It hasn't been a good week for the reputation of UK plc. The combined efforts of BAA, British Airways followed by TIME Magazine
have seen Britain's stock plummet. I remember when I first went to Germany in the 1970s and hearing Britain referred to as the 'sick man of Europe' . It's happening again.
I'm not going to add to what's already been said about the debacle of T5, but I do want to say something about Catherine Mayer's article in TIME this week, which is headlined BRITAIN'S MEAN STREETS. This article is featured on the cover of the Europe and Pacific editions of TIME and has created a real stir all over the world, such is the power of TIME.
This article should have caused a huge debate on UK blogs and in the mainstream newspapers but apart from a mention on the BBC Ten O'Clock News and a piece on Our Kingdom
(to which I will return in a moment) it has been ignored. Mayer's piece begins...
An epidemic of violent crime, teen pregnancy, heavy drinking and drug abuse fuels fears that British youth is in crisis.
She tells us that...
* 27% of UK 15 year olds have been drunk 20 or more times compared to 12% in Germany, 6% in Holland and 3% in France
* 44% of UK teenagers are frequently involved in fights compared to 28% in Germany.
* 35% of UK 15 year olds have used Cannabis in the last 12 months, compared to 27% in France, 22% in Holland and 18% in Germany.
* 40% of English fifteen year old girls have had sexual intercourse, compared to 29% in Sweden, 24% in Canada, 20% in Holland, 18% in France and 14% on Spain.
* 15% of English girls fail to use contraception.
* A 2007 UNICEF child welfare study placed Britain bottom of a league table of 21 industrialised countries.
* Between 2003 and 2006 violent crime committed by UK under 18s rose 37%
* Marriage rates in Britain are at a 146 year low.
* Class sizes in Britain are among the highest of 20 Western countries.
* British children start school earlier and take more exams than other European countries.
What a very gloomy picture this paints. How on earth did we get here? Our Kingdom's
Anthony Barnett, who is normally rather sensible, seeks to pin the blame on the bosom of Margaret Thatcher...
Has anyone pointed out that today's teenagers are Thatcher’s generation, born after the Falklands war introduced the celebration of gratuitous violence as the route to success? Hooliganism starts, as they say, from the head down. Doesn’t it?
I'm pleased to say that most of the people who have commented on his piece have castigated him, and rightly so. Hooliganism was around way before Margaret Thatcher's day - remember football hooliganism, or the hooliganism of the picket line? What we have now is a society in which permissiveness and a lack of willingness on the part of society in general to impose discipline on impressionable minds have caused a fissure between those who obey the norms of society and those who, despite having gone to school, haven't got a clue what those norms are. They don't conform because many of them don't know what they are supposed to confirm to.
Yes, some of the fault lies with politicians - of all parties - but in the end you have to apportion the blame here to parents and the complete failure of our liberal education system. I think 40% of children in Britain are born to single parents, many at a very young age. Many single parents to a brilliant job with their children, but others do not - can not. The lack of any form of male role model is to the detriment of any child's upbringing. The inability of parents to say 'no' nowadays is just as bad. None of this is Margaret Thatcher's fault. None of this is Tony Blair's fault. The roots of this failure of society go back far beyond their periods in power. The trouble is that the current government has done nothing to address these problems, but has done a lot to make things worse.
Take under age drinking, for example. Last week I heard Ed Balls say (and he said it with a straight face) that teenage drinking is declining and is lower than in other European countries. He was either deliberately lying or he genuinely thought what he was saying was true. He should get out of his ministerial car one night in Tunbridge Wells and then then the next night he should go to the equivalent town in France and compare the two. His government has made it easier, not harder, for teenagers to procure alcohol.
Why are our teenage abortion figures by far and away the worst in Europe? Why are our promiscuity figures the worst in Europe? It's difficult to pin the blame on Margaret Thatcher for either of those, Mr Barnett. Is it parents who are to blame or our woeful sex education in schools? Probably a combination of both, together with the glorification of all forms of sex in the media and the sexualisation of children from a ridiculously early age.
I really am not intending to get into 'old git' mode, but the point of this post was to take issue with Anthony Barnett's caricature of Margaret Thatcher. According to many on the left, everything that's wrong in this country can be traced back to the reign of Mrs T. It is lazy thinking and indicates a barrenness of ideas simply to hark back to a Prime Minister who left office eighteen years ago. The root causes of today's problems are far more complicated than that. As Camila Batmanghelidjh says in the TIME article...
If I was sitting in government, I'd be really worried - not about terrorist bombs but about this.