Gripped by his habitual despair, the French novelist Gustave Flaubert wrote to a friend in 1872, ‘I am appalled at the state of society. I’m filled with the sadness that must have affected the Romans of the 4th century. I feel irredeemable barbarism rising from the bowels of the earth.’ Warming to his bleak scatological theme, he continued, ‘I have always tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.’ Many commentators would feel that exactly the same words could be applied to modern Britain. According to the pessimistic narrative of national decline, Britain is now drowning in the effluence of moral collapse. We inhabit a country supposedly awash with vice and decadence. If we aren’t playing poker or bingo on our computer screens, then we are watching pornography. Our streets are said to be dominated by betting shops and lap-dancing clubs, by drug addicts and binge-drinkers.
Yet for all its hold on the popular imagination, the idea of worsening degeneracy in modern Britain is not backed up by the evidence. Our society is becoming less disordered and depraved. What is falling out of fashion is not personal responsibility but the kind of destructive behaviour that used to worry the puritans.
New figures show a fall of no less than 8 per cent in recorded crime, continuing a trend that has lasted for almost two decades. Indeed, the crime rate has halved since its peak in 1995 and is now at its lowest level for 30 years. Almost every type of offence is down significantly, including murder, violence and burglary.
This welcome change is replicated in so many other aspects of our society, including alcohol consumption. We have been led to believe that we are living in a new age of excess, and Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ finds its modern equivalent in debauched, 24-hour nightclubs peddling dangerously cheap cocktails and strong lagers. The Prime Minister has fed into this notion with his talk of minimum alcohol pricing. But it is all a myth. Drinking is actually on the wane. According to the British Beer and Pub Association, total alcohol consumption was 16 per cent lower per head in 2012 than in 2004, while the average annual amount drunk fell below eight litres for the first time since 1998. Fears about binge-drinking among the young are equally exaggerated. One survey last year showed that only 48 per cent of those aged 16 to 24 had consumed a drink in the week before, compared with 70 per cent in 2003. Moreover, the number of children aged 11 to 15 drinking alcohol has fallen by 29 per cent in the last five years, while convictions for drunken behaviour have halved since the year 2000.
Perhaps even more remarkable has been the decline of drugs, which in the late 1990s were seen as a deadly threat to the fabric of society. But the menace has turned out to be badly overhyped. Home Office statistics released last September show that drug use is now at its lowest level since 1996, with every type of illicit narcotic falling in popularity. The number of heroin and crack users, for instance, dropped from 332,090 in 2005/6 to 298,752 in 2010/11, while among people under the age of 24, cannabis use fell sharply from 26 per cent of this cohort in 1996 to 15.7 per cent last year. ‘Drugs don’t appear to be as cool these days as they once were,’ says Harry Shapiro, editor of Druglink magazine. It is a cultural change that has led to a considerable drop in the number of drug-related deaths in recent years.
We see the same pattern in other vices, too. In spite of the deluge of television advertising for online betting, gambling is in decline, with industry’s overall yield falling from £2.853 billion in 2008/9 to £2.842 million in 2011/12. Horse-racing is plagued by financial crisis; bingo halls are closing at the rate of two a month and the number of betting shops has gone down from 16,000 in 1965 to just 9,100 today.
Nor are we as sexually dissolute as the puritans claim. Teenage pregnancies are at their lowest level since 1969, having fallen by 10 per cent in the past year alone, while a recent report on the sex trade in central London said that prostitutes have had to lower their prices because of dwindling demand for their services. Mainstream television is far cleaner than it was in the 1970s, and so is Hollywood, with producers now increasingly avoiding sex scenes because audiences do not want them.
So what is causing this new morality? There may be some specific factors at work, like in gambling, where the establishment of the National Lottery in 1996 gave the public a much more sophisticated and realistic grasp of betting odds. Similarly, the creation of a more market-oriented, consumer society has meant that people face a huge penalty for past misdemeanours — like drug use, drink-driving, or gambling debts — when trying to access anything from car insurance to mortgages to credit cards. The same is true of employment, where a clean record can be as valuable as a good degree.
On another level, there has also a powerful backlash against the social liberalism that swept over Britain from the late 1960s, whose extremes were encapsulated in the famous slogan of Timothy Leary’s, ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out.’ But as the disastrous consequences of this irresponsible liberalism became ever more apparent, so a profound reaction set in. Reflecting an intolerance of harmful, self-indulgent conduct, the new morality can be seen all around us: in the doubling of the prison population since 1995; in the vigorous campaigns against domestic violence and sexual abuse; in the move to bring back discipline to schools; in the popularity of the coalition’s tough welfare reform; and in the widespread vetting of employees and volunteers. This is a world that sees a drug-addled hippie as a loser, not an inspiration, that regards a drink-drive record as a source of shame rather than an act of bravado. If Flaubert came back to Britain today, he might be surprised at the signs of hope for civilisation.