Today, however, Britain is becoming ever ruder. And the decline in manners may be an even greater problem than crime, according to a book published by a right-wing think-tank today.
Its authors claim loutishness on the streets, slovenly and aggressive dress, cheating sportsmen and parents aping the style of teenagers point to a crisis in manners with a destructive effect on social order.
And they argue that "clumsy codes of political correctness are no replacement for old- fashioned good manners" when it comes to "civilising men's treatment of women, the young's behaviour to the elderly, or even smokers' treatment of non-smokers".
Dr Digby Anderson, the director of the Social Affairs Unit and the book's editor, said: "Though bad manners are apparently trivial, they occur far more frequently than crime, making everyday life unpredictable, uneasy and unpleasant."
He and the other writers in Gentility Recalled: 'Mere' Manners and the Making of Social Order, blame trends like the greater equality of the sexes, the widespread wearing of casual clothes and the professionalisation of cricket for the decline.
Rachel Trickett, the former principal of St Hugh's College, Oxford, argues that feminists have wrongly derided the position of the word "lady". She said: "When courtesy disappears, a condition of primitivism prevails. . . [Then] men will inevitably prevail for the simple biological reason that they are stronger ... Women, without some code of deference or respect, become increasingly victims."
Athena S. Leoussi sees the "utilitarian attitude to dress" epitomised by the introduction of "denim trousers" as leading to the "cultural impoverishment of everyday life".
Meanwhile, the professionalism of sports like cricket is undermining its "civilising ethos" rather than creating gentlemen as in times past, claims Simon Green. Kath Davies, of the Women's National Commission, said the ideas were "pernicious" and a divergence from real issues. Real respect came in accepting diversity in a caring society. "This seems to be another example of looking to a golden age that never was," she said.
Lord Young of Dartington, founder of the Consumers' Association and a recent father at 80, was incensed by the argument that a refusal of old people to act their age had contributed to the problem. "Their view is the conventional view ... which requires everyone to fit into certain moulds," he said.
Many agreed that manners were not what they had been. The Duke of Devonshire, patron-in-chief of the Polite Society, said it was "depressing" and he deplored it. "But I have no solutions."
What makes for good etiquette in the Nineties
A young woman stood up on the Underground and offered her seat to an elderly lady. "Oh, don't worry, my dear," the pensioner replied, "You must think I'm old."
In a society where distinctions of age are becoming as blurred as those of class, modern manners can be a dilemma. Rosie Boycott, editor of Esquire, says road rage is the most obvious example of lousy manners. Dame Barbara Cartland, the 94-year-old author of romantic fiction, is appalled when men do not open the door for her and horrified when they reveal who they have bedded. The Duke of Devonshire, patron of the Polite Society, is surprised when people "deliberately dress down" at social functions.
For men, is possible rudeness worse than sexism when it comes to door- opening? Is there an etiquette for answerphones and e-mail?
Charles Kidd, of Debrett's Peerage, says the kind of queries they get now are of the what do you do about sleeping arrangements when you go to your new lover's parents' home?
The code is evolving. Ms Boycott says there should be a new set of manners, "fair and equal and non-sexist".Reuse content