Britain is not broken, but parts of it are severely dysfunctional. And the public thinks the problems are worse than they areby Ben Page / October 25, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
Imagine a country where virtually everyone describes themselves as satisfied with their lives—only 13 per cent say they are unhappy. Where 95 per cent say they are close to their families and 76 per cent are confident about their personal futures. A country that is markedly better off than a decade before, with 600,000 fewer people in poverty and 1m fewer on out-of-work benefits. A country with universal free healthcare and the highest recorded level of satisfaction with that service, with waiting times the lowest for 40 years. A country which most people think is a good place to raise children and where most children are felt to have far better prospects than their parents had before them. But in that same country, when asked whether life in general is getting better or worse, 71 per cent of people say life is getting worse, up from 60 per cent in 2007 and only 40 per cent in 1998.
This country is, of course, Britain. Last September, David Cameron, the man most likely to be its next prime minister, said: “The biggest challenge facing Britain today is mending our broken society… Four in every five youngsters receiving custodial sentences have no qualifications. More than two thirds of prisoners are illiterate. And nearly one third of those excluded from school have been involved with substance abuse… 43 per cent of 11 year olds cannot read, write and add up properly. Last month, more than 20,000 pupils left school without a GCSE. And right now, more than a million young people are not in education, work or training.”
The Conservatives have made much of this “broken Britain” narrative. But what does it actually amount to? Strip away the rhetoric, and you find three basic claims: crime and antisocial behaviour are rampant; the institution of the family is in dangerous decline; and there is a growing underclass of poorly educated, “feral” young people.
A sense of proportion
Take the first of these—crime and antisocial behaviour. Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice’s critique of Britain—which informs much of Cameron’s “broken society” thinking—provides a long list of social ills. Duncan Smith’s report, published in 2006, drew upon international league tables to paint a bleak picture of modern Britain. British teenagers, we were told, drank more, learned less, had sex earlier and were more likely to suffer mental illness than their counterparts in most other European countries.