The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

July 31st, 2005

Confronted with our own decadence

It takes a long time to react fully to a disaster. After the first shock comes a kind of disbelief. So it has been with the two terrorist attacks in London. It is only slowly that people have begun to recover and come to terms with their feelings and it is only slowly that they begin to reflect on the wider implications. Our perspective and our focus need to be sharpened by time.

One of the things that strikes me more, not less, forcibly as time has passed is the contempt that Muslim extremists feel for us. They despise us for our decadence, and I feel more and more forced to accept the painful truth that they have a point. I don’t want to exaggerate; there are many things about Britain that are still great. People have shown courage and compassion in response to the bombings, and a restraint that is truly heroic. And the police have discovered and arrested the failed suicide bombers with an efficiency that is anything but decadent.

All the same, it can hardly be denied that with all our celebrated freedom, and all our wealth, we have somehow created a society that is characterised by growing disorder, uncertainty and loss. For a long time now Britain — or rather many of its institutions and traditions — has been suffering from a loss of nerve and a loss of will which amounts to a national moral funk.

The results are everywhere, in each day’s news. There is a connection between working-class lager louts looking for a fight and rich kids vomiting and copulating drunkenly in public, both here and on holiday abroad. Standards in public life have fallen very low, whether it’s the prime minister’s wife or a slaggy Hooray Henrietta on a Cornish beach or simply Big Brother.

And there is a connection between all that and the miserable failure of Britain’s schools; illiteracy here is beyond belief, disruptive behaviour is normal, exams and degrees have been debased and ministers have just had to concede that social mobility — once the pride of British society — has declined in the past 30 years and has actually fallen since Labour came to power. The education secretary has come up with the contemptible sort of gimmick that passes for a political initiative these days; she has promised (at a cost of £27m) to give every baby a book bag, containing volumes like The Very Hungry Caterpillar, to encourage parents to read with their children.

What’s gone wrong in education is a template for what’s gone wrong in other institutions. Hospitals, for instance, are badly run, filthy and in financial trouble, despite all the reforms and all the cash that have been directed at them. Last week, for instance, it emerged that though the NHS desperately needs more doctors, hundreds of junior doctors will find themselves without an NHS job when their contracts end this week; there are not enough jobs for them. The British Medical Association blames this astonishing situation on poor NHS planning.

The immigration system is characterised by incompetence that is the same in kind but perhaps even more astonishing in degree; the truth has finally emerged after years of government and evasion. And there can be very little doubt that the failures of the immigration system have created serious and unnecessary social problems here, including a comfortable environment for terrorists.

There’s a thread running though all this and what has been happening to the army. Whatever the rights and wrongs of human rights legislation it is quite clearly horribly wrong to demoralise officers and other ranks with threats of legal action (other than their own courts martial) at a time when they are facing extreme danger in extreme heat in the service of their country. It is not just wrong. It is decadent.

For if we lack the will to defend ourselves, or rather to defend those who are there to defend us, we are simply rolling over and showing to the world’s scavengers and beasts of prey the soft underbelly of decadence.

It has been decadent to let extremist imams preach hatred and violence on the pavements here. These people could perfectly well have been sent to prison under existing legislation concerning incitements to violence or to racial hatred. But somehow the authorities lacked the will or the conviction to do it.

What connects all these things is an unwillingness, which has developed since the Sixties, to stand up for things that matter. I think it began with an unwillingness to reproach our own children. Some of my parents’ generation were very lax with their children; people began to speak of the permissive society. And since then parents (including me) have seemed ever less able, or willing, to control and discipline their children. The very word discipline sounds almost prehistoric and possibly abusive.

Yet without proper discipline from parents, children can never develop self-discipline. And it is on self-discipline and self-restraint that a civilised society rests. With a loss of self-discipline goes a loss of standards of behaviour, a loss of efficiency and a loss of a sense of what matters. There is a very painful tension between instinct and society; that is the tragic discontent of civilisation, repression its painful price. The right balance is hard to find, and harder to maintain. But we can see today in Britain and in the West generally what happens when that balance fails.

I don’t suggest that this loss of conviction affects everyone. Yet it has to be said that almost nobody has really done much to resist what has been done to our institutions and our manners. There has been a long march through the institutions of a nameless and shapeless ideology, misleadingly called political correctness. It is far more important and powerful than that name suggests and it is largely responsible for the long decay of the institutions and has contributed a lot, indirectly, to the decadence I’m talking about.

Multiculturalism, for instance, has been deeply demoralising to all kinds of people in all kinds of ways, undermining their values, undermining a sense of common purpose, above all undermining the confidence of the host country. Even leading multiculturalists now, belatedly, agree on that.

Despite all this, I do, now for the first time, feel a faint glimmer of optimism. One of the responses to the bombings might be a new awareness of what matters most, and how best to defend it. If that means a new sense of purpose and a new sense of conviction, then perhaps some good will have come out of this evil.