WILL THERE ALWAYS BE AN ENGLAND?
British MP Frank Field visited Australia recently on behalf of the Centre for Independent Studies, and took the time to sit down with Investigate editor James Morrow to discuss the growing crisis in English society – from drunken yobs to home-grown Muslim terrorists – and share his ideas on just what can be done to rescue the ‘mother country’.
INVESTIGATE: I’d like to begin by reading the following extract from The Age’s ‘Eye on Britain’ column, and get your reaction to it: ‘Come the weekend, the high streets of Britain are puddled with vomit. It is part of a ritual that begins in the early evening and ends in the wee small hours, when pubs and clubs close. As their patrons pour out, there seems to be a collective loss of control; bellies give up their contents, bladders burst and tempers fray. The action is caught on closed-circuit television and makes grim viewing.
‘As the police try to restore peace, fights break out like forest fires; when one is dowsed, another flares. The night air is putrid with the smell of food you’d think twice about feeding to the Empress of Blandings. Oaths and invitations to engage in fisticuffs ensure that sleep for the unfortunate residents is impossible. Even on the coldest of nights, the population seems to have dressed for the beach. In the morning, you’d think the place had been paid a visit by Vandals and Goths.’ Is this an accurate description of life in 21st Century England?
FRANK FIELD, MP: In my experience of it is, certainly in some areas. It’s not like this every night but certainly towards the weekend and the weekend itself. In my experience the police don’t try and take the licenses away from people who are serving people who are drunk; they say they need more proof than people falling out of pubs at two o’clock in the morning legless to show that people are being served inappropriately. And when the police do do something they then treat it like a military operation, charging up and down the street, some of them on horssback, and then the whole thing cleaned up in the morning and repeated the next night. So yes, for some areas it is an accurate description. And presumably things will become worse when the government gets is new 24-hour licensing scheme approved. That whole approach comes about, to me at least, because a few cabinet ministers have friends who rush to the pub late at night and down a few quick pints before closing, and think that if hours were extended they could drink ina more civilized manner.
INVESTIGATE: Is this happening across all strata of society, or just in poorer areas?
FRANK FIELD: It’s widespread – the aim of many people is not to go and have a drink the aim is to go and get drunk – I know one banker who is on a million pounds a year, and every weekend he goes to the pub with the aim of getting as drunk as possible, and he drinks about 17 pints a session. But this sort of behaviour, when it is in the lower classes, it wreaks much more havoc. And one of the reasons why it makes more of a difference to poorer people is because if they have problems with a neighbourhood, they can’t toddle off and move somewhere else. So maintaining order is more crucial to them than it is to the rest of us.
INVESTIGATE: Can you paint a picture of life in some of these areas and what makes life so intolerable there? It sounds like the social fabric has really been ripped in some places in England in a way we haven’t seen so much in Australia.
FRANK FIELD: Well there are certainly some areas you don’t go into if you don’t want trouble. But what is more important is the sort of low-level terrorism of unacceptable behavior which is making life in poor areas miserable and is now spreading to middle class areas. I thought at first that people were exaggerating about this sort of thing, but I still remember the time ten years ago when a group of very serious working class pensioners came to my offices and described what life is like when there has been a complete breakdown of younger people having any respect for older people. They told me of young lads running over their roofs, peeing in their letterboxes, and smashing on their windows and giving them a heart attack when they were watching TV.
I said, ‘have you been to the police?’ And you can imagine the look of these poor red-strained sleep-deprived eyes looking at me and saying, ‘oh no, we’ve got to go through this again! We went to the police and the police said we have no control of these people.’
I started thinking about what might we do about this and how we could implement government policy to help. At the time I said we needed surrogate parents in society because of the breakdown of the family, and my idea was that we should give the police powers to show warning cards and then be able to show a red card, and the penalty would then be immediate. Now some of that the government did in a convoluted way with the creation of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders and the like, in which the criminal justice system gets involved and you go off to collect evidence and they set it up in an adversarial way, but the problem is months and months have gone by since the offense.
The problem with this is that I don’t believe we need to get more people criminal records, but this is what happens now. Often, I just don’t think that the behaviour as appalling as it is warrants the criminal justice system. But people get bored doing one thing, so they ratchet it up, and unless you can nip the in the bud, which I wanted to give the police the power to do, the yobbos will be on to the next thing and on to the next thing – they’ll go from breaking windows to stealing cars. And the horrors that they would visit on pensioners would increase.
INVESTIGATE: And what has happened in these families where there is no control – where are the parents to say, ‘this is not acceptable’?
FRANK FIELD: Oh, you can see even with 3-year-olds which ones able to bully their parents. I was walking through a forest recently and I saw father in what must have been his early 20s, and his young lad ran away by this rocky pool which was really quite dangerous. Well, the dad gave him a whack, and his kid cried, and then he gave him a cuddle and mussed his hair, and the son knew that he wasn’t supposed to do that. I didn’t have courage to say it, but I felt like going up to him and saying, ‘would you like to come sort out the youth of Birkenhead?’
Similarly you need in a community other people in the neighbourhood not being frightened of saying, ‘stop doing that’ so that younger people know that in a public space other people have a say in how you behave.
On the parenting side, we assume that parental skills are passed on by osmosis, just as what makes a civilized nation is passed on. But that respectability that we’re talking about as a nation was built up over 150 years, it doesn’t happen overnight.
INVESTIGATE: The columnist Theodore Dalrymple says that many social problems occur when poor people see rich people acting out certain pathologies, but that poor people are unable to handle the consequences and insulate themselves.
FRANK FIELD: Well, some of the rich can’t handle it either, particularly with drugs. But when you’ve got neighbours from hell and you don’t have a bank balance and can leave, that’s terrible for poor people. Similarly, people who are better off can get their life back together in some way if they have a circle of friends and associates to help, and most of those things are not present in a working class community. The carriers of culture in working class communities are not always in the position to see whether in fact that culture is carried on, and indeed behaviour is often so bad that those who purvey culture do wind up moving out.
INVESTIGATE: In a way it is the downside of social mobility.
FRANK FIELD: One of the things the post-war education
reforms in Britain did is break off the cleverest of the working class, and that certainly had a big impact on leadership in working class areas. I’m not in any way making a plea to turn the clock back, it’s certainly been a good thing, but you used to have the people who would run their trade union or friendly society and other local institutions of culture now running corporations. And I see the impact as I go around the world and I see the number of Birkenhead boys and girls who’ve made their fortune somewhere else – that would have been inconceivable fifty years ago.
INVESTIGATE: What role does deindustriali- zation have to do with all of this? Does the fact that there’s not as much unskilled work around for those left behind make a difference?
FRANK FIELD: When I came to Birkenhead there were 16,000 dockworkers. Today, there are 400 dockworking jobs in my electorate. When you lose unskilled jobs that do pay well, you change the social ecology of the area, not just the economic ecology, in that unless an area pays family wages, you put men at a huge disadvantage in whether they ‘re marriageable or not.
INVESTIGATE: How do the 7/7 tube attacks come in to all this? Those guys had been on the dole for years. Are we creating cultural cesspools that immigrants can come into and get sucked into as well?
FRANK FIELD: Well, we had two bomb attacks, and the ones who failed turned out to have also been the ones who were on welfare. What lessons you draw from that I’m not sure, but it does of course make you think about the success of the welfare-to-work program, through which it was virtually assured that no one remainded more than 6 months on the dole. Now some of these guys had been on the dole for 10 years!
I don’t know whether you saw the recent poll that said that 6% of British Muslims thought the attacks were justified – that’s 90,000 people – and that something like a third sympathize with the attackers who say we’re so decadent that the society should be wiped out. And does all of this come back to the behaviour policies we talked about. We need to have a serious conversation about the our society. What is required in a good life? What sort of qualities do we expect from ourselves and our politicians so that life continues and we’re not blown to smithereens?
That, incidentally, is also the question in international politics in that were are now suddenly confronted with how to stop nuclear weapons from going into the hands of terrorists. The chances are that we will have a nuclear terrorist attack somewhere within the next 10 years – if that doesn’t concentrate the mind, I don’t know what will.
INVESTIGATE: So are we too decadent to defend ourselves, as the terrorists say?
FRANK FIELD: Look at that description of life you gave at the beginning of our talk. If you were an immigrant, would you want your son or daughter to be a part of that? Of course not. We need to have a discussion about what we think about citizenship, and find out what people value about the place they’re in, and I think some of the things we hear will be very unpalatable to the elites. And when you’re a Muslim and you’re trying to save your kids from the barbarism, all around you, that creates an internal tension – the kids must feel that their parents have a point.
INVESTIGATE: What do you think Muslims would say in such a conversation?
FRANK FIELD: ‘How dare you instruct us in civilized behaviour when you allow your young to run in the street and run around drunk and abuse drugs!’
INVESTIGATE: Sounds like we need a rebuilding from the ground up…
FRANK FIELD: That is what is so extraordinary in Britain.
Although the elites built civil society they used national policy as framework, and that translated into character, but then character became a dirty word. And that’s created a big divide with Muslims. But I think the biggest tension there isn’t going to come over civilized values like respect, or hard work, it is going to be about tolerance, and instructing them that tolerance is a two way process, and that that is a virture that has to be universally applied.