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We were never a nation of sneaks and nosy parkers

When he suggests we should remind neighbours to send their children to school, does Sir Michael Wilshaw realise he’s inciting us to break two of society’s unwritten laws?

Whatever one may say about Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief  Inspector of Schools, he is never short of bright ideas. His current scheme, unveiled to a mostly disbelieving public last week, concerned the perennial problem of bad parenting. According to Sir Michael, headteachers and social workers should not shrink from informing certain fathers and mothers that they are “bad parents”.

In addition, he suggested that neighbours of those suspected of turning a blind eye to their children’s absence from school should be offered financial incentives to go round to their homes to insist that the rule of law was enforced.

Needless to say, this well-meaning intervention, conceived with the aim of bringing “help” to the needy, inspired one or two commentators to propose that Sir Michael was not, to use that great modern cliché, living in the real world. There was a hint that he had broken two of the great unwritten laws of our national life: the intense and universal dislike of the “nosy parker”, and that sempiternal proscription on “telling other people how to bring up their kids”.

Bill Esterson, Labour MP for Sefton Central, remarked, “You would certainly get a reaction – an accusation of interference, wouldn’t you?” Which is putting it mildly. There were also suggestions that even the act of stopping to question an apparently school-evading child in the street might these days be tantamount to “grooming”.

The fascination of Sir Michael’s plan, on the other hand, has nothing to do with its insistence that the responsibility for a child’s education is not solely the concern of the state. Rather, the radicalism of its approach lies in the fact that it presumes the existence, or rather the survival, of something which many social analysts would suppose to have slipped out of British life some years ago: the idea of viable local communities whose unofficial leaders possess sufficient gravitas to instil certain standards of behaviour in the world around them, in which bad habits are extinguished by sheer weight of collective moral disapproval, and group solidarity works to regulate and reform the various ingrates who offend against this communal ideal of what is and isn’t acceptable.

Asked to comment on this model of “community”, the left-inclined social historian would probably  mutter darkly about Mrs Thatcher and the 1980s assault on the working class’s sense of its own identity. His or her right-wing equivalent, alternatively, would doubtless suggest that mass immigration and multiculturalism, not to mention changing social mores and welfare dependency, have blown apart what was previously a proud and indomitable clannishness. At the same time, it is worth asking whether this communal spirit ever really existed, except in very exceptional circumstances – mostly in the north of England and the Celtic margins and involving tightly knit social units brought yet closer together by unusual pressures such as strike action.

If Sir Michael – to go back to the plan for neighbours to take on the role of truant officers – presumes the existence of a formalised community life, in which one citizen feels free to advise another what to do, then he is supported by the classic left-liberal view of British social history, which until fairly recently has tended to believe in the idea of a broadly homogeneous working class. Yet a great deal of anecdotal evidence insists that the average council estate, even in Depression-bound 1930s, was as stratified in its hierarchies as any feudal manor. Hodgson Road on the Earlham estate in Norwich, for example, which my forbears inhabited in the 1930s, contained 16 families, each of whom occupied a particular place in that thoroughfare’s pecking order. They ranged from the “respectable” working class, as represented by my grandparents, who pined for a “double-bay front” rather than their poky mid-terrace, to a feckless, decency-outraging underclass who brawled in the street on Saturday nights and whose domestic disputes my grandfather was called out to pacify.

The same distinctions apply to the back-streets of post-war Nottingham  as described in Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), where the outward solidarity of a group of people united against the incursions of the police constable or the tally-man is fatally undermined by the presence of such free spirits as meek-minded Mr Robin, a man who “sent his sons to join the Scouts and always voted Liberal, a traitor to the solid bloc of anarchistic Labour in the street”.  Mr Robin would have got a sympathetic ear from my grandparents, one of whom supported the Conservative mantra of “A fair day’s work for a fair day’s wage”, the other of whom, though anti-Tory, despised the Labour Party of Clement Attlee as “a load of riff-raff”.

As for the middle-class sense of community, this, all the evidence suggests, barely existed at all, snuffed out almost at the birth of modern middle-class society in the 1840s by galloping social aspiration and, as the cities grew and diaspora set in, suburbanisation. F M Mayor’s novel The Rector’s Daughter (1924) makes this point with some force. Its heroine Mary Jocelyn, moving from the back-water solidity of her late father’s East Anglian parish to a villa in characterless, post-Great War Croydon, knows she has fetched up in a society that, for all its assurance and the comfort of its protocols, is essentially rootless; “after three years in the place, suburban people, whatever their layer in society, become restless and want to move on”.

Going back even beyond this, certain historians of early modern England have deduced that this restlessness, the inability of significant numbers of people to live quietly in one place for very long and abide by its standards, is of very ancient date. Alan Macfarlane’s classic work The Origins of English Individualism (1978), for example, traces the beginning of the national sense of selfhood back to the 13th and 14th centuries: an age in which a percentage of the population were no longer content to inhabit the villages of their birth but began to travel long distances in search of employment or adventure. British society, according to the Macfarlane template, has always been a lot less stable, a lot less meekly subservient and a lot less willing to salute the communal flag, than historical orthodoxy suggests: the village graveyards in which the same family names recur over hundreds of years tell only half the truth.

All this would seem to have at least an indirect bearing on Sir Michael’s plan to encourage upright citizens to throw their moral weight around with the people over the road should they be suspected of allowing their children to bunk off school. Most people opening the door first thing on a Monday morning to some bright-eyed potential sneak would probably reply: “It’s no business of yours.” But there are substantial grounds for proposing that it never was.