Melanie Phillips

25 January 2010

Britain's broken society

Published in: Daily Mail

Share |

Never is the inadequacy of party politics more sharply exposed than over the issue of the steady brutalisation of our society.

The spectacle of David Cameron being subjected to political knockabout by the Children's Secretary Ed Balls over the Edlington child torture case is deeply distasteful.

And yet, Cameron's own observations in turn raise more questions than they answer.

Cameron has been accused of making political capital out of this appalling case, in which two little boys, aged 10 and 11, attacked two other little boys aged nine and 11 with such sustained sadism that one was left next to dead and both remain psychologically scarred.

Cameron said these appalling events proved the truth of his claim that Britain was now a 'broken society'.

This provoked claims by Balls and others that society is not broken at all, that Cameron is an opportunist, and that his policy of promoting marriage is pointless since the parents of the child attackers were married.

These claims are as specious as they are cynical. Of course, it is proper for politicians to comment on such a case. It's right to demand that the report on the failings of Doncaster social services and other agencies, which has been suppressed with the shameless acquiescence of Ed Balls, should be published in full.

It is also right to question the policy of placing severely unstable and violent children with foster parents who obviously lack the expertise to cope.

More than this, however, politicians are also justified in asking what such an attack tells us about the state of our society.

Those who say that it tells us nothing of any significance merely illustrate the moral blindness in which such monstrous deeds are incubated.

True, cases as extreme as Edlington are very rare. But acts of cruelty, violence or sadism inflicted both upon children and by children -- at ever younger ages -- are not.

And from the evidence of professionals such as teachers, doctors and psychologists, such behaviour appears to be increasing as family life progressively disintegrates.

Many areas are terrorised by crimes and disorder committed by children like the Edlington brothers, who display a frightening absence of feeling for any other living being.

Many children are being brought up, as in Edlington, by grossly inadequate parents who treat them with indifference, cruelty or violence -- in households where squalor and chaos rule, affection, faithfulness and trust are absent, and the behaviour such children inevitably copy is brutalised and amoral.

In these households and in these areas, where people fuelled by a constant flow of drugs, alcohol and pornography exist outside the norms of civilised behaviour, society most definitely is broken.

Of course, it does not appear so at all to those in the chattering classes who display all the egregious myopia of privilege.

But there is, nevertheless, a rapidly increasing parallel universe in which social and moral conventions have shattered.

How do you describe a country where two societies are developing alongside each other in this way, with no connection between them? I'd say it was well and truly broken in two.

So Cameron was right to highlight the Edlington case. He was right also to stress the importance of marriage.

Marriage is still the best vehicle for producing emotionally healthy, socially responsible children.

To say that the parents of the Edlington attackers were themselves married is disingenuous, to say the least. This was a fractured household. The mother had borne other children by different fathers, and she and the attackers' father split up at the end of 2008.

The disintegration of the family lies at the heart of the progressive breakdown of moral and social behaviour -- and the erosion of marriage lies at the heart of that disintegration.

Its fragile state is due to the fact that it has been systematically emptied of meaning.

In the Sixties and Seventies, marriage was dismissed as 'just a piece of paper' - and from that point on everything conspired to reduce its significance to precisely that.

Because it requires people to act unselfishly, marriage is intrinsically vulnerable. So it needs to be shored up and protected by a web of formal and informal laws, conventions and attitudes -- not least disapproval of those who flout its core principles of faithfulness and chastity.

But for more than five decades, those laws and conventions have been systematically eroded or destroyed.

The courts removed the concept of fault from divorce and thus emptied marriage of duty and accountability, causing the rate of divorce to shoot up.

All the informal attitudes protecting marriage -- taboos against sex outside marriage, illegitimacy, cohabitation -- were similarly struck down on the basis that nothing should interfere with the individual's 'right' to do whatever he or she pleased.

With its spiritual and emotional meaning so undermined, marriage became reduced to little more than a contract of expediency.

At the same time, extramarital child-rearing was positively encouraged by state financial incentives and the mantra that 'families come in all shapes and sizes' - including broken ones.

This all took place in the context of the wider collapse of religious-based morality and its replacement by an officially-tolerated culture of moral degradation and collapse fuelled by drugs, alcohol and pornography.

The Edlington boys' mother fed them cannabis to keep them quiet. Given what cannabis does to the brain, is it any wonder they exhibited such pathologically violent behaviour?

And yet our politicians and even the police are consumed by the fiction that it is not such drugs that are the problem, but the law against them.

Restoring the marriage tax allowance, as the Tories propose, is hardly going to make a dent in all this. It has to be part of a far broader attempt to restore moral order.

This can't be restored until marriage is properly supported by removing both incentives and approval for extramarital sexual relationships and by putting fault back into divorce.

It can't be restored unless there is zero tolerance of all drug use.

It can't be restored unless welfare dependency is stopped dead in its tracks and a distinction made once again between responsible behaviour, which should be rewarded, and irresponsible behaviour, which should not.

Those such as Ed Balls who say the tax system shouldn't penalise the victims of marriage break-up should be asked how they can justify subsidising the parents of the Edlington attackers, who at one stage were receiving £400 a week in benefits with which they bought drugs, alcohol and pornography, and who abused and neglected their children who went on to viciously abuse others.

Until our society comes to agree that it will no longer tolerate, let alone subsidise, the gross dereliction of duty by parents towards their children and shows instead zero tolerance of drug and alcohol abuse as well as of individual irresponsibility, we will never get on top of this problem.

Certainly, politicians cannot remedy such cultural problems on their own. But their attitudes play an important role in helping shape our culture.

If politicians send out strong and consistent signals, other currently feeble and demoralised institutions such as the churches or the courts might be encouraged to change their tune.

If a culture wants to survive, it can do so despite apparently daunting odds. After all, the licentious and dissolute 18th century turned into the re-moralised Victorian era. Yet other cultures, such as ancient Rome, did collapse.

Which of these examples Britain will follow depends upon the choices it now makes - either for civilisation or savagery.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography

Books

  • The World Turned Upside Down
  • Londonistan
  • The Ascent of Woman
  • America's Social Revolution

Contact Melanie

Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
Northcliffe House
2 Derry Street
London W8 5TT

Contact Melanie