How Britain lost its sense of purpose
SITTING in a school hall a few days ago, watching a group of children in their stage production of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, I was struck by two things.
"‘Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,’ said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, ‘but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?’
"‘It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,’ was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. ‘Look here.’ From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment. ‘Oh, Man. look here. Look, look, down here,’ exclaimed the Ghost.
"They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
"Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude. ‘Spirit, are they yours?’ Scrooge could say no more.
"‘They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.’"
Thus are displayed ignorance and want, with ignorance cast as the more pernicious. If ignorance could be banished, so Dickens and his fellow Victorians thought, the hideous industrial world being created could somehow be justified. If chimneys led, eventually, to the kind of progress from which all would benefit, the blackening of the towns was a price worth paying. Banish ignorance, and the slums, with all the vice incorporated therein, would disappear.
It was this thought that inspired Robert Owen to provide education at New Lanark. Owen’s philanthropy was not driven by sentiment. He wanted, indeed felt it his duty, to create the kind of rational human being who would live and work to both his own and his employer’s advantage. People only needed to be taught, and they would become better people. This belief underpinned the Victorian age. It defined their sense of purpose. We can only envy them. In 21st-century Britain, our sense of purpose is not nearly so easily defined. Indeed, I am at a loss to know what it is.
The age that invented the mission statement is the only age that does not have one. Every British child has a school place. The slums have been demolished. Nobody starves or goes without shoes. State benefits have never been more generous. Yet in many ways the state of the nation is worse than it was at the time of Queen Victoria’s death. Then, there was still optimism that once gross financial and social injustices were ironed out, once education and affordable health care were universally available, people would flourish and flower. They would take pride in themselves, their children and the environment in which they lived. This was the future. When the Victorians went to the grave, they went regretting that they would not live to see the golden age they felt certain they were ushering in.
What a con. The golden age never materialised. After Victorian social purpose had been transformed into the national purpose required to fight and win two world wars, Britain completely lost its way. After 1945, education was liberally provided, but where were the paragons of virtue it was supposed to produce? Instead of a legion of Robert Owens, it has produced an ever increasing multitude of people like Vicky Pollard, the self-justifying, slovenly, hideous, whingeing ned from Little Britain.
Dickens would have been amazed. He would have been even more amazed that in 1997, "I’m a modern kinda guy" Tony Blair was still trumpeting "education, education, education" like a true Victorian believer, even though by then everybody could see that the sort of education provided by the secular state, ie education without any moral framework, was not the answer. It is quite funny, really, to hear Tony Blair castigating the "dark forces of conservatism" without ever realising that he is part of them himself. A true modernist would have seen that without being coupled to an insistence that we define and conform to a new sense of virtue, public responsibility and duty, education does not relieve ignorance, it simply morphs it into something much worse: sullen, nihilistic resentment.
That a man so preoccupied with his legacy should find himself presiding not over a redefined British notion of resolve but over a void filled with the vacuous cult of celebrity is ironic. During Blair’s watch, deep and difficult philosophical discussions about the state of the nation have been abandoned in favour of the knee-jerk sentimentality of Children in Need or Band Aid. Victorian rigour has been replaced by easy tears - and not to anybody’s real benefit.
BUT what of "Smart, Successful Scotland"? Here, devolution was mistaken for a new sense of national purpose. Now that Holyrood is with us, and is so utterly dismal, just like our English neighbours we, too, are struggling to define exactly what we are about.
We know what we are not about: we are no longer about enlightened philanthropy. It is a glorious paradox that the only appropriate response to Scottish politicians gushing about New Lanark is "Bah! Humbug!", for were Robert Owen alive today, he would be drummed out of town for daring to offer a personal investment in education. Irvine Laidlaw, who recently tried to do that very thing, was soon told where he could stick his good intentions. As for promoting some kind of refreshed moral code, modern Scottish politicians are far too cowardly. No votes in it, you see.
So the Ghost of Christmas Present still lives. Those ragged children, Ignorance and Want, have not been banished, they have simply grown up and multiplied. Meanwhile, our politicians rush about, busy as bees. Where they are leading us, nobody knows, but the real tragedy is that, unlike their Victorian predecessors, so few of them even care.
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Tuesday 18 June 2013
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