When David Cameron promised to ‘mend Broken Britain’ he was repeating a term coined by the Sun newspaper, long used to articulate the perilous state of modern morality. In recent years Murdoch’s red top, along with other media sources, has bemoaned the social decay of our society with panicked headlines – The binge drinking! The vacuous celebrity culture! The sex! The violence! The lack of youthful respect! All are presented as new and terrifying afflictions. It was with the confident promise that he alone could mend these fresh cracks in society that Cameron swept to power in May, but how truly recent are these cultural tendencies? Upon closer inspection, many aspects of Cameron’s Broken Britain can be found in British society from centuries past.
Firstly, the twenty-first century’s obsession with celebrity. Commentators take great delight in lamenting the talentless amoebas that we choose to idolise and as the media sector has burgeoned, so has the cult of the celebrity. Although we have been lead to believe that this worship of the unworthy is something new, in reality it bears a striking resemblance to the old high society of the English aristocracy. Before Queen Victoria and the Industrial Revolution came along, those in ‘Society’ such as Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire (yes, from that Keira Knightley film), enjoyed unparalleled lives of luxury and leisure. They also lived under the critical eye of the popular media, with cartoonists mercilessly satirising them in the national press for the wistful entertainment of the layman. The greatest excesses were rewarded with the biggest headlines and the celebrity magazines of today continue this proud tradition.
The Duchess shared many favourite pastimes with Lindsay Lohan and her like: unrestrained drinking and drug use, the ability to devote incredible amounts of money to simply enjoying life, influencing popular fashion and the title of ‘socialite’ coming to eclipse any other tangible talents. An advantageous Society marriage would seek the highest possible self-promotion and financial reward, aspirations familiar to Katie Price and Jennifer Lopez. The Duchess of Devonshire’s blood may have been a lot bluer than Kerry Katona’s, but both have displayed inabilities to control live like adults under public scrutiny. Once an accident of birth determined your celebrity, today it is the accident of reality television.
The middle class gap year is another frequently cited example of our country’s moral decay. Each year the back-pack trails of Asia and South America are flooded with our finest indulged eighteen-year-olds who depart with the supposed intention of finding themselves and helping those less fortunate along the way. For the majority of these intrepid travellers, however, full moon parties and vomiting in exotic locations prove to be a more enticing rite of passage. When international travel was limited to boats and carriages it was the European ‘Grand Tour’ that satisfied the travelling bug of the young and restless. These cultural trips took in the best of the continent’s art and society, following as well trodden a path as the modern gap year, and with similar associations of indulgence and privilege. The diaries of these trips can also make for as debauched an account of travelling morals as a Thailand Facebook album.
Next under the spotlight is inevitably binge drinking, the favourite target of politicians and parents alike. The health – and embarrassment – risks are unavoidable, but excessive consumption of alcohol is in no way a modern innovation. When water was too unsanitary to drink people were inebriated more frequently than they were sober and the gin streets of Hogarth’s prints were reality not artistic license. Excessive consumption of alcohol – and opiates – is for better or worse a part of Britain’s cultural past, no matter how fervently the media insist it was discovered in the last ten years.
As the government talks of increasing university fees to £10,000 a year, it seems that the time when higher education was reserved for the rich rather than the worthy may no longer be a distant memory.
If Britain truly is broken, Mr Cameron would do better to focus on strengthening the support system available to those falling down the cracks rather than dressing up the echoes of past practices as evidence of moral decay.