Has society lost the plot? It’s a big, chewy question, one my own family was deliberating at the Saturday night dinner table, only to have it stated more explicitly by the Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks on Sunday.
In a Radio 4 interview Lord Sacks, who retires next month after 22 years, said: “I think we’re losing the plot actually. I think we haven’t really noticed what’s happening in Britain… if people work for the maximum possible benefit for themselves then we will not have trust in industry, in economics, in financial institutions. We will not see marriages last.”
Aside from the confusion that introducing marriage into his message entails, contrary to his own doubts, many in Britain will concur. Many share a sense that we have lost sight of what really matters in the pursuit of wealth or materialism. The disagreement is over who or what is to blame.
Lord Sacks argued that institutions, including marriage, break down “when you begin to lose faith and society becomes very secularised”. He went on to suggest “It’s not the fault of one government or another, and it’s not even the fault of government… It’s the fault of what we call culture, which is society talking to itself.”
Millions might demur. Millions might point to the arrival of Thatcherism in 1979 as a turning point in the creation of the ‘me, me, me’ society. Whatever Mrs T really meant by “there’s no such things as society” detractors would suggest that her legacy has contributed to the words today having greater veracity.
Small ‘c’ conservatives may choose to differ. They might point to the 1960s’ social revolutions as the start of our “losing the plot”. They might point to the rise in individual secularism as a factor, hand in hand with sexual and cultural libertarianism and the greater social emancipation of women.
Whatever your view on how we got here, we are in a sad place where our current Government’s ‘flagship’ policy is called the ‘Big Society', essentially an attempt to persuade the public to pick up the community slack left behind by sustained spending cuts.
I think the Chief Rabbi is muddled in confusing declining trust at a family or friendship level with distrust of institutions. There’s a huge difference between not trusting banks, estate agents, journalists or Education Secretaries to behave honourably, and doubting your husband or friend.
With the latter, it has always been – by definition – personal, and always will be. With the former we are really looking at the assertion of political and economic dogma over collective community values. And neither religion nor Government can put this genie back into the bottle unless we all wish it so.
Stefano Hatfield is the editorial director of London Live