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A tipping point for the family?

Britain's families need to be reformed, says the Prime Minister. Are his politicians up to the job?
Michael Cook | 17 August 2011
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Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, sweeps up the streets after the riots

Do the London riots signal the end of the welfare state and a turnaround for the family? The shock waves around the world suggest that Western countries have peered into the abyss and realised how weak the walls protecting civil society are if they can pushed over so quickly, with so little provocation. This was not a case of political protest, but “greed, selfishness, immorality. and above all, gross irresponsibility” – to quote the Labor leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband.

The looters and rioters were not the wretched of the earth. They even included a man with a master’s degree from the London School of Economics. This was a 9/11 for civil society, a reminder of how fragile is the foundation on which rest public discipline, respect for property, and respect for human rights.

So the response of British prime minister David Cameron is significant as far away as the United States, Canada and Australia – wherever the welfare state has gone hand in hand with family breakdown. He says that his government is determined to mend the UK's "broken society". In a landmark speech he described Britain as a country teetering on the brink of 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? Irresponsibility. Selfishness. Behaving as if your choices have no consequences. Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort.

"Crime without punishment. Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control. Some of the worst aspects of human nature tolerated, indulged – sometimes even incentivised – by a state and its agencies that in parts have become literally de-moralised... We must fight back against the attitudes and assumptions that have brought parts of our society to this shocking state."

The problem, says Cameron, is families: “So if we want to have any hope of mending our broken society, family and parenting is where we’ve got to start. The government has identified 120,000 families as the source of the mayhem on British streets and Cameron has vowed to turn around their lives within the lifetime of the current Parliament.

Ambitious. Exceedingly ambitious.

Who is going to implement the reformation of these families. Which of his apparatchiks are going to cleanse the Augean stables?

The problem for both the Coalition and Labour is that the political and social elites of Britain hardly pay lip-service to the values which keep society from the abyss. Cameron wants to reinstate “right and wrong” and to replace talk about “different lifestyles” with talk about “bad choices”. But he can hardly impose this by executive diktat upon MPs and the bureaucracy.

Many commentators have highlighted the appalling behaviour of MPs caught up in last year's expenses scandal. As Peter Osbourne of the London Telegraph wrote:

“the criminality in our streets cannot be dissociated from the moral disintegration in the highest ranks of modern British society. The last two decades have seen a terrifying decline in standards among the British governing elite. It has become acceptable for our politicians to lie and to cheat. An almost universal culture of selfishness and greed has grown up. It is not just the feral youth of Tottenham who have forgotten they have duties as well as rights. So have the feral rich of Chelsea and Kensington.”

So dispatching platoons of government nabobs to fix the 120,000 broken families is like sending the Pakistani military to fight insurgents in Waziristan. Beneath their uniforms, their hearts are with the Taliban.

Take Boris Johnson, the mop-haired Tory mayor of London who appears to be after Cameron's job. Johnson is an amiable, sharp-witted (he used to be editor of The Spectator), and a resilient politician who plays to the gallery. His solution to the crisis? Reform schools for recalcitrant students. He has another name for them, of course: Pupil Referral Units, short-stay reform schools to knock sense into young offenders.

Why is Johnson so averse to addressing the root of the problem -- the moral collapse highlighted by his party's leader? Although it's a bit unfair to highlight Johnson when so many other public figures are tarred with the same brush, surely it has something to do with his own well-documented personal life. His past includes one divorce and one scandal. He was sacked as shadow arts minister in 2004 after lying about a notorious four-year affair. Cameron re-appointed him to his shadow cabinet.

Turning around the lives of these 120,000 families will not be easy. About 65 percent of them are single-parent families, presumably most of them single mother families. Marriage has almost ceased to exist.

With what missionary zeal will people like Boris Johnson launch into turning around the lives which mirror their own personal chaos, however silver-plated it might be?

Britain’s problems began a century ago when the elite abandoned virtues in favour of values, when the pinnacle of virtue became non-judgementalism. The state abandoned its support of the traditional family model of a mother and a father united for life with their children. An army of social workers is not going to repair the broken society of Britain. Only turning around the social and political elite will. And that will take far longer than the term of the current parliament. 

However, we must not lose hope. Change is possible. Britain has turned itself inside out before in astonishing reversals of historical trends. After the Renaissance came Puritanism. After the Enlightenment came Wesleyan “enthusiasm”. The distinguished historian Gertrude Himmelfarb believes that it could happen again. “Today,” she writes, “confronted with an increasingly de-moralized society, we may be ready for a new reformation, which will restore not so much Victorian values as a more abiding sense of moral and civic virtues.”

Perhaps the London riots will be the tipping point for a rediscovery of the value of marriage and the family.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

This article is published by Michael Cook and MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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