04 January 2009

Violence and Class

I'm returning once again to the difficult question of whether Britain is more violent, more unpleasant than it used to be.

In the yes corner is Theodore Dalrymple, writing about public drunkenness.

On the no side, older acquaintances who talk of much more casual violence in the past than there is now, and just as much drunkenness.

I think the key to understanding what has changed is the change in class structure. Taking the 50s or 60s as a comparison, there was still a clear distinction between the professional class ("middle class" we would say, but that seems to mean something completely different in America, so I'll avoid the term), and the larger working class. Over the last half century, the two have merged into one (with arguably a non-working underclass forming or growing underneath, but that's another question altogether. Also the upper class has always been a law unto itself). That is not to say that professionals have ceased to be wealthier than manual workers, but they no longer have separate cultures.

That would explain the discrepancy - the previously staid professional class has lost its inhibitions, while the working class has the habits of the old working class but the aspirations of the professional class. They all mix without distinction, but those that remember the old middle class are now exposed, by the new mixing, to the activities of the working class that decades ago they would have never heard about, or at least ignored. Add to that the increased purchasing power of today's revellers, and there's no need to posit any fundamental change in attitudes.

I'm not sure I've got the right explanation (I wasn't there), but it is important. A lot is riding, policy-wise, on whether we are facing a major increase in violence and drunkenness, or whether it is all just business as usual, blown out of proportion by the press and the nanny state.

Even if I'm right, it doesn't mean there's nothing to worry about. It means there used to be a powerful section of the population which believed it was above punch-ups in clubs and drinking to unconsciousness on the street, and now there isn't. If something useful could be done, then something ought to be done. I have no useful suggestions, however - the bansturbation approach towards special offers in supermarkets, opening hours, drinks on trains etc. is as useless as it is offensive to liberty, and it's not possible for a democratic state to clamp down on behaviour most people think of as normal.

There's no route back to the past, of course. Dividing people back into professional and non-professional classes with different mores would cut off the economy from too many potential skilled resources, quite apart from the question of justice and equality of opportunity.

If there's any dynamic that could drive up standards, it's age. People do tend to grow out of destructive behaviour. If the authority of older people could somehow be increased, that might create some restraint on the young.

It will be interesting over the next few years to see how things change in a recession. The long boom may be partly to blame for irrational exuberance in the streets.

See also this earlier post where I suggested a less developed version of this idea

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