David Cameron is following a long line of prime ministers claiming that British society is in moral decline and ‘broken’. The country has always been ‘going to the dogs’. Harold Macmillan suggested it all started when we stopped going to church on Sundays and so lost any regard for what he referred to as ‘Christian charity’. Three questions arise: Is it true? What is the cause? And what can be done about it?
The British system of social relationships between people, and the structure of social institutions and organisation which shape our association with others, are by and large fairly harmonious. Our daily experience of interactions with others, no matter the degree of difference between our ethnicity, gender, age, ability, or economic position, is generally based on mutual consideration and courtesy. Only among football crowds does consideration habitually give way to overt antagonism and even then it is almost invariably laced with humour. Rioting and looting is an exception, and the generous efforts of people in the clean-up operations confirmed the general rule: society is not broken. Yet.
But there are aspects of society which threaten to destroy the normal considerate relationships between people. The monstrous greed of individuals in the financial sector challenges the courtesy of ordinary people. Cameron’s cabinet of millionaires, and his unquestioning support for the City billionaires, simultaneously with his attack on the viability and security of the least well off, is stretching society to breaking point. The Chancellor’s cuts not only risk contributing to a long term economic recession but are in themselves divisive, reinforcing the basic doctrine that the poor must pay while we remain ‘intensely relaxed’ about the ‘filthy rich’.
Since Margaret Thatcher’s denial of the existence of society – so everyone must seek to maximise their own self-interest – successive British governments have been equally divisive: in thrall to the rich and frightened to tax them, but unfearful of attacking the poor and driving them beyond normal society. A recent study by the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research, for example, shows how cuts in support for social housing will result in families on benefit being ‘priced out of social housing’. The catalogue of possibly unintended consequences of dogmatically imposed cuts is extensive indeed.
The big question is what can be done to prevent society breaking? British society needs a new deal, rather than the Cameron government simply continuing the destruction of the past three decades. The real economy, providing real jobs, demands support. Funds which currently support the speculative financial sector – the £trillions of quantitative easing and taxation foregone – need to be redeployed to support the real economy. But, so far, Cameron and his cabinet show no sign of giving up on the broken Friedmanite ideology which, despite the good sense and intentions of ordinary people, threatens to break society.