The Moral Consequences of Impatience

By O'Sullivan, John | New Criterion, June 1999 | Go to article overview

The Moral Consequences of Impatience


O'Sullivan, John, New Criterion


When I see the spirit of liberty in action, I see a strong principle at work; and this, for a while, is all I can possibly know of it. The wild gas, the fixed air is plainly broke loose: but we ought to suspend our judgement until the first effervescence is a little subsided, till the liquor is cleared, and until we see something deeper than the agitation of a troubled and frothy surface. I must be tolerably sure, before I venture publicly to congratulate men upon a blessing, that they have really received one.... The effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do what they please: We ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risque congratulations, which may be soon turned into complaints.

--Edmund Burke

Anarchy is a game at which the policeman will always beat the anarchist.

--George Bernard Shaw

In order to see where we are going, it might help to recall where we used to be. In mid-Victorian England, a group of illiterate workers in a Lancashire mill town hired a local teacher to give weekly public readings of Macaulay's History of England, at the time just published. At their close they voted to send a message of thanks to the historian for bringing the history of their country within the reach of uneducated working men.

Christie Davies, the Welsh sociologist, recalls the practice, still in use at the turn of the century, whereby itinerant manual workers would carry their "character" with them --a written document signed by previous employers testifying to their sobriety, diligence, and reliability.

Between the Boer War and the First World War, my own grandfather managed a public house in the Liverpool Dock Road, frequented mainly by dockers. My grandmother sometimes served behind the bar. On only one occasion did a customer use foul language in her presence, at which some of the "regulars" took him aside for a quiet word. He returned and apologized.

These three tales of Victorian respectability and aspiration do not, of course, exhaust the full range of working-class experience of those days. Reports of the squalor of Victorian slums, the number of London prostitutes, or the poor physical condition of British Army recruits in 1914 will balance the picture. But they describe the direction in which English, American, and continental European societies were travelling one-hundred years ago--and even the moral and cultural solidity which they had already achieved. F. Scott Fitzgerald makes the point retrospectively in a much-quoted passage from Tender is the Night about a First World War battlefield:

   See that little stream--we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the
   British a month to walk to it--a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in
   front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly
   backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs.
   No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation.... This took
   religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation
   that existed between the classes. ... You had to remember Christmas, and
   postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancee, and little cafes in Valence
   and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going
   to the Derby, and your grandfather's whiskers.

Fitzgerald seems here to be writing mainly about the middle classes of Europe. But the moral self-improvement of the working man was a still more telling indicator of social and cultural health. Christie Davies describes the period from 1870 onwards as "Respectable Britain" when crime and its female equivalent, illegitimacy, fell to very low levels where they remained until the almost comically symbolic year of 1960. Whether or not they saw it in such terms, most working people lived by middle-class values (none more so than the young people in the Labour movement) and, where they could be afforded, by middle-class tastes. …

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