Nick Mills was just an ordinary middle-class boy who liked having fun with his twin brother, Simon, and with his friends. Nick was handsome, popular and talented. But he started taking drugs, first marijuana, moving on to heroin. Five years ago exactly, on a freezing cold February morning, a police officer woke his parents to tell them: "I am sorry, but your son Nick is dead." As his mother later wrote, "those nine words brought a pain that will remain with me forever". Nick was just 27. What had gone wrong? Was it an example of the absent or remote parents we have heard so much about this week in the report from The Children's Society? It is natural to search for scapegoats, but the parents were neither absent nor remote. I have rarely met two more loving parents than Elizabeth and Tony.
The Children's Society report has provoked widespread debate. Some see it as further evidence of a "broken" society, citing the decline of trust and charitable actions, and the rise of aggression, callousness, drug and alcohol abuse, and depression "at epidemic proportions". This view has been labelled as doom-mongering. Others see a Britain that is more tolerant of ethnic minorities and gays, with greater respect for the individual, and a better-educated and healthier population than before. Academics like Professor Carol Craig question whether there has been a steep rise in depression. Politicians of all parties have sought to belittle Iain Duncan Smith, whose "broken society" thesis they see as selective and poorly evidenced. Are the optimists right?
Life is good for many in Britain today. Education and health are better than ever. The young, sick and elderly have never been better looked after. We have never had so much disposable income. Computers have ushered in a revolution in our living and in our ability to communicate speedily and effectively with loved ones or work mates. Culture has never been available more easily to more people. We can watch Manchester United, Russell Brand, or red-throat hummingbirds in Honduras at the flick of a switch while remaining in our sitting rooms. We can almost all afford cars, and holidays abroad are a right for many. Food tastes better, is healthier and more varied than ever. Women have more independence, the under-privileged greater opportunities, and minorities more rights. We can walk down most streets at night without fear of violence. Britain is mostly safe, clean, and beautiful. So why the fuss, when life is obviously getting better?
The question rather is whether life has been getting better quickly enough. We have had a welfare state in Britain for more than 60 years. Why then are so many still homeless, chronically sick, illiterate, unemployable and aimless? Why, when families have so much more money and possessions, are we not happier? Why, when we have better education, more surveillance and laws for everything, is crime on the increase, and cruelty so prevalent?
Everyone from singer Will Young to Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of the charity Kids Company was expressing an opinion this week about the state of society. Here are my thoughts on who is to blame and on a way forward. Five on each.
Politicians of both parties have done harm as well as good. Lady Thatcher was brave and right about so much, above all about the merits of a free society. But her wanton failure to champion communal values meant her message was too often heard as selfish individualism. Harry Enfield's "Loadsamoney" caricature captured a truth about the Thatcher message that appalled her, but for which she was wholly responsible. Conservative politicians have too often neglected to stress the importance of the values, people and institutions that bind society together. Labour politicians have preached these virtues, but their own private lives have torpedoed the integrity of the message.
Celebrities are an easy target. But that does not mean that they are a wrong target. Money, adulation, fame and exposure should be accompanied by responsibility. Why does the media persist in reporting their excesses? Does anybody care about Pete Doherty? Why are there not more celebrities who live decent lives, and do good works for others? Why does the media not give such figures more air?
Parents were singled out for blame in the report. Some never stand a chance, when their experience from their own parents was so inadequate. Nothing so affects the way we are as parents than the models we have ingested from our own parents. But no parent should avoid responsibility for their children if they have chosen to bring them into the world. The vicious cycle of poor parenting has to stop. My experience in more than 25 years in schools has shown that parents make two distinct mistakes. Some over-protect, resulting in potential life-long damage to the growth of self-reliance. Others are too remote, never hug or affirm, and their children cannot connect with others.
Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens et al have acquired money and fame by lashing out at religion. Thousands, millions possibly, of Britons have been deterred from religion by their influence. Their arguments are fundamentally dishonest. They erect religions as straw men, which they pleasurably dismantle. Ha! Religions are obviously fictions, and probably dangerous. The atheist champions do not examine spirituality, and do not realise that their own consciousness is but the consciousness of God. He is there at the very core of their being.
Religions themselves are much to blame for the ills in our society. They have been more intent on their own doctrinal purity than in communicating the message of their founders. They have been more intent on arguing why they are better than other religions than on articulating the truth – which is that what is true in any one religion is what is true in all religions. Competitiveness, resentment and hatred have too often filled the hearts and minds of religious professionals. There is more goodness to be found in the average congregation than in the man or woman pontificating at the pulpit.
Now for the road map to a better future. Schools need to be rethought from the ground up. They are driven from the top down, by government, higher education and employers. They all demand results, results, results. This has led to the disaster of league tables, and the criminal construction put on them that there are "top" and "bottom" schools because of performances in exams. This is cruel and profoundly damaging. Every child has several different types of intelligence and a good school will identify, nurture and develop all of them. If the whole person is not developed when young, much of what it is that makes us individual and human will remain undeveloped for the rest of life.
Celebrities will not change their self-indulgent behaviour of their own accord; they will if the media reports them differently. More responsible self-censorship and fresh codes will have a significant effect. Parents and teachers are often helpless before the power of the idols their children seek to emulate. The media could so easily blank the follies of celebrities, and boost the stories when they do good.
The focus in health and law-enforcement needs to move dramatically towards prevention. Every school and university needs to have well-being at its very heart. The young need to learn more on how to take responsibility for their bodies, their minds and their actions. Better self-control can, and must, be taught. Lessons absorbed when young remain for life.
The spiritual, as opposed to the material, should be a far more prominent part of each individual's life. Harmony within oneself and with others is the aim. Finally, we must stop blaming others, and start to regain control of our lives. No one has put it more clearly than Gandhi: "Be the change that you want to see in the world."
Anthony Seldon founded the Institute of Contemporary British History and is master of Wellington College
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