Leading Article: What's Gone Wrong? It must be someone's fault - it might be our own

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Suddenly Britain has become a more alarmed and depressed nation than at any time in recent memory. An increasingly important cause is crime. We can and do blame the Government and the economy. But has something gone wrong with us? On these five pages we look at our morality and our family life, and the way we treat each other.

IN 1981, after a summer of inner-city rioting, Michael Heseltine told the Tory party conference that 'few of us can remember such testing times for this nation . . . we are reaping the whirlwind of all our yesterdays'. He went on: 'Every generation has its wreckers . . . but our faith has always told us that one cannot sow the seeds of discontent on a stable society. They can flourish only if they find fertile ground. Our politics and policies must deny that fertile ground.'

More than a decade later, the mood is once more of national self-examination. But whose whirlwind are we reaping now? And who dug the ground of a society in which two-year-old James Bulger was murdered and in which small children roam the streets in stolen cars? The sense of decline, the belief that our society is crumbling, grows stronger each time we are forced to ask 'What are we coming to?' Toxteth, Heysel, Hungerford and now Bootle - no amount of social history can convince us that these events have precedents. Football supporters had rioted before, but not to the extent of committing mass slaughter. Children had been murdered before, but toddlers had not been abducted in broad daylight from a busy shopping centre and marched to their deaths through crowded streets. The Bulger case has become a powerful symbol of our collective helplessness, of a malaise that goes beyond a single case, beyond even the crime figures.

This is echoed by a Daily Telegraph Gallup poll, published last Monday. Half the respondents said they would prefer to live abroad - the highest figure since Gallup first asked the question in 1948. People were asked if they had confidence in such institutions as the police, the legal system, Parliament and the civil service. In almost every case, they had less confidence than when they were asked the same question a decade ago. More than one in three thought that living in Britain would get worse in the next 10 or 20 years. The young were the most pessimistic of all.

There is another reason why the social historians find it so hard to talk us out of our depression. We had expected better of ourselves. Despite the present recession, most Britons are incomparably better-fed, better-housed, better-clothed than their parents were 30 or 40 years ago. But we are not a better society. This is not for want of ideas of social improvement: the Beveridge welfare state, slum clearance, comprehensive education, council house sales - post-war history is full of projects that were supposed to make us better people. Our dismay now is all the greater because, in the Thatcher years, so much was promised. As the International Herald Tribune observed last week: 'Britain was supposed to have found itself and remade itself . . . The sad fact is that Britain has done nothing of the kind.'

What has gone wrong? We can pick out a few things that have changed in recent memory. Violence in films, television programmes, videos and computer games is far more prevalent. British social scientists are inclined to doubt the connections between fictional violence and violence in real life. Their American counterparts, with longer experience of round-the-clock availability of multiple television channels, are more confident. As Michael Medved points out in a book that has been widely debated in America, Rambo III contains 106 killings, many of them portrayed in graphic detail. James Cagney's Public Enemy, released in 1931 to great public outrage, had eight murders, all off-screen. Media violence may not lead to direct imitation; it certainly leads to higher tolerance levels for violence in real life and to decreased sensitivity for our fellow human beings.

We can say, too, that confidence in the police and criminal justice system has declined, that family strife and breakdown have increased, that the apparent permanence of mass unemployment has demoralised thousands of young people. No doubt all these contribute to increased criminality and anti-social behaviour. But it is instructive to see ourselves as others see us. 'Britain in recent years,' reported the International Herald Tribune, 'has given the foreign visitor the impression of an East European or Third World country. Its transportation systems are deplorable and neglected, the streets dirty, contemporary buildings and shops dreary and ugly.'

It may seem fanciful to suggest that crime rates would be lower if the roads were properly maintained and the trains ran on time. But the things we share - schools, hospitals, youth clubs, shopping centres - are representations of how much we value ourselves as public, rather than private, individuals and, ultimately, of how much we care for each other. In the 1980s, British governments consciously decided to remodel the nation and to make the private individual supreme. Our communal aspirations, for better schools or better health care, could not be gratified, we were told. Public borrowing was wicked, and higher public spending must be deferred until we could afford it. No such restraint was urged on private aspirations or private borrowing. In the home, instant gratification was the rule; it was easier to give children videos, computer games, television in their bedrooms and fashionable clothes than to find them decent schools. The national remodelling looked towards America as an example, not to the European traditions (admittedly flawed) of collective social obligation. Many Thatcherite supporters lauded the virtues of American life; now, the same people lament the importation of some of the worst features of America.

It is not just a section of the nation that has been coarsened. Increasingly, it is apparent that those who instruct the nation on moral and social values are themselves flawed. The Maxwell scandal, the Guinness trial, the Matrix Churchill affair, the British Airways 'dirty tricks' campaign suggest failings in the City, in company boardrooms, in Whitehall offices. We no longer trust or admire our rulers, our bankers, our captains of industry. We no longer trust each other. We are all on the make, all looking out for ourselves.

The 'winter of discontent' in 1978-79 marked the end of one promise for a better society. When people saw rubbish piled high in the streets - the results of action by a union movement that had signed a 'social contract' with a Labour government - they turned against collective values. Now, the Thatcher promise of salvation through individual self-reliance and self-discipline is exposed as another failure, socially as well as economically. If we feel utter despair, it is because we see no new promise.

All our gods have failed.