DJ Taylor: Freedom comes at a price

Auchlincloss was right about civilisation, while we've got it wrong about the economy; helpful teachers; sporting leaders; and where our food comes from

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Reading the obituaries of the American novelist Louis Auchincloss, who died recently, I came upon a remark he uttered back in 1980 about the crack-up of the world into which he had been born.

"The tragedy of American civilisation," he declared, "is that it has swept away Wasp morality and put nothing in its place." Auchincloss, it should be pointed out, was the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant to end all White Anglo-Saxon Protestants – a Yale-educated lawyer, related to both Franklin Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy, whose world, according to one tribute, was "one of New York mansions, country homes and Atlantic crossings by liner". No doubt if you didn't happen to be born into this star-spangled purple, "Wasp morality" might not have quite so much allure, but one sees instantly what Auchincloss meant, and some of the its implications for the civilisation that stumbles forward on this side of the Atlantic.

What was the British equivalent of "Wasp morality" and when did it start to disappear? Essentially, it urged the sanctity of the establishment, the idea that monarchs, politicians, schoolmasters and clergymen not only knew what they were talking about, but acted according to the principles they preached and genuinely believed that that personal and collective life would be all the better for sticking to them.

Social historians have a habit of assuming that these quaint assumptions were blown apart by the Sixties insistence on fais ce que voudras, but you wonder whether their degeneration isn't rather older than this. To read practically any novel written in the period from 1918 to 1939 is to encounter a world in which practically any kind of certainty – moral, financial or political – has been smashed into fragments.

Inevitably, over time, the symptoms of this chaos have varied. The Bright Young People of the 1920s were reacting against a bygone era's staidness. Their 21st century equivalents are driven by a curious sense of entitlement – you can do what you like because, well, it's your life and, provided you don't actually break the law, what is there to stop you?

Without wanting to sound like Roger Scruton, this looks like a classic liberal betrayal, in which you grant a whole raft of freedoms to people incapable of exercising them, and offer the disadvantaged fine-sounding abstracts like "choice" and "empowerment" while quietly abrogating responsibility for what comes next. Sometimes old-style paternalism can seem greatly underrated.

***

All this week, a queer kind of double-think has been afflicting the newspaper business pages, the horticultural equivalent of which might be a gardener exclaiming over a few green fronds nurtured in his window box while the sun beats down on the parched acreages beyond it. With 0.1 per cent fourth-quarter GDP growth, the recession is apparently at an end. Meanwhile, the UK manufacturing purchasing managers' index, produced by the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply (CIPS) and Markit, is now at its highest level since 1994. According to David Nobbs, CIPS' chief executive, "for the first time in 21 months there has been an increase in employment. Employment is usually a lagging indicator, so it suggests that firms are becoming much more confident about the future."

Amid these cheery prognoses that the economy will shortly be back on track and that the UK's consumers will soon be racking up more credit on the high street, I couldn't help noticing an Institute of Fiscal Studies report suggesting that a further £13bn of spending cuts or tax hikes are needed by 2015-2016 "to reassure investors and stabilise the country's finances".

We are three months away from a general election, of course, but it would be nice if someone could have the guts to break the news to the general public that the next five or six years are going to be a period of stark austerity, in which living standards will inevitably fall, and the country will be forced to stop spending money it doesn't possess.

The new politics, as politicians of all parties are beginning to discover, are not about right versus left, or capital versus labour. They are, effectively, a struggle between puritans and materialists. On this evidence, the puritans will win hands down. Miss Katie Price, who married her new husband in a "simple" Las Vegas ceremony this week, will keep chickens for a living yet.

***

According to the latest figures from the Office of the Qualifications and Exams Regulator (Ofqual) the number of teenagers found cheating in public exams rose by 6.2 per cent to 4,415 last summer. Even more alarming, apparently, was the fact that pupils are not alone in these lapses: the number of teachers disciplined for "malpractice" has risen by 30 per cent, from 68 to 88. No fewer than 17 were suspended from invigilating exams, the misdemeanours including leaving the exam hall unsupervised and helping candidates to answer questions.

All this brought back fond memories of the conditions that prevailed at Norwich School circa 1976-78: of a boy named Baines, who, when challenged over the presence on his desk of an open chemistry textbook, replied: "No one told us we couldn't bring them, sir"; of the copy of France Soir that was discovered on the floor of the gym after the French O-level exam; of the senior Classics master, with his uncanny ability not only to predict the Pliny letter that would be set for the Latin unseen, but to go through it a few hours before.

One always feels a certain amount of sympathy with the teachers caught giving a helping hand, if only because of the pressures placed on them by a Government that seems less interested in the value of education than in statistical proof that it has taken place. And my own family history would have been very different had not a certain H Compton-Mills, looming behind my father as he stood in terror before some unidentifiable substance in the Chemistry practical and murmuring, "Heat it, you fool", enabled him to pass his School Certificate.

***

"Terrygate", with its accusations and counter-accusations, its pointing fingers and its picture galleries of Miss Vanessa Perroncel, has been very amusing to us seasoned sports watchers. Even funnier than the spectacle of the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality has been the sight of liberal-minded commentators trying desperately to subdue their instinctive disapproval – gamely insisting that the only criterion for an England football captain is his ability to captain, while betraying their contempt for the present incumbent in every other sentence. All this has realised a beguiling subsidiary debate, which is the nature of the qualities required to captain a sports team. The former England player Andy Cole, writing in Thursday's Independent, argued that the captain's armband is irrelevant, and that good teams simply play well. As a teenage cricket fan, I always assumed that class would tell, and a gentlemanly tactician such as Mike Brearley would have the edge over a beefy proletarian slogger. Sometimes merely being disagreeable can have an effect. The best catch I ever took, while playing for the Captain Scott Invitation XI, nearly breaking a hand into the bargain, was attempted merely to stifle the sneer I could already see forming on the captain's face. But charm will always count for something. I always liked the story of the literary critic JC Squire, legendarily inept chieftain of the famous inter-war touring side, The Invalids. When a catch was shied into the air that anyone of half-a-dozen fielders could have caught, Squire bellowed: "Leave it to Thompson." The ball had hit the ground and rolled away long before anyone realised that said Thompson hadn't made the squad.

***

A survey of 1,000 West Country school-children carried out by the insurance firm Cornish Mutual has offered disquieting evidence of young people's ignorance of food sources. Fewer than one in four knew that beefburgers came from cows, with 29 per cent alleging that they came from pigs. Other respondents believed that bacon came from horses, and that cheese derived from butterflies, rats or mice.

If there is any reassurance in these statistics, it lies in the thought that these blind spots have been endemic to British life for quite some time, perhaps even as far as the early 19th century when the transformation from an agricultural to an industrial society began to gather steam. Orwell's 1930s hop-picking diaries, for example, mention a man who, arriving for the first time in the hop fields, asked: "Where are the spades?"

But this lack of curiosity over where things come from or how they work extends well beyond the food chain. Contrary to the belief of electronics firms, most people have no interest in technology. They like gadgets and labour-saving devices, but are bored stiff by the mechanical processes involved. All that matters is their utility, and their disappearance would be met with a shrug of the shoulders. At heart, Steve Jobs' Apple empire is nothing more than a giant burger van.

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