O! What a Fall was There: Reflections on the Decline of Britain

March 1, 1994 Topic: Society Regions: Western EuropeEurope Tags: MuslimWorld War IYugoslavia

O! What a Fall was There: Reflections on the Decline of Britain

Mini Teaser: Nearly one hundred years ago, Brooks Adams published a short essaycalled "The Decay of England.

by Author(s): Anthony Hartley

Debauching Education

Britain, unlike Germany, was to have no Wirtschaftswunder to
compensate for the disappearance of power. But, in the Sixties, as
the Macmillan era drew to its end and a sense of national stagnation
began to creep over politicians and officials, the desperate search
began for some formula that would improve the country's performance.
Often this took the shape of waiting for Godot. But Godot turned out
to be Harold Wilson.

The great and good who had previously governed the British empire or
presided over changes of direction in public policy once again found
reforms to recommend, but they were all too often reforms indicative
of a crisis of nerve or confusion of spirit than substantive
proposals of the kind put forward by the great Victorian legislators.
Since, at this time, the supposedly egalitarian society of the United
States was deemed to supply a favorable environment for industry and
business, should it not be imitated in Britain by getting rid of an
"elitist" educational system? It was at this time that Anthony
Crosland, with a frivolity that is shocking even thirty years later,
decided to abolish the grammar school which had been for generations
the path to higher education for bright working and lower middle
class boys. In her biography of her husband, Susan Crosland describes
how, on becoming Secretary of State for Education, he explained his
intentions to her:

"'If it's the last thing I do, I'm going to destroy every fucking
grammar school in England," he said. "And Wales, and Northern

'Why not Scotland?' I asked out of pure curiosity.

'Because their schools come under the Secretary of State for
Scotland.' He began to laugh at his inability to destroy their
grammar schools."

The Crowther Report (1959) talked of education as "an investment in
national efficiency," describing the new comprehensive school as "an
effective sign of that unity in society which our age covets." But is
it the business of schools to act as mere social symbols? And, in
1993, can anyone concerned with British education regard
comprehensive schools in the light of a contribution to national
efficiency? Moreover the report went on to do something worse.
Applying the analogy of the Public School system to the inappropriate
circumstances of state secondary schools, it suggested that
"...teenagers...need, perhaps before all else, to find a faith to
live by...Education can and should play some part in their search."
This was to make a start on that downward path of regarding knowledge
as a relatively unimportant part of schooling, a process that was to
lay waste British primary and secondary state schools. Instead of
learning, children were offered a delusive ideology of equality,
"self expression," that attached no importance to achievement or,
indeed, to the capacity to earn one's own living.

This was a conception of education proffered by men and women who did
not lack idealism, but who saw no contradiction in depriving pupils
of the advantages which had endowed themselves with academic
distinction or in destroying schools with a long tradition of
excellence and substituting an undisciplined confusion. Since
educational ladders did not fit the egalitarian pattern and to climb
their rungs was "elitist," why not knock the ladder away? The
educational story of the Sixties in Britain is of men betraying the
values by which they themselves had lived, albeit for the best
motives. No wonder that guilt permeates a book like Noel Annan's Our
Age, which is an account of these changes. Lord Annan, who ended as
the Vice-Chancellor at the University of London, asks the question
"Was our age responsible for Britain's decline?" To which the answer
might be "Yes, since all of you, politicians, Vice-Chancellors,
educational theorists and the rest, helped to destroy that stock of
ability by which your country lived." Lack of self-confidence
combined with a desire to be regarded as apostles of the new
modernity to make the media increasingly the originators of a growing
tide of criticism of established institutions. There was a
dialectical process here. If court officials regarded the private
lives of royalty as material for helpful little paragraphs in gossip
columns, it is little wonder that journalists harried members of the
royal family when their private lives offered an opportunity. If
bishops played politics, it is not surprising that politicians
attacked bishops, and that more irreverent people mocked the clergy.
How else could one react to the Dean of St. Paul's doing a parachute
jump from the peristyle to inaugurate a "Youth Week"? Acerbic
criticism directed against what were deemed to be old-fashioned
institutions was often met by obviously silly attempts to show
oneself young and "relevant"--efforts in which both common sense and
the dignity of office were lost. Criticism of authority assumed such
proportions that even schemes whose benefits were widely admitted had
only to appear for them to be overwhelmed by a wave of criticism,
much of it ill-informed. Public works, such as a new Thames bridge or
the re-development of the waste areas of the old docklands, were
attacked by supposed representatives of the "community," set on by
the press and obstructed by lobbies. Sometimes it seemed that, like
an aging mushroom, Britain was dissolving itself in its own acidulous
juices. The media too had their mushroom growth, more and more
becoming active players in the political game and enthusiastic
leaders in the campaign against the past.

Thatcher's Impact

The process of the assault on authority accelerated on the coming to
power of Margaret Thatcher. She had a surgeon's mandate to save a
national economy that was on its last legs, coming to office shortly
after the country had suffered the indignity of receiving the largest
loan ever granted by the International Monetary Fund. But the
operation was painful, undulled by anesthetic. Cuts to grants for the
performing arts, threats to lay sacrilegious hands on the BBC, less
money for universities, a freeze on teachers' pay, tough measures
with the trade unions--as these things occurred, protest from the
liberal chattering classes rose to a roar. In fact, in some circles
the Thatcher government was hardly considered as representing Britain
at all. A season at London's National Theatre was incomplete without
a proletkult play blaming the miseries of the characters on
"Thatcherism." During the Falklands campaign a BBC correspondent
asked the Prime Minister, "Are you going to withdraw your
troops?"--"Your troops," not Britain's! The aged Harold Macmillan
emerged, like some latter-day Chatham, to denounce privatization as
selling off the family heirlooms. Oddly enough, the British
electorate remained contented. Mrs. Thatcher was elected three times
and remained in office longer than any Prime Minister since Lord
Liverpool, more than a century and a half earlier. In 1990, after an
insufficiently prepared attempt to change the basis of local
taxation, the discontented and the rejected within the Conservative
Party, what Alan Clark was to call the salon des refusés, had the
opportunity of taking their revenge and splitting their own party.
Thus ended a remarkable effort at restoring British self-respect and
winning England renewed international repute--not least in the United

In the Sixties, criticism of British society and its institutions,
consequent on a feeling of national failure, had largely been fueled
by a middle-class demand for a more egalitarian society. When,
however, Thatcherism promised the creation of a society in which
status played a lesser role, and the differentiating factor between
classes became largely economic, then those who had derided
paternalism and the values dispensed by the old Oxbridge teaching
began suddenly to perceive the merits of Tory knights of the shire
and to wonder whether the old-fashioned concepts of responsibility,
loyalty, and fair play, molded by the administration of empire, had
not more to be said for them than the bustling, ruthless activity of
the entrepreneur. The chattering classes had asked for a more
egalitarian society and now they found it inhabited by figures whom
they disliked. The difficulty was that only the entrepreneur, with
all his disadvantages, could produce the economic growth the country
needed. True, economic growth itself could reasonably be said to be
destructive of old values, but Britain and its eager consumers could
hardly do without it. Indeed, perhaps the most significant feature of
the Thatcher years was the spread of entrepreneurial values among the
young. Thatcherism took the risk of speeding up social change, and
this, for better or for worse, transformed British social life.

After the 1980s, the lines of class conflict divided the country
differently. It was no longer a question of the "establishment" on
top and the rest below. There emerged an opposition between those who
owed their living to the state and those who found employment in the
private sector. The Thatcherite attempt to roll back the state and
cut down its bounty had some unexpected victims. Having defeated the
unions, after 1987, Mrs. Thatcher took on the entrenched privileges
of the professions. The previous struggle was nothing to this. It was
the professional middle classes who were most affected by
administrative reform of aspects of the welfare state such as legal
aid and the national health service. Shrieks of pain were uttered by
defenders of professional standards the moment that government
economies touched on their interests. A similar outcry greeted
efforts to require more effective work from school teachers, at a
time when the educational service was visibly breaking down.

Essay Types: Essay