The playwright David Edgar yesterday blamed the Tories and Thatcherism in particular for Britain's 'broken' society.
This line has become the received wisdom, at least amongst those who generally form our cultural agenda for us: that the Thatcher years unleashed an aggressive, greedy cult of individualism, that we are still paying the price for her supposed belief that there ‘is no such thing as society.’ Ostentatious hedonism, self-absorption, a hysterical obsession with celebrity and yobbish bullying are all put forward by commentators from the cultural establishment as signs of a decadence brought on by an excess of capitalism and it’s trading of people as commodities.
This argument is not only utterly inadequate in explaining the extent of the changes in British society, but it also absolves the liberal elites from having to face up to the results of their handiwork.
The Right might well have won the economic battles, but large parts of it never really understood the culture war which was happening under its nose throughout the post-war period. What started off as a counter-culture became the ruling orthodoxy, and, to a remarkable degree, it is still in place. With one or two exceptions, its effects have largely been destructive, and the air is thick with chickens coming home to roost.
It can certainly shoulder much of the blame for the way in which traditional identities have been repudiated. Its distaste, if not outright contempt, for the idea of the nation or a belief in national pride has become part of the collective psyche; it t is now so embedded we no longer see it, taking it for granted as the natural way of looking at things. A vigorous satirical tradition is one thing; systematic self-denigration to the point of oblivion quite another.
Similarly the undermining of the family was as much a philosophical as fiscal process; the nuclear unit was portrayed as the route of much emotional and psychological trauma (and for Marxists, the basic component holding up the hated capitalist structure). And in education, despite growing mountains of evidence of its shocking failure, an egalitarian approach is still, remarkably, clung to by many of its practitioners, as is the mistaken belief, discussed in an earlier chapter, that learning should emanate from the omnipotent pupil itself.
Underlying these attitudes, and most importantly perhaps, any form of restraint, either internal or external, came to be judged on principle to be a bad thing. This belief, which has seen perhaps it’s most disastrous results in the junking of discipline in schools - amounted to nothing less than a betrayal of subsequent generations. Individuals, it was said, should be encouraged to express themselves in any way which they saw fit, regardless of the consequences and effects on others, or indeed on themselves (a close friend, a thorough-going product of the ‘68 generation, related with amusement how he and his friends would sit on the floor of a railway station, getting filthy in the process, because sitting on the seats provided would have been regarded as simply too ‘establishment’).
Self-restraint or self discipline were seen as oppressive, old-fashioned, even anti-creative. A simple exposure to the rigour with which real artists or entrepreneurs apply themselves to their work was all the proof that was needed to show quite how big a lie this particular mantra was. And authority in whatever shape or form, be it uniformed or moral, was, naturally, there to be resisted and dismantled.
It is no wonder then that, amid the chaos, so many people feel a sense of unease and unhappiness. The wholesale degradation and discrediting of structures, institutions and traditional collective identities has left many in our society stranded.