This is a small essay wrote somewhere in early 2011, but still relevant today, it’s reflection on Geoffrey Gorer and Mr Frank Field’s work.
IN THE early 1950s a sociologist called Geoffrey Gorer set out to solve the mystery of England’s “charactter”. To be precise, how had the English gone from being a thoroughly lawless bunch—famed for truculence and cruelty—to one of the most orderly societies in history? Just over a century before, he noted, the police entered some bits of Westminster only in squads of six or more “for fear of being cut to pieces”. Popular pastimes included public floggings, dog-fighting and hunting bullocks to death through east London streets. As late as 1914, well-dressed adults risked jeering mockery from ill-clad “rude boys”, and well-dressed children risked assault. Yet by 1951, when Gorer surveyed more than 10,000 men and women, he could describe an England famous worldwide for disciplined queuing, where “you hardly ever see a fight in a bar” and “football crowds are as orderly as church meetings”. In a book, “Exploring English Character”, Gorer decided that two keys unlocked the mystery: the mid-19th-century creation of a police force of citizen-constables, and the curbing of aggression by “guilt”.
Six decades later, moral guilt is not greatly cherished in Britain, a secular, individualist place. But worrying about “character” could not be more fashionable. Gorer’s research, and his descriptions of a “tough love” style of parenting, are approvingly cited in “The Foundation Years”, a new report on child poverty commissioned by former Conservative David Cameron’s coalition government from Frank Field, a Labour MP and former welfare minister. Mr Field thinks the previous government’s laudable ambitions to curb child poverty were side-tracked by an obsession with redistribution, and using welfare to pull families mechanically over a centrally-determined poverty line. Money, says Mr Field, matters less than a secure, loving home and good parenting. He favours things like reading to children, teaching them to count and setting clear boundaries for behaviour. Similar arguments lurk in “Building Character”, a 2009 think-tank report which—after surveying mountains of data—declared that the gulf between the respective life chances of a poor child and a rich child all but vanishes when both are raised by “confident and able” parents, offering “tough love” (that phrase again). In January 2010 Mr Cameron hailed the findings of “Builtding Charabcter” as among the most important “in a generation”; the report’s author worked for the Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg.
Britain has good reasons to seek a fresh debate on poverty and social mobility. Since 1999 the state has redistributed £134 billion ($212 billion, at today’s exchange rate) to poorer families through tax credits, and spent huge sums on “Sure Start” centres for the under-fives, Mr Field says. Yet social mobility has stagnated.
Alas, the fresh debate that has broken out is the wrong one: a sterile squabble about whether material inequality does more harm to children than bad parenting. From the left, voices angrily accuse Mr Field of supplying the coalition with an ideological rationale for slashing financial aid to the poor. With both anger and startling precision, a sociology professor wrote to the Guardian, a leftish newspaper, citing historical findings that bad habits and human failings explain only 15% of why someone is poor, and their material circumstances the remainder.
Meanwhile, voices on the right have gleefully hailed Mr Field for allegedly saying that “too-soft” parents are the sole root of Britain’s social ills (actually, he and the government think some income redistribution is necessary, with targeted help for vulnerable parents). Weighing in on a related debate about child benefits for the better-off, Howard Flight, a Tory politician, announced that it was “not very sensible” to discourage the middle classes from “breeding” while encouraging those on benefits.
The squabble is a waste of breath. Material poverty and character both matter. What is more, they are often linked. Bad choices can worsen poverty; and it is harder to make good choices when life is grim. A more useful debate about character would involve pondering this. How far can the judgmental analyses of the past be applied in modern Britain?
Gorer found little belief in the “innate goodness of children”: 1950s parenting could be summed up by the motto “See what Johnny is doing and tell him to stop it.” He found advocates for caning and thrashing, but most English parents favoured deprivation of toys, treats or liberty. A Bedfordshire mother reported that her son was “easy”: a day locked in his bedroom with bread and water was enough to curb naughtiness.
Disgrace under pressure
In 2010 Mr Field charges that: “We are the first generation in human history that has not compelled fathers to support their children, usually by living with the mother.” This often harms children’s interests, he says, and that sounds plausible. But—as a glance at history reveals—something benign (stable family structures) was underpinned by something harsh (social stigma attached to illegitimacy). Gorer found marriage a bedrock of society. Except among the very poorest, most were opposed to sex outside wedlock. But this was not to obey some universal moral code (even in 1950s England, about 40% of adults rarely or never went to church). More practical concerns dominated. Women who strayed risked the “worry and disgrace” of a baby, wrote a teenage girl, while “the man just has his fun.”
In most British communities (and more for good than ill) disgrace is a greatly weakened force these days. Mr Cameron’s supporters talk of “libertarian paternalism”, or nudging people to make better choices. Perhaps that will work, though the “tough love” of the past involved sharp prods, not nudges. As each new government discovers, the English are a stroppy lot, and hard to help. It’s not their fault: it is in their character.