Volume 10 Number 2
Britain's Moral Crisis
01 April 1997

It's time for Britain to take a long hard look at herself writes Hugh Williams.

Not since the battle of Monte Casino has an elevated piece of real estate been more bitterly contested than the moral highground in Britain today. The country is embroiled in a public debate that some thought would be short-lived, but which will not go away.

As it is about sex, money, drugs, crime, religion and - in this election season - politics, one can understand why. These ingredients provide fodder for an endless stream of sensational tabloid headlines and TV sound-bites, while the deeper undertones-about civil restraints versus personal freedoms, rights versus duties, relativism versus absolutes-drive columnists in the 'posh' newspapers to dig deeper into their dictionaries.

The debate has spawned a plethora of papers by the great and good on standards in public life, ethics in business, values in education, violence in the media and breakdown in the family. Moral philosophers, social analysts and, of course, political leaders have all leapt into the fray.

At first glance this appears to be an argument about whether shared values are even possible in a pluralistic society. But the debate carries within it a more profound quest: for a sense of meaning and purpose amid the confusion of today's fragmented 'post-modern' culture. And beneath that lurks a deeper question still: is there some fundamental authority to which all can appeal and which all will recognize? Or is a popular-and shifting-consensus the best we can hope for?

This is no mere intellectual argument. It is driven by a widely shared gut feeling, which varies from deep unease to sheer horror at the sort of society we have created: a society which can produce the torture and murder of a toddler by two children; the massacre of infant-school children in Scotland, so nearly repeated in the West Midlands a few weeks later; the fatal stabbing of a London headmaster by a teenager outside the gates of his own school.

Each of these events in isolation would have produced its own short-lived outcry. Taken together and added to the sickening chronicles of battery, rape, muggings, child-abuse and drug-related teenage deaths they form a swelling tide of anger, bewilderment and despair. Mix in stories of sleaze and scandal in government circles, adultery and divorce among junior Royals, the lies and greed that almost brought down the whole British banking system, 'fat cats' in the boardroom, social security fraud, unteachable classrooms, overcrowded prisons, the alienation felt by those who have no home, no job, no prospects, no hope-and no wonder people across the country are crying 'enough!'. What is more, they want to understand what has brought us to this mess. And then they ask-what can be done?

It would be easy to say it all began with the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Easy but wrong. Forty years earlier the influential Bloomsbury Set had challenged traditional sexual morality in their often witty writings and their lifestyle. Then, in 1948 and 1952, came the Kinsey Report in the USA which gave the impression that deviant sexual acts were normal, commonplace and acceptable.

In the 1960s the contraceptive pill, heralded as giving married women more control over their lives, also opened the floodgates of promiscuity. But it was the sweeping reforms of the politicians, notably Roy Jenkins and David Steel, which set the seal on the 'permissive'-or, as Jenkins would have it, 'civilized'-society. Its catchwords were 'do your own thing' and 'whatever turns you on'. Morality was privatized. You could do what you wanted as long as you did not harm anyone else.

Government also had a strong influence on the 'greed is good' culture of the 1980s. The removal of economic restraints brought greater prosperity but also encouraged rampant acquisitiveness. By the end of the decade individualism had won the battle over collectivism worldwide. But it had also seriously damaged social cohesion. Margaret Thatcher could even famously declare, 'There is no such thing as society.'

The recession which followed came like a cold shower to dampen the euphoria. With the onset of Aids and the alarming increase in violent crime, rape and child abuse, it seemed that all the chickens of the last 30 years had come home to roost.

Desperately Prime Minister John Major called for 'Back to basics', only to be undermined by embarrassing revelations of sexual and financial misconduct by several of his MPs. Meanwhile a profound shift had been taking place in the philosophy of the opposition Labour Party under two openly Christian leaders, who weaned the party away from doctrinaire socialism and rebuilt it on the basis of social morality.

At the same time, the religious leaders began to lead. Cardinal Basil Hume had always combined a rigorous yet compassionate defence of Roman Catholic moral guidance with an equally vigorous pursuit of its social teaching. This now began to be adopted by other churches, notably the evangelical wing of the Church of England, under Archbishop George Carey. They were joined by a new Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, who proved himself a formidable communicator on social and personal morality, with his emphasis on three pillars of community, family and faith. Battle was joined.

And not before time. In February 1993 two ten-year-old boys abducted two-year-old Jamie Bulger from a Merseyside shopping centre, tortured and killed him. Libertarian defenders of the permissive society were quick to claim that this evil act was a freak event with no universally applicable social or moral implications. Jonathan Sacks, on the other hand, wrote, 'The moral fabric with which we clothe our children has grown threadbare. The holes have begun to show.' Tony Blair-now Labour Party leader and then opposition Home Affairs spokesman-spoke of 'hammer blows against the sleeping conscience of the nation'.

As was feared, the intense national soul-searching eventually died down. This seemed to be the pattern for the moral debate: a particularly horrifying crime, or set of statistics, would grip media attention for a week or two, but then it would move on.

Two years later a series of terrible events changed the public mood at a deeper, less transient level. In December 1995, a London headmaster, Philip Lawrence, was fatally stabbed while he was trying to protect one of his pupils from a gang. In March came the massacre of 16 five- and six-year-olds and their teacher at Dunblane. This was followed by an attack by a man wielding a machete at St Luke's infants school in Wolverhampton, only foiled by the courage of a young woman teacher.

This time, people not only cried out, but took action-enlisting the endorsement of politicians, educationists and church leaders and catching the mood of public opinion.

It was one thing to warn in the Sixties and Seventies that the tide of permissiveness would lead to family breakdown, increasing violence and civic disorder, as did Moral Re-Armament, the Festival of Light and Mary Whitehouse's 'clean up TV' campaign. Now, a quarter of a century later, the evidence was there for all to see.

The people of Dunblane in their grief backed the Snowdrop Campaign for the banning of all handguns. Frances Lawrence, wife of the slain London headmaster, launched a Moral Manifesto, which also contained a political demand-that the sale of combat knives should be outlawed. The Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) initiated a Forum which attempted to reach agreement on the basic moral values which should be taught in schools. The Archbishop of Canterbury opened a debate on moral standards in the House of Lords, while the Catholic Bishops' Conference called for the reassertion of common values, linked to social and economic policy.

With a general election looming, politicians were unable to ignore the tide of public opinion. Unusually, they allowed themselves to be interviewed about their religious beliefs. Each party attempted to portray itself as the champion of family values and moral education and as the scourge of crime.

The Chief Rabbi wrote in the Daily Telegraph last October, 'The world of politics, religion and morality suddenly converged.... In our hearts we suspect that our future quality of life will be determined less by decisions about European monetary union or Scottish devolution than by rising crime, family disintegration, random violence and the breakdown of authority. The dominant issues for the next 20 years may well be social rather than economic or political.'

So what is the debate really about? From the angle of sexual morality, it is clear: has the 'permissive society' really become the 'civilized society', or have the benefits of freedom and greater openness been more than wiped out by Aids, absent fathers, the surrender of parenthood, uncontrollable children, soaring crime rates?

On selfishness and greed, I remember a young Fellow of All Souls' College, Oxford, warning in the late 1950s that if 5 per cent of the population are purely acquisitive, society can just about absorb them. But if 95 per cent are, no society can survive. Some fear our materialistic era may be reaching that point.

And as far as simple honesty goes, can any banking system, social security system, transport system or health service survive the petty fraud and thieving that now seems to be rampant?

Underlying all this is the 'me first' philosophy which justifies all actions in terms of self-interest, rather than the common good. 'At the heart of these concerns lies the great issue of our time, the dilemma posed for a liberal society by the tension between freedom and constraints, rights and duties,' wrote Melanie Philips in The Observer last October. 'Both political Left and Right have confused proper liberal values, which depend on rules and boundaries, with a libertarian free-for-all; and confused authority, on which freedom depends, with authoritarianism. The result is that people are too timid to make the moral judgements upon which freedom depends.'

But can the diverse citizenry of a pluralistic society like ours ever agree on common values? And if they do, will not the result be a bland and rather meaningless reflection of the lowest common denominator of moral acceptability? This was certainly the criticism levelled against the findings of the SCAA Forum on teaching moral values in schools.

Our fragmented post-modern culture ensures that there is now a 'pick and mix' attitude to morality. The old authorities-parents, school, church, Royal family, government-have declined in influence. No one else, it is held, has the right to decide by which values I run my life. The danger with that approach, of course, is that I tend to judge myself by my ideals and others by their behaviour.

The playwright Tom Stoppard bit the bullet some years ago when he declared that, logically, standards of behaviour must be absolute or they are not standards at all, and that an absolute judgement presupposes an absolute judge. The religious correspondent, Clifford Longley, writes of 'the recurrent nightmare of secular society: that it has thrown away the moral baby with the religious bathwater'. And he concludes: 'Why be good if there is no God? In Britain today, that is the ultimately scary question.'

So is a return to God the only hope for a reformed society? Longley maintains that the Victorians 'were ready to give credence to the moral half of the message... because they believed the religion it came from. But it rarely works the other way round.' Could this generation prove otherwise? Could the present anxiety over the state of our society lead to a new acceptance of universal moral values which will in turn lead to a revival of faith?

We seem to be locked into a culture of blame for the parlous state of the nation. 'Why don't they do something about it?' is the most commonly heard question. The churches blame the schools; the schools blame the parents and the media; the parents blame the media and the schools; the politicians blame the churches, the schools, the media, the parents and each other; everybody blames the politicians.

Most pundits seem clear what is needed. What few seem to articulate is the 'how'. A simple proposition might be for each of us to start with ourselves. If each person began with what they could do, where they are, to put things right and to set new standards, then we might soon see a difference. This issue gives some examples of people who have done just that - with encouraging results.
Hugh Williams