British politics used to be dominated by the country’s relentless economic decline. Long before James Carville’s mantra for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential election bid — ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ — it was the economy which determined British general elections and alternative economic policies which most divided the parties.
I spent most of my early career as a journalist chronicling this economic decline and commenting on it. I travelled to Germany, Scandinavia, even Italy to bring back stories of how Continental companies were more efficient, their bosses more impressive, their unions more reasonable, their products, from cars to fridges, far superior. Most of the serious media did this sort of thing: the aim was to shame Britain into upping its game; but for a long while it seemed as if we were wasting our time.
By the mid-1970s, Britain’s relative economic decline had become so engrained in the national psyche, so impervious to solutions from either the Left or the Right, that parts of the British Establishment had effectively given up: senior Whitehall mandarins and leading opinion-formers began to talk quietly about the ‘civilised management of decline’. It was a measure of how hopeless things had become that accommodating decline had become a more realistic prospect than reversing it.
Today, as a new Prime Minister steps up to the plate, all that seems ancient history. The economic question no longer dominates British politics or separates the parties (indeed, I would be hard put to tell you any major difference between Labour and the Tories on economic policy) and economic decline no longer permeates our political discourse.
A combination of the Thatcher reforms and the decade-long Blair–Brown duumvirate has achieved what was once deemed impossible: Britain has stopped declining. The British economy might not be quite the modern miracle Gordon Brown claims, but it is no longer the basket case it once was. It is part of our new Prime Minister’s claim to the top job that he deserves much of the credit for this. But his first lesson in the hot seat is likely to be that there is no gratitude in politics: the British now take for granted that they no longer have a Broken Economy; they are much more exercised about the Broken Society.
During the Blair–Brown decade social concerns — what kind of society we have become — have gradually replaced economic worries. People fear that we have become an increasingly fragmented, boorish, more violent society. The new barbarism of the Broken Society stalks not just the dilapidated parts of our inner cities but the high streets of once placid market towns.
Of course, the social trends which are now defining us started long before Mr Blair entered Downing Street; but they have grown worse under his watch. Violent crime has doubled during his decade. Gun crime has soared: in parts of our inner cities it is almost as ubiquitous as it is in America’s ghettoes. In some areas of criminal endeavour we’ve even overtaken America: you are now much more likely to be mugged or burgled in London than New York, a remarkable reversal of fortune on 20 years ago.
Britain may or may not be blighted by a feral media but many people are in no doubt, as this week’s survey from Barnardo’s reveals, that we are blighted by a feral youth, often financed and fuelled by drugs, which is out of control and beyond the law. Every day brings fresh horror stories from the frontline of the Broken Society: teenagers are shot in their beds in gangland tit-for-tat killings; a youth is chased through the streets of West London by a gang of 14-year-olds shouting ‘Kill him, kill him’ — which they do when they catch him, with a stab to the heart. This week another schoolboy was murdered in a pre-arranged mass gang brawl in Beckenham: he was beaten to a pulp with chains and baseball bats, then stabbed in the back.
Britain is now living with the consequences of allowing an underclass to take root and fester. When, as editor of the Sunday Times, I tried to highlight what was happening 20 years ago, nobody wanted to know: the Right said there was no such thing as an underclass, the Left that it was just the poorest part of the working class. Both were wrong.
That the underclass exists cannot now be doubted by those with eyes to see, though some fashionable opinion-formers still try to wish it away. Nor is it necessarily poor: quite often the underclass is reasonably cash-rich, thanks to welfare benefits, crime and the black economy; but it is increasingly severed, in attitude and cultural values, from the rest of society. And (another popular misconception) it has very little in common with even the most deprived of the old working class: the underclass does not form brass bands, go to night school or strive to find the best state schools for their children.
So far our response to a growing underclass has been containment: it has been herded into reservations we call sink estates, where the rest of us hope it will stay out of sight and out of mind. Its members speak their own variants of English (now well enough recognised for comedians to mock), wear their own style of clothes (which middle-class kids sometimes copy) and have no respect for the police or the laws that bind the rest of us. Nor do they have much regard for the world of work or educational achievement: traditional values such as thrift, endeavour and marriage are alien.
Most children of the underclass are born out of wedlock; relationships are fleeting and unstable (which ensures that what is born into the underclass stays in the underclass). This is a world in which there are almost no worthwhile male role models, which is a disaster when boys turn to youths. Single mums struggle to cope as best they can — and usually lose control of their kids, especially if they are boys, when they become teenagers. With sad, depressing predictability, the children of today’s underclass become tomorrow’s criminals and dropouts.
Many social trends, under governments of the Left and Right, have encouraged the fracturing of families and the undermining of values which have created the underclass. The Broken Society has many fathers. However the welfare system, which Mr Blair promised to reform by ‘thinking the unthinkable’ but which remains largely untouched a decade later, has been its fertiliser. It traps millions into welfare dependency and penalises anybody foolish enough to try and get a legitimate job.
Labour ministers still like to remind us of Mrs Thatcher’s three million unemployed. They do not mention that, under their care and despite a growing economy, almost 5.3 million people of working age do not work but live on various benefits. Many are behaving entirely logically: they are better off doing nothing. The marginal tax rate for those who try to better themselves through work can be as high as 90 per cent for the poorest — over twice the marginal rate of tax paid by the City boys on their million-pound bonuses.
The poorest fifth of the population now receive more than half their income in state benefits. Even for the next 20 per cent of the population the figure is close to 40 per cent. The Blair years have been ones of rising prosperity and high employment. Yet for many, welfare dependency and doing nothing has been a way of life, despite Mr Brown’s pledge a decade ago that doing nothing would no longer be an option.
The social consequences of welfare dependency scar our great towns and cities. In Glasgow, where 55 per cent of households have no earned income, male life expectancy is 69 years, lower than in the Gaza Strip, North Korea and Iran. In Calton, the poorest area of the city, male life expectancy is 54 years, which puts it on a par with sub-Saharan Africa. These shaming statistics have not happened because we have looked the other way: public money has poured in; st
ate spending now accounts for 70 per cent of the Glasgow region’s GDP, putting it on a par with the communist countries of the old Eastern bloc.
The cracks in Britain’s Broken Society, however, go far beyond the underclass, though that is its most serious manifestation. There is a general feeling that, across the social spectrum, Britain has become a coarser, more yobbish society, in which discourtesy has become a national habit and violence is always lurking beneath the surface. A general societal, moral and cultural collapse extends well into the comfortable middle classes and is reflected in manners, dress style, violent demeanour and foul and sloppy language, even among the supposedly educated. In a nation with too many Jade Goodys, it takes a Bollywood actress to remind us of the traditional British virtues of tolerance and courtesy.
The fractures are now everywhere. In Britain’s Broken Society, 42 per cent of children are now born out of wedlock, 45 per cent of British marriages end in divorce, 24 per cent of kids are being brought up by a lone parent and, by a 19 point margin, we have the highest teenage birth rate in Europe, despite 46 per cent of under-18 pregnancies in Britain ending in an abortion (also a European record).
Alcohol-related deaths have close to doubled since the beginning of the 1990s and a third of 16- to 24-year-olds binge drink each week; 26 per cent of children have taken drugs (up from a mere 5 per cent in 1987) and 75 per cent of people think that drugs are a problem in their area. A recent report in the Lancet revealed that today’s generation of teenagers is the first in recorded history to be less healthy than its parents. Hardly surprising, then, that the recent Unicef report found that Britain was the worst place in the industrialised world for a child to grow up.
The 21st-century challenge for Britain’s politicians is to mend the Broken Society as the late 20th-century ones finally managed to reverse our Broken Economy. But, just as it took a previous political generation a long time to rise to the economic challenge, so today’s generation has been slow to face the new social one.
Mr Brown has yet to acknowledge that there is a Broken Society, perhaps because it would be an implicit criticism of the past ten years. David Cameron vaguely grasps that this is the new ground on to which British politics is moving but has yet to provide any kind of policy response. Sir Ming Campbell has yet to say anything on the matter.
It will not be easy: the Broken Society will be at least as hard to fix as the Broken Economy. Our political leaders will need honest minds and fresh attitudes to confront it. From Mr Brown, more of the same will not be a solution. From Mr Cameron, hugging a hoodie somehow doesn’t quite hack it.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 30, 2007