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December 07, 2004

The Strange Death of Moral Britain - Christie Davies

Posted by Frank Prochaska

The Strange Death of Moral Britain
by Christie Davies
Pp. 264. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2004
Hardback, £29.95

In any audit of twentieth-century Britain, many would agree that respectability and morality have declined, but few would put it so starkly as Christie Davies does in his controversial book The Strange Death of Moral Britain: "respectable Britain is dead" and "moral Britain has died" (p. 210). Davies insists that there has been a loss of social connectedness and civility, what the Victorians called "manners and morals". In contemporary Britain, people are often bemused by the idea of respectability and the source of its authority. Respectability to a Victorian was largely a function of religion, a secular expression of Christian discipline. It was, as the historian G. M. Young noted, a binding force in nineteenth-century society, fortified by the ubiquitous biblical teaching in local schools and charities. As Davies argues, respectability has lost its potency with the waning of Christian sensibilities. In a diverse culture, in which individuals feel adrift, what is there to restrain behaviour beyond the fading residue of religious morality and the criminal law?

In Davies's view, Britain at the beginning of the twentieth century was a land of decorum and moral values, of benign hierarchies and religious zeal, of voluntary institutions and active citizenship. A century later, Britain has become, according to Davies, a secular nation of moral decay and high crime rates, in which confidence in the nation has eroded and notions of right and wrong have given way to 'causalism', a 'no fault' society in which large, impersonal bureaucracies impinge on the individual. Though the contrast between then and now is arguably overdrawn, there is much to support such views, and Davies backs up his arguments with an array of statistical evidence on crime, illegitimacy, and alcohol abuse. Still, the assertion that Britons were formerly "remarkable for their honesty, peacefulness, propriety and sobriety" (p. 1) would come as a surprise to Victorian and Edwardian temperance campaigners and moral reformers, whose worries about hooliganism and drunken behaviour were as great as those of today's Labour Party.

At the centre of the book is a discussion of Christian decline, which Davies sees as a principal cause of moral decline. Drawing on recent research, he dates it to two stages, the years following World War I and the period from the late 1950s onwards. The role of Sunday schools is highlighted, but a closer look at education more broadly would have been helpful. The 1870 Education Act, which followed the extension of the franchise in 1867, was driven by the needs of national efficiency and signalled that education was no longer a religious issue but a political one. To many Christians, it sounded the death knell for their faith, for in prohibiting denominational teaching it diluted the process of religious renewal in the day schools. As education increasingly became an issue of mental training rather than moral improvement, the emphasis on religious instruction showed its limitations. But would Davies wish to return to a system of religious education centred on the Bible, in which the mental development of children was subordinate to the inculcation of moral and denominational discipline? Would anyone wish to return to Sabbatarian strictures which, at their extreme, could put children in the stocks for kicking a football on Sunday?

Representative democracy and vital religion proved less than companionable in twentieth-century Britain. The reform of the suffrage that prompted educational reform and welfare legislation may be seen as an underlying cause of Christian decline. It was not a coincidence that the expansion of government and the contraction of religion happened over the same period, for, as Davies suggests, the modern British state was constructed against religious interests. Whatever the role of the modern state, Christian decline also had much to do with rationalist argument, greater social mobility, medical progress, world wars, an ever-widening universe of entertainments and recreations, and expanding opportunities for women. Religion, however earnest and vital, was ill suited to meet so many challenges. The great Christian culture of Victorian Britain, built on a revered and historic narrative of liberty and faith, was simply overtaken by events. In the circumstances, morality suffered. But more of it remains than Davies allows, not only of the Christian variety but also based on other religions and humanitarian traditions. How else can we explain the millions of individuals reported in social surveys who carry out volunteer work each year for altruistic reasons?

Davies includes some interesting material on the law regarding homosexual behaviour and on Irish morality, which he believes to be in crisis over the issue of abortion. He pronounces:

"When abortion does become available in Ireland it will mean the moral death of Ireland. Moral Britain and moral Ireland will be united in death" (p. 203).
Seeing things in black and white, he does not entertain the idea that there may be a moral argument in favour of abortion. It is a blinkered moral vision that leads to the conclusion that:
"the prohibition of abortion is the central defining element both of Irish morality and of Irish identity. Should it crumble it will mark the death of moral Ireland" (p. 205).
One could say as easily that the central defining element of American morality and identity is the right to bear arms. One feels that Davies might say it is so.

The chapter on the death penalty pulls together some fascinating sources on shifting attitudes towards murder and military disobedience. Davies treats the abolition of the death penalty as an example of the decline of the 'sacred hierarchies' of church and state and aligns 'moral Britain' with traditional conservative opinion, which treated capital punishment "as a necessary part of the defense of . . . society" (p. 135). It might be argued, however, that morality is not set in stone, and may lie on the side of those who warmed to a less vengeful moral code, on the evidence of wrongful executions. Does anyone now wish to see a soldier executed for simply sleeping at his post, which happened in the First World War? Would a return to the death penalty help save Britain from moral decay, as Davies seems to suggest? He deeply regrets Britain's adoption of Protocol 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which outlaws capital punishment for murder in peacetime:

"the loss of the nation's autonomy in deciding a moral question of this kind meant the death of moral Britain as a whole" (p. 137).
Davies, whose case about moral decline might be more persuasive if put less dogmatically, looks back over the past fifty years with a melancholy eye. Apart from the greater tolerance for homosexuals, he sees little to applaud, which strikes this reader as rather gloomy for an author who has written a book titled The Mirth of Nations. He concludes this provocative book with the observation that:
"Britain as a society survived the strange death of moral Britain . . . and survived the replacement of moralist by causalist policies. Its very continuity is a denial of the assertion that a society needs a strong common morality to survive" (p. 238).
Looking to the future, he shifts his attention back to Europe, which he sees as a catastrophe in the making for Britain:
"Should Britain as a political entity slide into subordination to a European state, then the British will come to regret that there is no moral Britain to sustain and distinguish their nation when all other sources of pride and independence have been lost" (p. 240).
To this reader, such a scenario seems a little doom laden. But an alternative scenario, in which a Christian revival rescues Britain from its putative moral demise, seems even more fanciful.

Dr Frank Prochaska is Lecturer in History, Yale University.

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Surely Davies's point about abortion in Ireland and the death penalty in Britain is that they serve as critical, symbolic moments in the cultural conflict: each side musters its full force and goes for ultimate victory, and if the moralists lose, then their challenge in stopping further, smaller concessions of moral order becomes insurmountable.

I've yet to get to Davies's book, but the review has brought it closer. The case for the death penalty as a basically moral institution in society is one that is too rarely made: on a matter of political justice, if the State won't kill to protect its citizens, why should citizens die for their State. By ceding the right to decide on such a basic matter, the State is ceding its claim to moral leadership.

Posted by: Blimpish at December 7, 2004 11:44 PM

Frank Prochaska has ascribed to me by selective quotation and unjustified inference views that I emphatically do not hold and which it is clear from my book that I do not hold. Let me list some of them

1. I make it clear in the text that drunken hooliganism was a problem in Victorian and Edwardian England. My point is that its incidence was falling because of an insistence on new standards of sobriety and because of a willingness to restrict licensing and hours of drinking. In consequence by the 1920s and indeed right down to the 1950s such behaviour was relatively rare. Today drunken hooliganism is common again because both the restraints of respectability and those over the sale of alcohol have been abandoned. [see pp 11-13, 16- 17, 21-23]

2. The Sunday schools flourished well after the introduction of universal primary education. Today children's mental development is hampered by an absence of the inculcation of everyday morality. That is why contemporary British schools fail even in terms of inculcating secular knowledge and capacities for analysis I see no evidence that in the era of Respectable Britain, which I date as 1919-1955, there was any conflict between religion and mental development.

3. Professor Prochaska suggests that I am unsympathetic to and unfair to those in Britain who sought and obtained more liberal abortion laws. On the contrary I make it clear that the only strong upholders of such restrictions were the Roman Catholic descendants of Irish immigrants who by the use of undemocratic methods blocked attempts at reform. Restrictions on abortion were not part of Moral Britain; indeed a large number of respectable mothers of large families sought and obtained abortions. If anyone has good reason to object to my findings, it is the unBritish opponents of abortion whom I have strongly criticised [see pp 181-94]. By contrast the Irish chose by referendum to make a ban on abortion the keystone of moral Ireland and to incorporate it in their constitution. I do not support the Irish ban, and it is easily evaded by taking the ferry to England but , if and when it collapses , Ireland as a country with a distinct moral culture of its own is finished; Ireland will have become a mere off-shore island.

4. I do not align Moral Britain with traditional conservative opinion on capital punishment. On the contrary I show in detail how the military executions of the first world war alienated the Conservatives from the people of Moral Britain and how the Conservatives’ 1957 Homicide Act departed from the main British moral tradition. [see pp 121-127 ] As might be expected of the co-author of Wrongful Imprisonment, I am not a supporter of capital punishment. My objection to signing up to the European Convention on Human Rights prohibition of capital punishment is on the grounds of the threat to British sovereignty not from any nostalgia for hanging people.

5 Prochaska calls my book gloomy. Ironically, another American Victorian historian Gertrude Himmelfarb has criticised an earlier version of my work for not being gloomy; in this book, I refute her truly glum view. Others have objected to my floating the argument that from a Benthamite utilitarian point of view the strange death of Moral Britain may have been a good thing [ see pp 210-13]. Prochaska has called my work doom-laden, yet I say in the conclusion "Readers who have hoped, expected or feared that I would conclude with predictions of total disaster will be disappointed …..The British do not live in a uniquely amoral and dissolute age" [ pp 211-2 ].

The reviewer has made the mistake of thinking that because I express strong views in favour of British nationalism, in favour of children living in intact conventional families and in favour of law and order and show an empathetic understanding of traditional conservative thinking, that I can not possibly hold the strongly liberal views on homosexuals, and abortion that I do. British thinkers have sufficient independence of mind not to become trapped in the stereotypes of an absurd culture war. We are thus able to discern previously undiscovered patterns in our history that can not be slotted into any single stereotyped ideology.

Posted by: Christie Davies at December 8, 2004 11:47 AM
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