless, selfish savagery suggests. Addressing the alienation and nihilistic attitudes of specific sections of British society will not be enough. David Cameron may head a Conservative-led administration, but he is prime minister of a country in which nearly all the conservative virtues that the rest of the world still fondly associates with Britain have been lost.
I wondered, when I returned recently from Malaysia and was struck by the dinginess of London's suburbs, litter blowing across the roads and the ugliness of many of the modern buildings, whether I had just had it too good for the past nine months. When, waiting in a doctor's surgery, I was baffled to see magazines filled with references to something called "TOWIE", I had to concede that even if they meant nothing to me, it was clear that the love lives, diets and visits to sundry nightclubs of the stars of a reality television show called The Only Way is Essex had assumed a significant importance to many in my absence.
It was only when I leafed through a free newspaper on a train and found it full of lots of other people I'd never heard of - the instant "celebrities" who are the role models for British youth today - that is, when I'd got past the overly explicit dating columns and the interviews in which the subjects spill intimate details most of us would rather keep to ourselves, that it hit home.
It was not my imagination. Perhaps it took the stark contrast with life in a conservative Asian society to be made aware of what Britain has become: a country in which the trashiest elements of modern culture have been embraced by vast swathes of the population, who eagerly import similarly low Americanisms and then, ludicrously, pass them off as their own. Rioters in Tottenham last weekend warned that "the Feds" were coming, although the FBI's jurisdiction has not hitherto been known to run to Britain's capital.
And in tandem with that process the old virtues of a more decent, less showy age, have been cast aside. Gone are the modesty, self-restraint, respect for traditions and institutions, courtesy and family bonds for which Britain used to be known. Their place has been taken by a culture of entitlement, of rights - to all sorts of things that are not recognised by the law, which is the only meaningful use of the word, but above all to that most invidious of concepts: "respect".
During the disturbances, a young woman was asked by a television reporter why she and her friends were rampaging through the streets. "Because they don't give us no respect," she said. "If they don't respect us, we won't give them respect."
Leave aside the question of who "they" are, and the imponderable logic that determines that the act of "not giving them respect" necessarily involves the commission of arson, theft and pelting policemen with paving stones and bottles. One is still left with a breathtaking assumption about expectations. "Respect" does not have to be earned, by good behaviour, hard work or self-sacrifice; it is a 21st century form of natural rights, the violation of which - "dissing" - is now liable to be followed by a glare or a hiss at best, and a knife to the ribs or a gun to the head at worst.
It would be easy to blame this solely on the spread to Britain's urban areas of transatlantic "gangsta" culture, with all the resentment and anger at perceived injustice that entails. Certainly the widespread use by white Londoners of Jamaican patois and the language of the ghetto has been a remarkable feature of the past few years, and one no doubt incomprehensible to older West Indians and Afro-Americans whose English elocution retains a dignity and grace wholly lacking in the glottal-stopped inarticulacy of the young.
But other factors are at play here. What example have politicians set? The authors of the television series Yes, Prime Minister, Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay, noted recently that "since we started to write … shame went out of style". While in office a prime minister, John Major, had an affair; while a deputy PM, John Prescott, had a "two-year fling" with his diary secretary. MPs fiddled their expenses. "They virtually all did it and no one felt guilty. Shame had been replaced by embarrassment - horror at what you have done replaced by horror at people finding out what you had done."
This disappearance of a sense of personal responsibility or scruple is partly the result of a toxic mixture of two political cultures. The reforms associated with the Labour home secretary, Roy Jenkins, in the 1960s, advanced a "permissive society" that he liked to think of as a "civilised society". His easing of restrictions was unquestionably humane; and Jenkins himself, an erudite, literary oenophile, was civilised man par excellence. Combined, however, with the free market rolling back of the state and the destruction of much that bound communities together during the Thatcher era, the two left a moral vacuum.
Lady Thatcher may have had a keen appreciation of right and wrong, but too many of her disciples appeared to follow Gordon Gecko's dictum that "greed is good", untempered by any qualm about the consequences of their actions. What followed was an elevation of personal choice and the pursuit of wealth. Social cohesion, altruism, public service - those were for losers. Whatever you wanted to do was right, and to be forced to deny that desire was a repression or violation. There arose a terrible misuse of liberty, and almost no one dared say so.
If it seems far-fetched to draw all the above together - what have TV reality shows got to do with tearing up the streets of Tottenham or Manchester? - I would say this: that in a society in which celebrity, not achievement, counts, in which materialism trumps religion, and in which you are treated like a fool if you do not put your own interests above those of anyone else, it is no wonder that a common morality has withered to the extent that a 14-year-old should think that the only thing wrong in raiding a mobile phone shop on Monday night was being caught. The sadness is that the old Britain still exists - but in the minds of foreign anglophiles like my father-in-law and his classmates at the Malay College Kuala Kangsar, "the Eton of the East" at which they were taught by Anthony Burgess.
When they purchase their shirts in Jermyn Street or visit Cambridge colleges, they are dipping their toes into a genteel world that is no longer representative of a country grown ferally individualistic. And the places where those virtues are current, where decorum is still valued, deference to elders and parents still ingrained, good manners still practised, and reserve and modesty prized, are precisely those that British politicians frequently berate for being rigid, authoritarian and repressive - Asian countries.
Malaysia, for instance, came in for criticism recently over the crackdown on a demonstration in Kuala Lumpur. But here's the difference: voters in Malaysia can reject their government at the ballot box if they don't like it. Britain has a far greater problem. It is its society, not its rulers, that is "broken" and "sick", as Prime Minister David Cameron put it on Wednesday. Politicians can be kicked out in one day's polls. Changing a society takes generations.
Sometimes I wonder why we came back. Where, do you think, would I prefer my half-Malaysian, half-British young son to grow up?
Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman
Published: August 13, 2011 04:00 AM