Magazine article The Spectator

Reign of Terror

Magazine article The Spectator

Reign of Terror

Article excerpt

FROM time to time Radio Five asks me on to its late-night phone-in programmes. They're chatty and light, and an ironic, mildly left-wing tone dominates. At 42, I'm at the upper end of the age-range of the journalists, writers and comedians that make up the panels.

Claire phoned in from a northern city; she didn't like to say which. We were talking about young people and violence, and the conversation turned to the question of whether things were better when she was growing up in the 1930s and 1940s. I write oral history about the second world war, so know a little about the opinion of her generation on the subject.

Claire's trouble may give pause to those who howled with derision when the government suggested withdrawing child benefit from the families of young offenders. She lives in a poor area where local teenagers congregate near her flat to drink and smoke dope. They abuse her when she ventures out, and sometimes lob stones at her. She said that she'd called the police, but it appeared that nothing much could be done. It was making her ill.

There was a music critic on the panel. He was smart and witty, and the star contributor that night. Kids, he said, had always behaved like that. It was a fact of life, and anyway if you looked into British social history, you'd find many worse examples of youth violence than we see today. The trouble was that right-wing newspapers exaggerate the stories and build up `moral panic'. Why, even he had been in trouble as a lad for hanging around drinking cider. He told a funny story about how he and his friends would get the oldest-looking one to go down the off-licence to buy the stuff.

`Excuse me,' Claire cut in, `but I think you're all being very glib about this.'

Glib. The word stuck with me for months. Because she was right. The Left -- the fashionable, metropolitan, young, middle-class Left, the Left with which I've identified for most of my life - is very glib about this. People such as Claire don't need to be told that in 1890s London there were a lot of street gangs, or that in 1937 the Daily Express was worried about teenage hooligans. They know that in their own lifetime there has been an palpable decline in the standards of public behaviour, and especially in the behaviour of teenage boys. They know because they can remember that they would not have dared to behave as these kids behave.

I was brought up in a lower-middle-class estate in a northern town, in a society that had been moulded by the second world war and the years of austerity that followed it. When I was a child, fathers would still go round to `have a word' with the parents of the local tearaways. They were big men, manual workers, former soldiers; confident in their own authority, and confident too that they could speak with the backing of the wider community.

People of Claire's age have lived through a social experiment: the shift from a largely authoritarian culture to a permissive culture in the space of half a lifetime. There have been many benefits from this, but I wonder how widely they have been shared. For most of us, the change has brought fun and freedom, a more colourful life, without the former drabness and intolerance. People such as I live in a world that is now far more agreeable. The world we grew up in was one of sexual and racial prejudices, where men would come home from the pub on a Sunday expecting to see dinner on the table, and beat their wives if it wasn't. So, yes, many of the changes have been positive, but especially for the middle classes.

For the working classes it is different. In poor areas, life always tended to be more chaotic. People lived close to the edge -- financially and morally. The notion of 'respectability' in these areas was important in the two decades following the war. The old Left understood this: the Left of the Methodist chapel and the Workers' Educational Associations. Such a society needed -- and still needs - a certain firmness to keep its members on the straight and narrow; not because the working classes are weaker or more feckless than the middle classes, but because weak and feckless people can do much more harm in a working-class neighbourhood than in a middle-class one. …

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