Why Britain is broken, and how it might be fixed

Source: Flickr.com/George Rex

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late US senator, ambassador and statesman, caused widespread consternation when he released a report in 1965 about the disintegration of the negro family in America.

Sub-titled ‘The case for national action’, Moynihan’s report argued that without jobs, negro men would become alienated as husbands and fathers, leading to family dysfunction and breakdown, increasing out-of-wedlock births and sole parenthood, declining education outcomes and entrenched poverty.

“From the wild Irish slums of the 19th century Eastern seaboard, to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history; a community that allows a large number of men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationships to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future – that community asks for and gets chaos.

“Crime, violence, unrest, disorder – most particularly the furious, unrestrained lashing out at the whole social structure – that is not only to be expected; it is very near to inevitable. And it is richly deserved.”

The condemnation of Moynihan, later to become a Democrat senator, was fierce. Decades later, his remarks were accepted as commonsense, and pivotal to the war on poverty. They are also worth recalling as we contemplate the outbreaks of violence in England.

In the past few years, I have visited Britain, examining the situation there with a range of people. Although coming from different perspectives, many of their conclusions are summed up in a groundbreaking report by the Centre for Social Justice, a thinktank established by the now Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith.

The report, entitled ‘Broken Britain’, concluded that the fabric of society was crumbling, leaving at its margins an underclass, where life is characterised by dependency, addiction, debt and family breakdown. It is an underclass where a child born into poverty today is more likely to remain in poverty than at any time since the late 1960s.

The Centre identified five key paths to poverty: family breakdown, serious personal debt, drug and alcohol addiction, failed education, worklessness and dependency.

The conclusion was what I witnessed in parts of London: A large number of poorly educated and aimless young men and women; unemployed – and in many cases, unemployable; often from dysfunctional families, most of whom are welfare dependent. Add the tribalisation that has occurred in parts of Britain, and you have a social disaster and a recipe for the chaos described earlier by Pat Moynihan.

The separation from mainstream England reminded me of Disraeli’s famous description a century and a half earlier of two nations “between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if there were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.”

A problem is that the modern welfare state largely has accepted the consequences of societal dysfunction and is loath to tackle the causes. This arises from a number of factors. The emphasis on individualism has led to reluctance to interfere with other people’s choices. There is a fear of being accused of moralising, should one seek to address the causes. Even holding out an aspiration is criticised as demeaning the poor or the afflicted, insensitive to their plight, or paternalistic.

Yet this is a modern notion. As recently as a century ago, poverty, for example, was seen as a moral issue. A distinction was drawn between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Taking a sense of responsibility for one’s own situation was a central feature of policy responses.

Indeed, Disraeli’s famous reference to “two nations” was less about poverty as such, and more about the lack of connection he observed between the rich and the poor. His book, Sybil, or the Two Nations, describes the breakdown of society – and reinforces the significance of the mediating institutions, such as healthy families and strong communities.

A sense of community responsibility was reflected in the institutions that developed in the later part of the nineteenth century. For a century in Australia and elsewhere from the 1860s Friendly Societies flourished. Later Credit Unions and Building Societies reflected the self-help and mutual obligation ideas of the era. Not only did they build communities, they encouraged discipline, responsibility and thrift among individuals.

While the lack of universal provision can be criticised, the replacement of these institutions by the welfare state also robbed the community of many of its vital organic links.

Local concern for local problems and local organisation came to be replaced by the central state. Public servants, removed physically and emotionally from the communities they were to serve, turned to regulation and administrative programs. The impersonal program, increasingly delivered by someone paid to do so, replaced the personal encounter motivated by charity and concern to contribute to a healthy community.

Further developments have compounded the alienation of communities. In many places, governments have realised that central bureaucracy is not the solution. As a consequence, other sectors have been employed, usually by contractual arrangements to deliver services.

While this has overcome one set of problems, it has helped create others. Governments, subject to financial and other scrutiny, impose increasingly burdensome administrative arrangements on the service providers. They also seek the best value for public monies, often by competitive tendering for services. This can result in an emphasis on process, red tape, and time-consuming administration. It also fosters powerful vested interests, dependent upon government funding, and therefore vocal advocates for more funding.

When fathers have little ongoing connection to or oversight over their children, the protective structures of family are diminished. When nihilism replaces a common morality broadly based on religious values, responsibility to the wider community is lost. When people at the margins of society are relieved of personal responsibility to work and contribute to the community, and are left to live aimless, dependent lives, the type of anarchy we have witnessed in Britain is never far away.

It can be ignited in a flash. In reality, it has existed on many streets of Britain for years, but most people lived in another ‘nation’ and have been spared the direct consequences of failed policies. Until now.

The real test, when the riots subside, properties are restored and a semblance of order returns to the streets, is whether society has the courage to tackle the real causes.

Join the Discussion