Has Britain undergone a moral collapse?

Last month Britain was shocked by a wave of looting sprees across the country, starting in London and spreading around our other major cities. For three nights shops were broken into, properties were set ablaze, and innocent citizens were terrorised.

The events have prompted a rash of new policy ideas, and theories abound on what’s broken and how we fix it. Most prominent among those ideas is David Cameron’s belief that the country is undergoing a moral collapse.

“Do we have the determination to confront the slow-motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country these past few generations?” he asks. “Irresponsibility.  Selfishness.  Behaving as if your choices have no consequences.”

I’ve been thinking about this, and I’m not sure that’s how morality works. There’s always someone barking about moral decline, as this article from the economist shows, juxtaposing quotes about the recent riots with those from decades past.

“Over the past twenty years or so, there has been a revulsion from authority and discipline” is one quote from the Brixton riots of 1981. “There has been a permissive revolution… and now we all reap the whirlwind.”

There are moral absolutes, however unfashionable it is to say so. Around those however, is a more fluid public conscience of cultural norms and expectations. The moral high ground is on the move, and at any one time certain aspects will be in decline, and other in the ascendancy.

For example, there’s little doubt that we live in a more selfish society. Isolated in our consumerist, competitive individualism, backstabbing is acceptable and even celebrated in plenty of TV programmes. Our sexual ethics are on the move, again part of a consumer culture that values the personal right to choose above all else. We want to keep our options open, and relationships are looser, more fragile and conditional, our families weaker.

At the same time, awareness of our global humanity is growing, and most people feel at least a certain degree of responsibility towards others in distant parts of the world that would have been unimaginable in the past. The last three decades has seen the emergence of environmentalism, with a distinctly moral edge. Most people would agree that the exploitation of the earth is wrong, a laughable sentiment in the age of industrialisation.

Our tolerances are changing. Young generations are less racist, more comfortable with differences of gender and sexual preference. The words we consider rude change – our grandparents object to swearing, and we bristle at their ethnic prejudices.

Acceptable and unacceptable behaviour changes all the time. Nobody uses the expression ‘one for the road’ any more – drinking and driving is reprehensible. Stealing music on the internet though, that appears to be unquestioned by millions. Plenty of people appear genuinely surprised when a record label pushes through a conviction every once in a while.

Some things appear to be cyclical. When I first moved to Britain I was shocked at how relaxed people were about drinking, with excessive drinking commonplace, regardless of age. It didn’t used to be like that, apparently, in recent decades. Go back a little further, and you find that drunkenness is a British tradition – see the gin palaces. Speaking of which, the same is true of sex. We may be more permissive now than we
were during most of the 20th century, but there was a time when one in five women in London was a prostitute.

So perhaps morality is more of a moving target than it might initially appear. Things decline and are corrected by new laws, public awareness campaigns, spiritual revival, or grassroots movements like the temperance movement or rational recreation. A traumatic event can change a culture, as the First World War did, closing the door on religion for many a scarred soldier. 9/11 was another, suddenly justifying things like torture rendition or wars of aggression that would not have been contemplated before.

At any given moment, some cultural norms and expectations are waning and others are emerging. I don’t think we’re necessarily in a complete moral decline, although I wish David Cameron well in trying to redress some aspects of our public morality that have slid too far.

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6 Comments on “Has Britain undergone a moral collapse?”

  1. Michael A. Robson September 10, 2011 at 8:26 am #

    Well, we’ve had some pretty lame riots (ahem, Canada) this year, but I wouldn’t say that about Britain. Looting stores is pointless, and only serves to bring the whole group down, but originally they were rioting over lack of representation, right? Education/Subsidy cuts, wasn’t it? If so, then it’s democracy, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Looting is senseless, and of course, those who were identified in photos, etc are now being prosecuted.

  2. Steven Worsley September 13, 2011 at 12:57 pm #

    I totally agree with David Cameron’s attempt to redress the issue of public morality, however I really hope that both Cameron and Clegg really look hard in to what fuelled the recent riots. Interviews with those involved clearly showed that some were after a ‘freebie’, however others felt that they had been ignore and let down by police and the government. Whether we or even the rioters themselves fully understand the reasonings, there is clearly something behind the behaviour that needs to be understood. And it is just me or does something always happen when politicians break for their long summer holidays abroad?

  3. Byron Smith September 25, 2011 at 12:38 am #

    I entirely agree with your comment about the high moral ground being always on the move. It is an important point to make against the moral collapse hysteria and the moral progress utopia. Both decline and improvements are possible, and generally speaking, both are happening at once anywhere you care to look. Not always equally, of course, but enough to seriously complicate any simplistic narrative.

    “there was a time when one in five women in London was a prostitute” – Really? Do you have a source for that?

    • Jeremy September 25, 2011 at 10:30 am #

      Yes, the 1 in 5 number is from Dan Cruickshank’s ‘Secret History of Georgian London’, but I believe I heard it from Bill Bryson first.

  4. max headroom December 5, 2012 at 8:11 pm #

    Well with filth like the BBC’s ‘Torchwood’ series and other sick and perverted programming. It becomes clear that the UK, which is clearly a policestate and a matriarchal society. Would not be so concerned. Given that these events like the riots are reactions to an even deeper issues, such as the absolute disenfranchisement of men, and young people. The destruction ofthe family, namely the isolation of the father. As well as the uk’s relentless attacks on the church and Christianity. Why are you surprised by the current state of affairs? The immigration system is built on a ‘points’ system thus weeding out people of high moral character and embracing academia in it’s place. You lose those who will be innovative in favor of those who are concerned only with the bottomline. It is a society with the the wrong priorities. Britain is dead. It was killed by women/feminism and a totalitarian regime.

    • Jeremy December 5, 2012 at 8:34 pm #

      Seriously? I’m guessing you’ve not been to Britain.

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