Monday, August 10, 2009

Is Britain Decadent?

It was Georges Clemenceau who famously said of the United States that it was the only country that had gone from "barbarism to decadence, without the usual interval of civilisation". A comment that, while humorous, was not accurate even in 1918.

However as I consider home thoughts from abroad about the UK, it is hard not to become deeply concerned about the overall state of things in Britain at the moment.

The rather unpleasant attack with burning alcohol against a young Brit in Greece has been seen in that country as something that the victim in some way "deserved" and the perpetrator of the crime as a heroine. The constant stories of disgusting behaviour by "Brits abroad" has created an image of a practically feral population that has abandoned most of the restraints of courtesy and even of law. In the Baltic the repeated incidents of British drunks urinating on the hallowed freedom monument- a monument with the same significance to Latvia as the Cenotaph has to British people- has seen a clamp down, and those who do so are now arrested, gaoled and then expelled from the country. My Latvian friends speak with incredulity of the idea that one could be so drunk as to want to urinate on the street, and the Latvians are no slouches themselves when it comes to strong drink.

One does not need to go to Riga to see drunken bad behaviour- any Saturday night in any town or city in the UK, from Wick to Penzance, will see violence, public sex and all manner of drunken nastiness. Nor is drunken behaviour necessarily nocturnal: the "barmy army" of English cricket supporters has repeatedly barracked and catcalled the Australian cricketers in a way that would have been inconceivable even five years ago. I am sure that this only added to the sweetness of the latest Ashes victory by the Aussies.

So the Brits are a bunch of drunks? Many point out that behaviour was as bad or worse under the first Elizabeth and that while the Victorians may have been straight laced, but they were also quite hypocritical.

For me though the issue of our inability to drink sensibly is coming down to some very real and increasingly deep rooted issues within British society.

Once, British education- especially in Scotland- was the best in the world and the Protestant inspiration gave us a broad society of well educated, hard working- and sober- individuals. That is no longer true, and the UK school system now struggles with such subjects as maths and engineering, where individuals such as Telford and Brunel or Robert MacAlpine once led the world.

An Estonian friend of mine went to study in the UK and he pointed out the fundamental difference between the British and Estonian education systems. " In Estonia", he said, "we are taught to be accurate, in the UK accuracy is not too important, the point is to use your critical faculties."

In Estonia the key was the result, in the UK it was the process.

It is by no means a bad thing to use critical faculties, and perhaps it explains why the top of the British educational tree continues to bear good fruit. However it also explains why we have increasingly lost ourselves in a sea of moral relativism- the idea that few things are absolutely good or absolutely bad. In Estonia there is the idea of the correct result, in the UK, such absolutism is considered naive or even harmful.

Perhaps that is why we are now prepared to put up with behaviour that would have quite literally been unthinkable to our grandparents generation. The nastiness we find in our towns and cities and that we are inflicting on other countries reflects an unwillingness to suggest that this behaviour is actually completely - absolutely-unacceptable. We have become unwilling to discipline our society.

Without such discipline it is easy to accurately identify- using the Oxford dictionary- what we are now becoming:

• adjective 1 characterized by moral or cultural decline. 2 luxuriously self-indulgent.

We need to find a way to renew our national sense of worth and mission- and that is a job for all of society, not merely the narrow political elite.


Caron said...

I think there's an idea that there is nothing between descent into licentious behaviour and bringing back the birch, which doesn't help and only polarises a debate that needs a bit of intelligent thinking.

There are so many different problems, as you describe, and you just wonder where to begin.

I think our culture of regime orientated parenting needs to change for a start. I think it's barbaric that we think it's acceptable to leave tiny babies to cry themselves to sleep and there is bags of evidence to suggest that this floods the brain with stress hormones and contributes to mental health problems in later life which can lead to the sort of disruptive, drunken behaviour you are talking about.

Then when they grow older, there is a tendency to put up with worse behaviour from them than we would ever have got away with. Failure to discipline, to guide is just as harmful as brutal discipline. There are plenty ways to guide a child without resorting to any sort of voice raising or violence or cruelty.

There is also pretty much no help available for teens with alcohol dependency which is why I felt it was so unfair that the guy who died at 22 from severe cirrhosis was refused a transplant. The system failed that guy through his whole life.

There is also a link between poverty and this sort of behaviour that you can't deny.

It's all so complex - where do you actually start?

Cicero said...

Interesting question: I think answer is: accept there is a problem. Then let us think about it.

Anonymous said...

"Once, British education- especially in Scotland- was the best in the world and the Protestant inspiration gave us a broad society of well educated, hard working- and sober- individuals."

I can sympathise with your position, but what period exactly are you referring to?