Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Those Victorian Values ...

They just won't go away. What was probably the most successful and progressive society in British history speaks to us yet.

Tristram Hunt lectures on modern British history at Queen Mary College. Or he researches Victorian civic thought at King's Cambridge. Maybe he does both. Either way he's a fan of the Victorian age, and tells us why in the Guardian.

"After almost a century of disparagement, we are currently witnessing a remarkable reappropriation of the Victorian age by modern progressives. Instead of Charles Dickens's world of Bumble and Gradgrind, mill owners and moralists, acquisitive individualism and laissez-faire economics, today's socialists are suggesting we should look far more favourably on the vibrant civil society, confident public domain and professional service ethic of the 19th century."

In a word - cobblers. The only socialists who are looking favourably are probably, much as I love them, yesterday's socialists - people like Frank Field or Norman Dennis and Professor E.H. Halsey, the authors of 'English Ethical Socialism'. Hunt's sole evidence seems to be David Marquand's recent work 'Decline Of The Public', which praises the public service ethic of those who created "a distinct, self-conscious and vigorous public domain", blamelessly free from the corruption of 18th-century patronage and unsullied by modern, consumer capitalism.

For 95% of what passes for the UK Left the Victorians still summon up Neil Kinnock's vision of "a place where a few got rich and most got hell. The Victorian values that ruled were cruelty, misery, drudgery, squalor and ignorance."

Even for an aged man like myself, educated in the 1960s, it came as a surprise to discover that a collectively funded welfare system existed before 1945. Admiration was joined to surprise when I realised that the system was created and administered by working men and women in complete independence from the state. The Friendly Societies, Voluntary Health Associations and mutual hospitals had 750,000 members in 1803 and more than eight million members by the 1930s.

I quote from a biography from my home town of Bromsgrove, describing a Nursing Association created by local women. "All members were entitled to the free services of the nurse, with non-members paying 2/6 for the first visit and 1/- thereafter ... (the nurse) was paying about 300 visits per month" (Pat Warner, 'A Lock-Keepers Daughter', 1986). The Tardebigge District Nursing Association was disbanded in 1946. It was one of two associations serving the small rural communities of Hewell and Tardebigge.

You can read about such societies in two Civitas publications - "Before Beveridge - Welfare Before The Welfare State" (ed. David Gladstone) and David Green's "Reinventing Civil Society - The Rediscovery Of Welfare Without Politics".

But these societies were not founded purely for their material benefits. They were also schools of morality and self-improvement. David Green quotes from the rules of the Ancient Order Of Foresters.

"In your domestic relationships we look to find you, if a husband, affectionate and trustful, if a father, regardful of the moral and material well-being of your children and dependents, as a son, dutiful and exemplary, and as a friend, steadfast and true."

Yes, Victorian Values. They covered their piano legs ! Queen Victoria couldn't accept the existence of lesbianism ! Prudery, Mrs Grundy, sexual repression - all coexisting with industrial-scale prostitution, alcholism and adultery.

How different, how much less repressed, less hypocritical, how much better we are now. We destroyed the old morality. Everybody's happy nowadays.

"Modern porn is becoming increasingly savage", writes the Guardian's Katharine Viner. "Still you have to wonder how it got to this point in (American culture's) cultural trajectory, where the blunt authenticity of real vagrants, really beating each other up passes for entertainment" sighs Zoe Williams. Susan Sontag bemoans "an increasingly out of control culture of violence, in which sex, entertainment and physical brutality are intertwined". I didn't know she watched Casualty.

For Nick Cohen, "the Methodist conscience of Britain has been replaced by greed, insobriety and the worship of wealth".

And the great Yazza says "Britain is infamous for hooliganism, drunkenness and a lack of respect for people and places." But Yasmin, surely the decline of deference is one of the greatest achievements of the cultural revolution ?

Something seems to have gone wrong with the hippie dream. "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law" doesn't seem to have produced the perfect society.

Yazza again, on British TV. "The dross overwhelms, the detritus is everywhere". Sounds like my study. "The left must also take some of the blame. We should have been more concerned about what was being destroyed in the name of freedom".

And Aaronovitch is asking questions.

"But who - an intelligent conservative might ask - championed sexual freedom if it wasn't us on the liberal left? Who made films full of shocking violence and endless sex? Who wrote the 80s and 90s books on how to bring up your kid? If there has been a decline of the sort that Sontag laments, do the liberal "we" not share any responsibility? Didn't the conservatives warn us that all this would happen?"

Well, yes, actually, they did. Especially one lady who didn't like what was happening to TV. Ray Honeyford's virtues only became apparent to liberals after the Bradford riots. Yasmin Alibhai Brown's Indie article is the first step in the rehabilitation of Mary Whitehouse. Whoever next - Enoch ?

And the word 'smut' is used without irony.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Asa an aside, Victorians covered piano and table legs not out of "modesty" but because every household had cats ( mice were a real problem) and cats scratch the furniture.