Turning Points in History
Some of my earliest memories are of going to work with my grandfather. He was secretary to a group of Miners’ Institutes in the valleys of south Wales. We travelled in his small car collecting the takings from the snwcer tables (he always used the Welsh pronunciation) from various Institutes which we then counted in his office before taking them to the bank in cloth bags. From him I learnt that eight half crowns or ten florins made a pound.
That was all back in the 1960s. The Institutes even then were in decline with fewer miners to read the newspapers or forage away in the dusty, musty libraries piled high with books. Following the destruction of the mining industry in the 80s under Thatcher, few of the hundred or more Institutes that used to be in south Wales have survived. Many are now simply crumbling ruins.
The Institutes started in the late 19th century as miners gathered together and paid a regular subscription to fund the building and running of an Institute. Each Institute had a library and a reading room. The larger ones had a meeting hall for public gatherings and some a snwcer hall and refreshment area. The Institutes were socialist in philosophy, driven by a desire to help the working man better himself. No one wanted to work down a mine if there were an alternative. The work was filthy, dangerous and poorly paid. Accidents were common as was industrial disease (Miners’ Lung). My own grandfather started working at the pit when he was 14, and lost his leg a short while later when a mining tram he was riding in jumped the rails and ran over his leg. He said it was the best thing that ever happened to him – it took him away from the pit. As I said – no one wanted to work down a mine.
Today in Britain that socialist ideal seems to have vanished. We have young people (albeit a tiny minority, and some not so young) looting and robbing, trashing and setting fire to property, running wild with no respect for others or fear of the police. How did we get to this point? It’s a subject that has been endlessly pontificated about in the press over the last few days with the usual suspects airing their usual prejudices, so I felt like I should pontificate too, mostly to get some of my thoughts straight in my head.
The first recorded use of the word “teenager” was in 1941. By the 50s the teenager had become a clearly distinct group in society. No longer were children in their teens dressed like small-scale adults. No longer were they put to work down the pit or in factories at 14. Society had lowered its expectations of mature, responsible behaviour from this cohort; they had their own music and dress sense and used the freedom to rebel against their “square” (1944) elders.
What are you rebelling against?
What have you got?
– The Wild One (1953)
In the early 1960s London Transport decided it wanted to import workers to drive our buses and clean our toilets rather than to pay a decent wage to attract British workers. Over the decades more and more immigrants have arrived on our shores, some of them highly skilled doctors and architects, but others poorly educated labourers – peasant farmers and the like. This has created an underclass which fails to place a sufficiently high value on education leading to poorly educated youths with few prospects in life.
Of course, it’s not just with 2nd, 3rd or 4th generation immigrants that you find families with low expectations and equally low attainment. There have been other factors at work.
In the mid-80s Harry Enfield created a comedy character, a plasterer who received exorbitant amounts of money for doing very little. Loadsamoney (as he was called) encapsulated Thatcherite greed; people laughed at him because they knew it was true. Thatcher promulgated of a doctrine of “every man for himself”, a doctrine of greed and selfishness. People were left with no broader vision or purpose other than serving themselves. This created a sense of entitlement. You could have a microwave, a colour TV and a hi fi system, enough money to spend on fags and booze, yet still consider yourself to be living in poverty. You didn’t need to work because the state would give you money for nothing which you could spend on the latest consumer goods and your vices. Subsequent governments of all persuasions have continued the Thatcherite dogma.
There are other factors at play – particularly, in my opinion, parenting. The breakdown of the family is reflected by the number of children being raised by a single parent. (3 million children in Britain are being raised by single parents). That’s three million children with one fewer adult to guide and discipline them. Of course, some single parents do an excellent job. One loving parent is undoubtedly better than two indifferent ones. Even for children with two parents at home children are now living much more independent lives as is exemplified by how rare it has become for families to sit down together at a table every night for dinner. I’d also posit that parents have generally become lazier in their parenting over the years, now far keener to sit on the couch and occasionally shout at their offspring, rather than providing strict, consistent boundaries for their children’s behaviour, but then good parenting is undoubtedly hard work.
There have been Jeremiahs over the centuries who’ve complained about how society has been going downhill. Indeed, as one becomes older such an outlook perhaps become the norm. And it’s true there has always been a poorly educated underclass and feral youths. And there have been plenty of riots over the past centuries, and shops have been looted and stores set on fire. However, I do fear the outlook for Britain is bleak. How can society possibly undo the causes that have created an underclass completely lacking in respect for others and for the rule of law, and with such a sense of entitlement to material goods that they are prepared to go to any lengths to satisfy their greed?