Moral Panic

There was an interesting letter in yesterdays Observer responding to shadow Attorney General Dominic Grieve’s revival of the great old Tory trope which suggests that a good dose of Victorian values are just what is needed in today’s Britain.

Grieve’s attempt to dust-down the opening conversational gambit beloved of generations of gin-sodden bores and put it back on the shelves for re-sale, went like this:

You can argue that our Victorian forebears succeeded in achieving something very unusual between the 1850s and 1900 in changing public attitudes by – dare one use the word – instilling moral codes. I don’t want to suggest this was an ideal society, but it was one where a sense of moral values and of the responsibility people owed to each other did seem to be pervasive. There was a much greater sense of shame in respect of transgressions.

Not an ideal society, but with a much greater sense of shame. Well indeed it was (for some anyway). In 1841 London had over 168,000 domestic servants, mostly originating from poor provincial families and mostly female. There were also an estimated 40,000 prostitutes on the streets, many of whom had strangely also been maid-servants until they were sacked for some small indescretion which left them at the mercy of “our Victorian forebears” (who, one assumes) then started paying their living-costs in a rather different way (unless we can account for their punters being engaged in an early form of sex-tourism using the steam-packet from Calais…)

As Rafael Behr puts it in a book review for the same paper:

There are those who like to bemoan the changing complexion and ill behaviour of modern Britain, imagining themselves to be guardians of some immutable national identity. In fact, they are just nostalgic for the 19th century.

This right-wing fetishization of the past as a golden age has always seemed to me to be mirrored by the “vanguard-leftist” one which attempts to sell the future as a wonderful utopia (to be arrived at after two generations of purges and firing-squads, and roughly seven more generations of backbreaking unregulated manual work, by which time the descendents of the “vanguard” have settled in as the new ruling dynasty and spend their time torturing ungrateful worker-types who just don’t realize it was all so much worse under the previous elite.)

Neither fantasy has ever taken root in the UK.

Letter-writer Chris Jeynes has a rather different view of where British morality originated:

It wasn’t the Victorian Tories who introduced morality to Britain (‘Bring back Victorian values, says key Tory’, News, last week). If it was anyone, it was William Tyndale in the 16th century that got the whole country reading the gospels in the teeth of opposition from the Church party, the Tories of the time, who treated reading the words of Jesus in English as a capital crime.

Catholic England was a place where your morals were looked after by a priestly caste, an attractive idea no doubt to both Tories and Leninists. But if there is in the real world something called a “British morality” (and by extension a US one) which we should be instilling (for example) in new immigrants, where did it come from? What are it’s constituent parts?