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December 08, 2004

Author's comment on Frank Prochaska's review of The Strange Death of Moral Britain

Posted by Christie Davies

In his review of my book The Strange Death of Moral Britain, 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.


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"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."

Perhaps he realizes that there is a fundamental insonsistency in your view if you do not perceive the palpable contradiction between these two schizophrenic sides of your personality. ;-)

Good luck to you both.

Posted by: Damian at December 10, 2004 09:29 PM
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Damian,

a) Do you know what "schizophrenic" actually means?

b) In any case, the two views expressed - namely 1) pro British nationalism, pro raising children in traditional families, pro law and order and 2) liberal on homosexuality and abortion are not as radically, completely obviously opposed as you seem to suggest. Favouring traditional family structures philosophically does not necessarily imply intolerant attitudes to homosexuals legally (or morally)

c) In any case (again), why such a fetish of "consistency"? "Inconsistency" is the one trick in the debating armamentarium that I fail completely to see the alleged evil involved in. Consistency is a virtue of ideologies and dogmas that kill millions, suited as it is to political and philosophical views that see the world as a sort of machine to which, if only the right principles were consistenly applied, universal happiness will result. Inconsistency is a vice that reflects the complex and uncertain nature of the world as it is.

Posted by: Jimmy McQueen at December 11, 2004 07:08 PM
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> Consistency is a virtue of ideologies and dogmas that kill millions, suited as it is to political and philosophical views that see the world as a sort of machine to which, if only the right principles were consistenly applied, universal happiness will result. Inconsistency is a vice that reflects the complex and uncertain nature of the world as it is.

Good grief, who rattled your cage? Please be as irrational and inconsistent as you wish, my dear James.

Posted by: Damian at December 13, 2004 08:09 PM
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"Consistency is the hobgoblin of weak minds." Thus spake Thoreau. Or was it Emerson?

Though one of them (Thoreau, I'm pretty sure) also said "I hate quotations. Tell me what you know."

Anyhoo Damo, no worries on the cage-rattling front. Surely you realise that blogs and blog comment bits are the perfect local for mild mannered, polite, even slightly repressed young men and women (well, young men, really) to pretend to be crazed exremist ranters. Like me.

But I have to say, why do you assume that rationality and consistency are synonyms?

Posted by: James McQueen at December 16, 2004 06:59 PM
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