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
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.
This certainly chimes with the bleak narrative we see in much of the media of a modern Britain riven by crime and disorder. The newspapers tell a story of binge drinking, family breakdown, gang culture, consumerism, the decline of small shops, violence, the sexualisation of young girls, workaholism, overexamination in schools, inadequate childcare, a paralysis in social mobility, ingrained pockets of deprivation, junk food, solitary screen-based entertainment and celebrity culture.
Consider violent youth crime, one of the hot-button issues of recent years. No one doubts that there is a serious problem in some parts of the country. Teenage killings in London have risen from 15 in 2006 to 27 in 2007, and stood at 21 halfway through 2008. But to read the Daily Mail, one of the government’s chief tormentors, is to encounter a Britain apparently on the brink of bloody collapse. Take this lurid piece, from 20th July: “A few nights ago, as an 18-year-old stab victim lay in a pool of blood awaiting his statistical turn to become the 21st teenager to die violently in the streets of London this year, we learned that crime statistics are dropping dramatically. All is well. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, while concerned that ‘knives are still being used,’ is best pleased. As well she might be, for the figures are the creation of none other than the British Crime Survey, itself a creation of Jacqui’s home office. If the British Crime Survey sounds like a vast analytical laboratory stuffed with academics in some ivy-clad university city, that is the whole idea.”
As that quote suggests, public trust in official statistics has fallen sharply in Britain in the last decade, as public service “delivery” has moved to the centre of political argument. This actually began when Margaret Thatcher made over 20 revisions to ways in which unemployment was counted in the 1980s. But today the political dispute over social data makes it harder for a neutral observer to reach a balanced view.
According to the mistrusted British Crime Survey (a big annual survey of experience of crime involving about 40,000 respondents), overall crime rates have fallen by around 40 per cent over the past decade. Violent crime has, however, failed to fall as quickly as other crime, according to the BCS, while violent offences recorded by the police—the other way of measuring crime—have actually increased since 2001, and weapons offences by almost 40 per cent. This may help account for the public’s ever-rising fear of crime, which is otherwise hard to explain, given the 70 per cent increase in police spending in the last ten years, the raising of police numbers to their highest level ever and the imprisonment of 20,000 more criminals—let alone the plunge in the official crime numbers.
Perhaps we just need a sense of perspective on our own pessimism. Although Britons are more negative than many other countries, our levels of what the former government adviser Roger Liddle calls “social pessimism” are more than matched in some of the big EU states. Liddle’s analysis (see his essay “Social Pessimism: The New Social Reality of Europe,” www.policy-network.net), undertaken for European commission president José Manuel Barroso, is based on the latest Eurobarometer survey, which asks people whether they believe their lives will be better in 20 years. Many smaller countries, like Estonia (78 per cent) and Ireland (67 per cent), are optimistic, but citizens of the EU’s big four feel less good about the future: in Britain just 36 per cent are optimistic, in France 27 per cent, in Germany 20 per cent and in Italy 32 per cent.
What’s broken, and what isn’t?
If the broken Britain hypothesis were true, one would expect to find clear evidence for it across a range of social indicators and in measurements of self-declared wellbeing. But the picture is not so clear-cut. It is true that 60 per cent of us say we would like Britain to be more like it used to be, a significant rise from 37 per cent in 1999. Yet the proportion of Britons describing themselves as happy with their own lives has changed relatively little. Either Britain has always been broken (or never was), or the “brokenness” has little bearing on personal wellbeing—which seems unlikely. As I noted at the beginning of this article, most people (87 per cent) say they are satisfied with their lives, and the proportion saying they are very satisfied is well ahead of that in many other large European nations. Despite our unusually acute anxieties about crime and disorder, we are simply not that miserable.
Moreover, looking at another of the three central claims of the broken Britain hypothesis—that we are increasingly a nation of dysfunctional families—the picture remains messy. Most of us still believe that families and marriage matter. Eight out of ten of us think family matters more than friends. Most of us (56 per cent), including the young, believe marriage is very important, and this view is common across all classes. We also think (70 per cent) it is better for parents to be married. Most of us (57 per cent) are even happy for governments to encourage marriage.
On the other hand, we do not believe in staying together for the sake of the children—we are somewhat more likely to divorce than other Europeans (our rate is 15.6 per cent). Duncan Smith’s report blames this on a rise in cohabitation: “The increase in family breakdown… is now driven entirely by the increase in unstable cohabiting partnerships.” Yet we are actually no more likely to cohabit than other nations—and less likely than the happier Danes and Swedes, as well as the French and Germans.
We do, however, have more teenagers living in single-parent families—just over one in ten. This is higher than any other European nation, but not by much; it is very similar to the Swedes and Danes and less than the god-fearing US. Nevertheless, as Anastasia de Waal explains in her book Second Thoughts on the Family (Civitas), in Britain, single parenthood is much more likely to be connected with poverty and instability than in Nordic countries (where marriage and cohabiting have become interchangeable). It is also true that we have one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Europe, markedly higher than France or the Scandinavian countries. Yet it is worth noting that only just over two British 15 to 19 year olds out of 100 get pregnant.
What about the pathologies of the alleged teenage underclass? British teenagers do like a drink: they consume more alcohol than most other European young people, although not as much as in Ireland or Denmark, two of the happiest countries in Europe. Yet alcohol consumption among both teenagers and adults is now stable or in decline in Britain as public agencies devote more attention to the problem.
And drugs? Clearly they are a big part of the problems affecting some communities—but 80 per cent of teenagers in Britain never take them, and overall drug-taking among young people is also static or falling, as it is among adults.
Do we have particularly violent young people? Well, 44 per cent of our 11 to 15 year olds say they have been involved in fights, but that is not the highest figure in Europe. And when we look at more generalised disorder and disrespect—a big concern of the public—the trends are again static or falling. Tony Blair’s “respect agenda” may not have made a big difference, popular with the public though it was, but outside particular hotspots, there is no evidence that our streets are getting worse. The fear spread by high-visibility “signal” crimes, like knife crime in London, does, however, radiate out much further than the number of cases would warrant.
What really bothers the British
Britons’ greatest concerns are centred around young people—both the safety of their own young, and fear of other, “feral” young. Each English local authority surveys its residents every two years on quality of life, and the most common issue raised—far ahead of improvements to services like schools or hospitals—is facilities for teenagers. The more young people there are in an a local authority, the more concerned the population will be about antisocial behaviour. As many as 84 per cent of us now agree that young people have too much freedom and need more discipline. Similarly, when you ask the British what educational issues concern them most, pupil behaviour and discipline comes out far ahead of attainment, exams, class sizes or anything else. It is possible to exaggerate this perceived “crisis of authority”—we were already concerned about this problem a decade ago—but the situation is clearly not improving. We are also more worried about crime, especially youth crime, than any other westerners, except the Dutch, and much more so than the Americans. Our feelings of safety are among the lowest in western Europe—only in former communist countries do people feel less safe.
When people are asked what would do most to address their number one concern, their most frequent answer is not more police on the beat, more criminals in jail or tougher sentences—but better parenting. Perhaps because of our historic individualism, the British seem to have weaker family ties than most European countries—for example, fewer children here eat regular meals with their parents. Maybe it is not so much the formal institution of marriage we need to look at, but the ways families, married or otherwise, work, and the ways we raise and look after our young people. (Although we are moving in a more continental direction, we still have a culture of family-unfriendly long working hours.)
Why people think Britain is broken
This brief balance sheet suggests that the claim that Britain as a whole is broken in any meaningful sense is hard to stand up. In the three areas of brokenness—crime and antisocial behaviour, family breakdown and the underclass—we are neither vastly out of step with other developed nations nor experiencing any massive increase in these problems.
Boris Johnson, the new Conservative mayor of London, recently poured scorn on the broken Britain claim. “If you believe the politicians, we have a broken society, in which the courage and morals of young people have been sapped by welfarism and political correctness. And if you look at… the Beijing Olympics, you can see what piffle that is.” When in opposition, Tony Blair described Britain as “unfit for any decent person to raise a family and live in.” But by the time he had been in power for a decade he had changed his mind. Blair now believes that the recent spate of murders of teenagers is “not a metaphor for the state of British society,” but a “specific criminal culture among a specific group of people.”
The simple explanation for the apparent disagreement between the Conservative mayor and the Conservative leader, and the difference between post-1997 and pre-1997 Blair, is that one is in power and the other in opposition. Johnson and Cameron will no doubt find a way of blending their rhetoric to agree that parts of British society are broken. Indeed, in the Cameron “broken society” speech quoted at the start of this piece, it is noticeable how much of the list refers to quite specific, often small-scale but very visible social pathologies. (The exception is educational attainment—although public concern about education is now at its lowest level for a decade.) It is also noticeable how many of the items on the broken Britain list are problems of excess and transgression, as opposed to the issues of deprivation, poverty and disease that characterised the “the sick man of Europe” narrative about 1970s and 1980s Britain.
So why are we so much more pessimistic about Britain than the facts would seem to justify? One part of the answer is the British mass media—sometimes fanned by an aggressively adversarial party political system. Asked which institutions have the strongest impact on life in Britain, the public place the media before the government, parliament or the prime minister. And most people will agree that the media are responsible for the dark view they have of the country. Of course, people will agree with all sorts of propositions put to them in a survey, and journalists will tell us that the media are only reporting what happens. But ask people why they believe crime is rising, contrary to what most of the data shows, and only 23 per cent cite their own experience.
This helps to explain how most people are able to believe that crime or immigration or the NHS is not a big issue where they live, while simultaneously believing that the same issues are out of control in the country as a whole. Mori’s weekly analysis of the coverage of street crime in London shows that perceptions of whether the capital as whole is getting more or less safe are strongly correlated with newspaper coverage of street crime, despite the fact that most Londoners feel safer walking around in their own neighbourhoods after dark than they used to.
So while most of us seem pretty content with our own lives, we are ready to go along with the collective pessimism. The economic downturn will only accentuate this phenomenon. And yet even with pessimism about the economy at record levels, when people focus on their own lives, a more balanced picture emerges. As recently as June, after a surge in concern about the economy, polls still found that more Britons felt their circumstances would improve over the next few years than felt they would get worse.
But the power of the media is only one part of the explanation for social pessimism—after all, those who never read a newspaper have similar views to those who do. Also, as the figures quoted earlier by Roger Liddle suggest, this is a Europe-wide phenomenon—and the media in other European countries are usually less aggressive and cynical than ours.
So what else is going on? Notwithstanding the tendency to exaggerate social breakdown, there clearly are islands of social misery, made worse by the decline of traditional communities and authorities, especially in working-class areas. Liddle’s own explanation is related to economic change: “I believe that the erosion of ‘good working-class jobs’ is having profound social effects both in Britain and on the continent. Not only are there material consequences for the groups affected. There is a loss of self-esteem, as the type of job which was in the previous generation the foundation of secure family life is no longer available. The alienation of white working-class males is not just a British phenomenon.”
Liddle also believes that the message of “education, education, education” is threatening to families who have no history of success in formal education. “In previous generations, people had routes, admittedly limited, from the shop floor into foreman and management positions. For young people today, obtaining educational qualifications is a necessary stepping stone for social mobility. We live in a world rich in educational opportunity, but the realisation that this is not one in which they are likely to succeed hits many young teenagers at secondary school—a fifth of whom across Europe leave school with no or very low qualifications.” (The Conservatives like to point out that of the 30,000 pupils that got three As in their A-levels last year, only 176 belonged to the 5,000 poorer students eligible for free school meals.)
The workings of educational meritocracy, the erosion of decent working-class jobs, the rise in income inequality and the perceived threats from globalisation/immigration—all these contribute to a widespread disaffection among people towards the bottom of the pile, especially in the big European states. This in turn feeds some of the social problems highlighted by Cameron and Duncan Smith. In some areas, perception does match reality—for example, knife and gun crime and the near-total disregard for authority by youth in poor urban centres. (In 2007-08, 62 per cent of robberies in England and Wales were recorded by just three police forces—the Metropolitan Police, Greater Manchester and West Midlands. Within these regions, crimes were overwhelmingly concentrated among males aged 16-24 in poorer urban areas.)
A problem of success?
Another explanation for social pessimism, or what is sometimes called the “social recession,” is favoured particularly by people on the political left, such as Neal Lawson of the think tank Compass. He says: “We feel increasingly empowered as individuals. And partly because of that, we feel increasingly disempowered as citizens.”
According to Liddle, this idea of the empowered individual and the weakened citizen is in some ways a consequence of liberal advances in rights over the past two generations. “The individual social freedoms that progressives have espoused to enable people to live their lives as they choose have strengthened individualist attitudes and also weakened the resonance of collective solutions to social problems. This in turn undermines the appeal of political parties that prioritise state intervention.”
This scepticism is especially deep in Britain. Britons are more likely than any other Europeans to agree that the government interferes too much in their lives, despite lower tax levels and less regulation of the economy than most European countries.
But there is something else going on too—something beyond politics, beyond left and right. The future is inherently uncertain and full of potential risks. When we look back at the past, even the recent past, we play down the suffering and the anxieties we felt back then about the future. Because the past is closed, it often appears brighter than the present and future (unless it really was truly awful). We seem to be hard-wired for nostalgia. And if this effect seems to be getting worse, it may, paradoxically, have something to do with the fact that modern liberal democracies have been so successful in creating secure, controlled environments for their citizens.
Risk is much less of a factor in our daily lives than it was only a few generations ago—we are, for example, much less likely to die from a whole range of diseases. But as we increase control of our individual destinies, the world outside starts to look, by comparison, more uncertain. And the risks out there have become harder to judge—we have far more information but fewer reliable authorities (or so we think) to guide us through it. Many people complain that it is very hard to know what the right thing to do is, or who to believe, with so much information and competing views over everything from health to climate change. We have fallen victim to a condition social psychologists call “cognitive polyphasia,” where we are able to hold apparently dissonant views—between our individual lives and our collective future, for example—without suffering any mental discomfort. This, together with real shocks like 9/11 and persistent social problems, means that some of us have a sense of the world becoming more chaotic, even when in our own lives we have a good chance of living long, safe and comfortable existences. We have become more sensitised to the small risks that may collapse the whole edifice of security we have built around ourselves—like those unexpected events which destroy lives in Ian McEwan novels. As a result, we grow harder to please politically—government is regarded as both hapless and overzealous, and we want our leaders both to regulate more and to get off our backs and let us make up our own minds.
Like “no child left behind” or “end of boom and bust,” “broken Britain” is just a political slogan—but for all the reasons listed here, it has has had a powerful resonance. And, of course, usefully for the Conservatives it associates the party with social concern—even if Boris Johnson is right that the hypothesis is mostly piffle. When interviewed recently on the Today programme, Johnson denied a split over the issue with his leader David Cameron. But using the metaphor of a washing machine, he said: “Britain’s not working terribly well, it’s creaking a bit; it needs more rinse aid—there are things you can do.” And that is probably about right.