Conservative Home

« Peter Luff MP: Not everything eco is good | Main | Lord Alton: The Government should back alternatives to embryonic stem cells »

Ben Rogers: We can mend our society if we acknowledge how broken it is

Ben_rogers Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist specialising in South Asia. He serves as Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and was Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham in the 2005 General Election.

Teenage shootings, knife crime, binge drinking, record alcohol-related hospital admissions, the highest number of teenage pregnancies in Europe, road rage, crumbling public services, poor school discipline, debt, obesity and poor diets, rising abortion rates and a dramatic increase in births outside marriage – who can possibly say this is not a “broken society”?

The news headlines in the final days of 2007 were deeply depressing. According to the Daily Telegraph on New Year’s Eve, over 500 binge drinkers every day end up in hospital. Alcohol-related hospital admissions have risen by a third in a just two years. Over 13 million people are drinking too much.

The previous day, we were informed that every year over 50,000 girls under 18 get pregnant – the highest rate in western Europe. We also have the worst rates for obesity and junk food in Europe.

And earlier in December, it was reported that “most British babies are now born outside of marriage”.

We are living in a broken society, and David Cameron has been spot on in saying so.

Some people don’t like the phrase “broken society”. They think it sounds too negative, too old-fashioned, too Victor Meldrew. But the key is how you define “broken”, and what tone you use.

If one or two legs of a beautiful antique piece of furniture – let’s say a dining table – are broken, and the table is therefore wobbly, a person could respond in one of three ways. They could resign themselves to the table’s fate, despair of ever being able to fix it, and decide to carry on as best they can. Or they could consign the beautiful antique table to the scrap heap, and buy a brand new one. Or they could, in consultation with an antiques expert, try to have the table legs fixed, with a permanent glue.

We could take the same approach with our broken society. We could soldier on, barely acknowledging – perhaps denying – that it is broken. We could consign young people and families who form our ‘broken society’ to the scrap heap, and focus on bettering ourselves. Or we could – as both the Centre for Social Justice and the Party have done - say we can, and we must, fix this, preserving what is good and mending what has gone wrong.

Our society is not shattered. It is not destroyed. It is not smashed to smithereens. It is not irreparable. But it is broken. And this isn’t simply about moralising. It is about the practical, real-life damaging effects on people. 

Why? Isn’t it obvious? Look around you – in virtually every train, street corner and pub. If you still can’t see it, let me give you a few examples.

Late last year, I travelled across London from my home just beyond Wimbledon, to Broadstairs in Kent, to speak at a school. At about 9.30am I was on a train through Kent headed for Broadstairs. A teenager got on, with headphones playing music unbelievably loud. The whole carriage could hear the music. He flopped into a seat. Within a few minutes, a large well-built middle-age man got up from a nearby seat, and went over to the young lad. “Turn the volume down. There are other people on this train,” the man said, firmly but calmly. He was met immediately with a torrent of abuse and expletives. He told the young lad to “show some respect”, and then he moved to the next carriage. It was a miracle it did not descend into violence – certainly I had been bracing myself for a bloody outcome.

This was early in the morning. The teenager was unlikely to have been drinking, although nothing is impossible. Yet what it came down to was a lack of respect. And worse – I was not surprised by it. In fact, I thought it fairly typical. In fact, when the middle-aged man got up to remonstrate with the young lad, I was fearful – for the middle-aged man. I expected him to be knifed. What does that say about our society?

How much worse is it when alcohol is involved? I can tell you. Twice in recent months I have witnessed drunken yobs fighting on a train. In both instances, blood splattered the doors between the carriages, passengers cowered behind their newspapers, and the police arrived at the next station. Both instances caused fear, delay and inconvenience for other passengers. To witness it was, quite simply, horrible. I sat there hating every minute of it, and wishing I was somewhere else.

When I was a Parliamentary Candidate in the City of Durham in the last General Election, I went out on patrol with the police one night. Within a few minutes, the cops were running to and fro dealing with fights in various bars along North Road. It was chaos. I have to admit, it was one of the most daunting experiences of my life. I find travelling into conflict zones in other parts of the world – something I do rather a lot of – far less frightening. I guess I also find such travel much more worthwhile. People in those places are suffering for a cause. But in Britain, people who are attacked, people who are afraid to go out of their homes at night, people who walk down a street past loud, vulgar drunken youths in fear and trepidation – it is so pointless. And for the young people who get into fights, are rushed to hospital with alcohol or hypothermia, or vomit in the street – what does it all mean? In Durham, I summed up the problem with three Vs – vomit, vandalism and violence. All so meaningless – and such signs of brokenness.

None of these examples would mean very much in isolation. But they are repeated every Friday and Saturday night, and other days of the week too, throughout the country. And they are repeated not just in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Durham – but in market towns and quiet villages. 

As my friends will confirm, I am no prude when it comes to drink. But I do not understand the prevailing attitude among many in this country – and it is not only teenagers – whose stated goal is to get completely drunk. I understand people who have a few drinks too many, and get quite merry. I have done it myself. But to have as an explicit stated ambition to get “pissed” – well, that speaks of a broken society, because it suggests there is nothing more interesting or worthwhile or enjoyable or fulfilling to do.

Society is broken in many other ways too. Too many families don’t eat together, or if they do, they sit in front of the tv and don’t exchange a word. When my sister and I visit our parents in Dorset, we often remark on how fortunate we are to have a family that, when we do meet together, sits round a table for dinner and talks about all sorts of things: current affairs, other countries, music, art, literature, culture, spirituality. But for many families that would be an anathema.

Our society is broken too in terms of morale, competence and efficiency. Get on a crowded tube or train, and the chances are people look grey, morose, moronic or disengaged from the world. Talk to a government official and the likelihood of these characteristics being exhibited is enhanced. How can officials just “lose” half the nation’s bank details in the post? Is that not a sign of brokenness too?

Much of my time is spent in some of the world’s poorest countries, or places where people are struggling for their most basic rights and are suffering horrific human rights violations. So shouldn’t I be grateful for my lot, and stop complaining? Well yes, on one level I should. I never take my freedom and opportunities for granted, and I am eternally grateful for the privileges that I have. But on another level, part of me feels that Britain has been blessed with resources, freedom and opportunities – and with a beautiful heritage – and that we are not using them well. We pay huge taxes now – and for what? For some bureaucrat to lose our bank details? For some manager to fill in a clipboard note with his biro in a hospital? For a social worker to move a child into care because his family cannot provide for him? For a school to so fail to inspire and motivate a young person that instead she turns to drink and drugs? Is that not a broken society?

And yet it’s not all over. When I reached Broadstairs, my journey was truly worthwhile. After speaking about the plight of people in Burma, dozens of teenagers asked questions, and dozens stayed behind to talk to me about what they might do to help. A few weeks previously, I spoke at a school in Bristol and the same thing happened – and the pupils there are raising funds for projects in Burma. Whenever I speak in schools, I find young people responsive, interested, engaged and challenging. And that gives me hope that our broken society can be fixed. People don’t start out in life broken – it is their families, communities, schools and society that have failed them. It is up to us to give those young people hope – as set out in Breakthrough Britain. We can mend our broken society. But we must – we must – acknowledge that it is broken.


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.