"There never was a golden age of English decency, civility and manners" says Joe Bullman,director of Channel 4's new series, The Seven Sins of England which begins tonight at 10pm.
Here's my piece from today's Daily Express.
Worried about rising violent crime? The prevalence of binge-drinking? Or the rudeness that blights everyday life? Well, you can relax. According to a new Channel 4 series, 'The Seven Sins of England', "binge-drinking, rudeness, violence, hooliganism, slaggishness, consumerism and bigotry" are not modern phenomena, but an ancient and integral part of our national heritage. The programme claims that we, the English, have been a drunk, racist, rude and violent lot for over a thousand years. It's a nice, neat thesis, but unfortunately (or rather fortunately) is just isn't true.
What the makers of 'The Seven Sins of England' conveniently overlook is that until comparatively recently, England was one of the safest, gentlest and least yobbish societies in the world.
The introduction of a modern police force and an efficient criminal justice system, the extension of compulsory state education and the strong moral guidance provided by institutions such as Sunday School, had all made an impact on reducing lawlessness by the late Victorian era. The temperance movement also played its part. Drunkenness was a major problem in the 19th century, but thanks to the work of organisations such as the Methodist Church and the Salvation Army, millions took the pledge and renounced the demon drink.
By the middle of the 20th century, with much of Europe in turmoil, England could fairly be described as an oasis of social calm, with none of C4's 'Seven Sins' much in evidence. Violence? Britain's murder rate fell from 4.7 per million in 1904 to 3.1 per million in 1930 ( it's around six times higher today).
Hooliganism? People went to football matches in collars and ties and mingled freely with supporters of the opposing team.
Rudeness? England was noted for its civility.
"The gentleness of the English civilisation is perhaps its most marked characteristic" wrote George Orwell in 1941. "You notice it the moment you set foot on English soil. It is a land where the bus conductors are good-tempered and the policemen carry no revolvers".
D.H. Lawrence was in agreement: "I don't like England very much, but the English do seem a rather loveable people. The have such a lot of gentleness".
The 'gentleness of the English civilisation" continued after the Second World War. What, I wonder, would the Metropolitan police do now to have to deal with only twenty-eight armed robberies in one year- the total in 1949? The England of the Fifities was a place where families promenaded together, the 'f' word was never heard in public and people still left their doors unlocked, even in major cities.
It was only in the following decade that things began to change. The Sixties social reformers saw themselves as 'modernisers', but loosening the ties of self-restraint only ushered in a more selfish, 'anything goes' society.
In the last thirty years or so, C4's 'seven sins' have undoubtedly become more prevalent. Binge-drinking first entered our vocabulary in the 1990s and became an even greater problem after the liberalisation of licensing laws in 2000. Rudeness and bad manners have become more common: the days when an Englishman automatically stood up in a room when a lady entered or lifted his hat when a funeral cortege passed by are sadly gone. Football hooliganism appeared with a vengeance in the Seventies, while 'slaggishness' is a direct consequence of the permissive society. The Eighties ushered in the 'sin' of consumerism, facilitated by the more widespread use of credit cards.
The seventh English 'sin' -bigotry -is, even today, hard to justify.
Few people have been so welcoming to immigrants: be it in the Huguenots in the 17th century, Jews in the 20th, or more recent arrivals. Racist partiers like the B.N.P. have never had much electoral success, and get far fewer votes than their counterparts in other European countries. This is not a recent phenomenon: in the 1930s, fascism, which spread like a plague throughout the continent, never took root in England, the so-called 'British Hitler' Oswald Mosley was seen as a figure of fun and not as a potential national saviour.
Tonight's programme is trying to make us defeatist about our society today- saying that it's always been like this and we can't do much about it. But the experience of England in the 20th century shows that we can be as peaceful, law-abiding and sober as any one else.
We can't disinvent television, which is behind much of the unpleasant, anti-social behaviour we see around us today, but there are many things we can do to reverse the tide. It doesn't have to be like this: the 'seven sins' are not in our blood.