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Martin Parsons: Young people used to have heroes for role models, now they have celebrities

The riots are symptomatic of a decay in British culture. Something in British culture has died, or is at least close to the point of death. By that I certainly don’t mean the dilution of British culture by the arrival of those from other cultures. In fact, during the riots we have seen some of the best of British cultural values from a wide variety of people within our society, from the moral courage of Tariq Jahan who called for peace, not retaliation after his two sons were murdered trying to defend their property, to the physical courage of ordinary policemen faced with menacing mobs, to the ordinary members of the public who turned up armed with brooms to clear up riot damaged streets.

What I mean is that the rioting we have seen is symptomatic of the decay of something in British culture that for the last century or more made it in many respects the envy of the world.

I start from the premise that when teenagers wearing designer fashion items organise themselves with blackberries to smash shop windows and loot shops, then the underlying causes of this are more likely to be about greed and envy than anything else. Insofar as we need to look for an underlying cause at all, the questions we should be asking are, why that greed and envy has taken such a hold among some young people that they are prepared to engage in the sort of violence and looting that we as a nation has been shocked to see this week.

At the most basic level the riots raise profound questions about why the normal means of instilling moral boundaries in young people, the traditional family and the education system, have in the case of those rioting, clearly failed to do so, as John Glen has earlier outlined. The breakdown of the former has been addressed extensively by the Social Justice Policy Commission chaired by Iain Duncan Smith, but arguably could be given more prominence in government policy. However, questions certainly need to be asked about liberal approaches to education, particularly the promotion of moral pluralism in the state school system. This goes back at least 30 years and is summed up by the phrase ‘there is no such thing as right and wrong it’s just want is “right” for the child’. As a young teacher in the 1980s I sometimes wondered how long it would be before a child turned that one on its end and questioned the school discipline system itself!

However, there is a more subtle shift in British culture that involves the media. In a nutshell, it is true to at least some degree that young people used to have heroes for role models, now they have celebrities.

As a teacher I have talked to numerous teenagers who have told me with absolute seriousness that their career ambition is to be a pop star or to marry the likes of Peter Andre. It can sometimes be quite difficult to get them to see that they might just need a plan B! Of course what is really going on is that they want to have the trappings of the celebrity lifestyle that they see endlessly portrayed on TV and in magazines. And therein I suggest, lies the cause of the greed and envy that we have seen so violently manifested on the streets of Britain’s cities. A toxic combination of a gradual, but persistent undermining of the traditional means of instilling moral boundaries, combined with the greed and envy that the promotion of celebrity lifestyle culture by the media has created a hunger for. As Robert Halfon earlier observed the riots were a grotesque manifestation of our ‘I want it now consumerist society’.

The promotion of celebrity culture by the media to its current extent is a relatively recent phenomena in British culture. One does not need to go back more than a few decades to reach a time when the role models that were given to young people were heroes rather than celebrities. A whole generation of boys grew up reading comics that told stories of heroism, often though by no means exclusively, during two world wars. Now the magazines are more likely to be about celebrities often graphically portraying their inability to make wise lifestyle choices with the riches that they have acquired seemingly effortlessly at a relatively young age. It is envy and greed to have the trappings of that lifestyle that we have seen manifested on the streets of our cities this week.

Much of this is the fault of the media. It’s not that teenagers don’t want good role models, they often just don’t see them in the media. Some months ago a group of teenage boys talked to me with deep admiration about the British soldiers who strapped themselves to the outside of a small helicopter to go back into a Taliban stronghold to try to rescue one of their wounded colleagues. But the truth is such stories tend to get drowned out for many teenagers by the constant barrage of celebrity lifestyle gossip thrown out by the media.

Yet there is a profound difference between heroes and celebrities. Heroes endure pain and hardship and are prepared to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others and are more likely to be self-effacing than publicity hungry; Celebrities on the other hand are perceived to get rich quickly, are self-promoting, constantly after the next personal media exposure, perhaps because in the case of at least some, there appears to little more to them than that. Heroes and celebrities as role models are almost exact opposites.

Most societies have a concept of an 'ideal man', which people aspire to be like. Sometimes, though not always, this is epitomised in an historical figure. It is a figure that people in that culture and particularly leaders of that nation aspire to be like. It is a role model of the values that are important to that society. Among the Pushtuns whom I worked amongst in Afghanistan, the ideal man was epitomised by Ahmad Shah Abdali (d.1773), founder of modern Afghanistan, who as both mystical poet and warrior-king is viewed as the ideal Pushtun leader.

John Buchan very much expressed the existence of this ideal man concept in British culture in his fictional character Richard Hannay. Hannay does not have a particularly affluent upbringing, but he is a hard worker. He is also brave and a protector of the weak, who is prepared to stand up to bullies. He is loyal to friends and deeply patriotic to Britain. After rising through the officer ranks in WW1 to become a major general Hannay marries Mary a beautiful, intelligent and equally brave young English woman (who expresses the ‘ideal woman’ concept in British culture), then settles down to a quiet family life in the English countryside. However, He is prepared to leave behind family and home and all he holds dear when called upon to come to the service of his country again.

John Buchan’s own life in many respects ended up epitomising this ideal man concept
in British culture. Born the son of a Free Church of Scotland minister of fairly limited financial means, Buchan attended a local grammar school before winning scholarships to Glasgow, then Oxford universities, eventually becoming a lawyer and journalist. During WW1 he was initially war correspondent for the Times, then joined the army, ultimately becoming director of intelligence. He was a Conservative MP from 1927-35, before being elevated to the House of Lords on his appointment as governor general of Canada.

The point is simply this, we have in the past had a significant part of British culture that set out an aspiration of what the ideal man and ideal woman was. That encapsulated the values that we most highly esteemed in our culture, such as courage, self sacrifice, loyalty, patriotism, truthfulness. These ideals were something that political leaders as well as others at least aspired to be like. In the last few decades though, many of these values have been undermined by amongst other things liberalism and replaced by celebrity lifestyle as a role model for many young people.

The greatest blame for this clearly falls on the media and not merely the News of the World and the Sun, although the’ red tops’ promotion of gossip must certainly bear a share of the blame.

However, we have also moved in our political culture, almost unconsciously from an era during the time of Mrs Thatcher’s government when cabinet ministers manifestly epitomised those values of the ideal man/woman. Think for example, of Airey Neave DSO, MC, MP, the first British POW to escape from Colditz, lawyer at the Nuremburg war crimes tribunal, later brutally assassinated by Irish republican terrorists; Willie Whitelaw MC, MP; Lord Peter Carrington MC, who immediately after the Argentine invasion of the Falklands, insisted on taking ministerial responsibility and resigned, sacrificing his own career to ensure that the government and nation went to war united. However, today some senior politicians from all three main parties are more likely to have had a career as a political lobbyist or worked for a PR firm , though this is most certainly not true of all. Similarly, judging by the last ten years or so many government ministers would do anything, rather than sacrifice their own ministerial careers.

So, I would suggest that the challenge for the media from this week’s riots is to examine themselves to see what values they are actually promoting that make a minority of young people see celebrity lifestyle as their role model and inculcates such an attitude of greed and envy that will do almost anything to achieve it.

However, there is also a challenge for politicians in the wake of recent events is to ensure that the role model they present is more based on the sort of values that have historically underpinned British culture, such as courage, loyalty, patriotism, truthfulness and self sacrifice, rather than on the celebrity lifestyle culture that in many respects has superseded it.


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