Last June in Paris, a young Englishman walked into a bar frequented by Britons, having agreed to meet his girlfriend there. A row had been brewing between them all day, and he asked her to leave with him. She was enjoying herself, however, and demurred; whereupon he dragged her into the adjoining room, punched her to the ground, and kicked her so viciously that he left her head and stomach covered in bruises. The bar staff pulled him off and threw him out, but not before he had received a Glasgow kiss—a head-butt—from a chivalrous patron of the bar.
Only two months earlier, a court had acquitted the young Englishman of an assault on his previous girlfriend, the mother of his two-year-old child. The pair had quarreled over access to the child, and the woman alleged that, as his clinching argument, he had beaten her. On learning of his lucky and probably undeserved acquittal, his new girlfriend—the one he assaulted in Paris—said, "For any dad, what [he] has gone through is a nightmare, but the case won't affect our relationship." (Presumably, as the mother of a three-year-old by a previous liaison, she had special insight into the parental heart.) But when his former girlfriend, the mother of his child, heard about the assault on her successor in Paris, she was less sentimental. "Frankly," she said, "I am not surprised that someone [else] has found themselves on the receiving end of something like this."
When the young Englishman had had time to reflect on the incident, he said, "I totally regret everything that happened"—as if what had happened were a typhoon somewhere in the East Indies, over which he could have been expected to exert no influence.
Apart from its Parisian setting, every aspect of the story seems familiar to the student of English underclass life: the easily inflamed ego, the quick loss of temper, the violence, the scattering of illegitimate children, the self-exculpation by use of impersonal language. But the young Englishman was not a member of the underclass, nor was the woman he assaulted. His salary alone was $1.25 million a year, and she was a well-known weather-girl-turned-talk-show-host. Poverty was not the explanation of their behavior.
The young Englishman was a famous professional soccer player. True, soccer players are usually drawn from the class adjacent to the underclass, into which downward slippage is all too easy. But in the past, those who managed to escape their lowly origins usually aspired to be taken for bona fide members of the middle or upper classes by conforming their conduct to middle-class standards.
The young soccer player felt no such impulse: and why should he have, when his public behavior resulted neither in legal sanction, social ostracism, or even strong disapproval? For the truth is that in modern Britain, the direction of cultural aspiration has reversed: for the first time in history, it is the middle and upper classes that aspire to be taken for their social inferiors, an aspiration that (in their opinion) necessitates misconduct. No wonder, therefore, that the young soccer player didn't feel that his new-found wealth imposed any obligation upon him to change his ways.
The signs—both large and small—of the reversal in the flow of aspiration are everywhere. Recently, a member of the royal family, a granddaughter of the queen, had a metal stud inserted into her tongue and proudly displayed it to the press. Such body piercing began as a strictly underclass fashion, though it has spread widely to the popular culture industry—into a branch of which, of course, the monarchy is fast being transformed.
Middle-class girls now consider it chic to sport a tattoo—another underclass fashion, as a visit to any British prison will swiftly establish. The idea that a girl should have herself tattooed would have horrified the middle classes as recently as ten years ago. But young middle-class women now proudly wear tattoos as badges of antinomian defiance, of intellectual independence, and of identification with the supposedly downtrodden—if not of the entire world, then at least of our inner cities.
Advertising now glamorizes the underclass way of life and its attitude toward the world. Stella Tennant, one of Britain's most famous models and herself of aristocratic birth, has adopted almost as a trademark the stance and facial expression of general dumb hostility to everything and everybody that is characteristic of so many of my underclass patients. A recent advertisement for a brand of casual shirt featured a snarling young man demanding to know, What you looking at?—precisely the words that spark so many knife-fights between young underclass men of exquisitely tender ego. A new style has been invented: uncouth chic.
Diction in Britain has always been an important marker, to some extent even a determinant, of a person's place in the social hierarchy. Whether this is a healthy phenomenon may be debated, but it is an indisputable fact. Even today, social psychologists find that the British almost universally associate what is known as received pronunciation with high intelligence, good education, and a cultured way of life. Rightly or wrongly, they see it as a marker of self-confidence, wealth, honesty, even cleanliness. Regional accents are generally held to signify the opposite qualities, even by people who speak with them.
So it is a development worthy of remark that, for the first time in our modern history, people who would, by upbringing, use received pronunciation as a matter of course, now seek to suppress it. In other words, they are anxious not to appear intelligent, well educated, and cultured to their fellow countrymen, as if such attributes were in some way shameful or disadvantageous. Where once the aspiring might have aped the diction of their social superiors, the upper classes now ape the diction of their inferiors. Those who send their children to expensive private schools, for example, now regularly report that they emerge with diction and vocabulary little different from the argot of the local state school.
The BBC, which until a few years ago insisted with very few exceptions on received pronunciation by its announcers, is now falling over itself to ensure that the speech that comes over the airwaves is demographically representative. The political ideology underlying the decision to make this change is a crude and simple one, a hangover from Marxism: that the upper and middle classes are bad; that what has traditionally been regarded as high culture is but a fig leaf for middle and upper-class oppression of the working class; and that the working class is the only class whose diction, culture, manners, and tastes are genuine and authentic, valued for their own sake rather than as a means to maintain social hierarchy. Communist utopianism may be dead in Russia, but it molders on at the BBC—exclusively among people of the upper and middle classes, of course.
Symbolic of the sea change in the direction of cultural influence brought about by liberal middle-class self-hatred is the contrast between two recent prime ministers, Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Blair. Mrs. Thatcher, of lowly origin, taught herself to speak like a grandee; Mr. Blair, nearer to the grandee class by birth, now toys (not altogether convincingly) with the glottal stop and other vocal mannerisms of the lower classes, such as the short a in words like class and pass. And the only clubs of which Mr. Blair admits membership in his entry in Who's Who are the Trimdon Colliery and Deaf Hill Working Men's Club and the Fishburn Working Men's Club. Indeed, the most exclusive social organization to which any of his cabinet admits membership in Who's Who is the Covent Garden Community Centre. Otherwise, the cabinet appears to confine its socializing to the Jewel Miners' Welfare Club and the Newcraighall Miners' Welfare Club: a curious phenomenon for a group of people distinguished chiefly for their wealth.
After his election, Mr. Blair lost little time in establishing that his tastes were thoroughly demotic, contrary to the impression created by the recent sale of his house for $1 million. He invited one of the Gallagher brothers, of the pop group Oasis, to his first party at Downing Street, seemingly as a matter of national urgency.
The Gallagher brothers are notorious for their crudity. Their antics might be a mere publicity stunt, of course, and it is possible that in private they are charm itself, but it was as a public figure that one of them was invited to Downing Street. I saw their act for myself when a newspaper asked me to attend one of their concerts, an event I would otherwise have been at some pains to avoid. Nine thousand young fans (at $30 a ticket) crowded into an exhibition hall; they were mainly people at the lower end of the social and educational spectrum. The group's publicity agents gave me earplugs, surely a strange way of currying favor for a musical act. Not that there was any danger that I wouldn't be able to hear it: for despite the plugs, the sound waves were so strong that I felt a vibration in my throat, detectable even with my hand.
The Gallaghers dressed exactly as the underclass dresses; their mannerisms were precisely those of my underclass patients. Between songs, one of them spoke a few words, among which fuck and its various derivatives were frequent, uttered not so much to convey a meaning as a general mood of egotistical defiance. About halfway through the concert, one of the brothers asked the audience, "Any of you fuckers out there got any fucking drugs?"
His attitude of untouchable snarling insolence was not lost on his audience, of course; and neither will have been its effective endorsement by the prime minister's invitation. What is the point of restraint and circumspection, if such stream-of-consciousness vulgarity can win not merely wealth and fame but complete social acceptance? For the hundreds of thousands of young men and women who have been to Oasis concerts, what is good enough for the Gallaghers and the prime minister will be good enough for them.
By so ostentatiously inviting one of the Gallaghers, the prime minister also endorsed a belief about music that is now general in England: that there is no better and no worse, only popular and unpopular. Difference is held to inhere not in the quality of the music but in the size and social composition of the audience: so that the easy and the popular that might once have been considered worse is now considered not merely equal but better. Even people one might have expected to defend high culture have surrendered abjectly to populism—indeed, have fanned its flames with multicultural fervor. I recently heard an Oxford classics don aver that in point of quality, there was nothing to choose between Mozart and the productions of the latest rap group (though I wouldn't mind betting what his deeply held preferences were, under all the posturing and bad faith). When anyone mentions great songwriters, it is now obligatory to bracket the Beatles with Schubert to establish one's broad-minded, democratic bona fides; and the Midland Bank has just withdrawn its subsidy of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden—on the grounds that opera is a minority interest—and will now give the money to a pop festival instead. Patronage of the arts, therefore, has become mere polling and pandering.
Even in behavior, the new orthodoxy for all classes is that, since nothing is better and nothing is worse, the worse is better because it is more demotic. Everyone knows that British soccer crowds are the worst-behaved in Europe, if not the world. But what is less well known is that these crowds are not made up solely, or even mainly, of people at the bottom of the social ladder—and, in fact, solid middle-class citizens perpetrate much of the worst behavior. What was once a proletarian entertainment is now distinctly bourgeois, and far from having improved the conduct at matches, the change in the social composition of the audience has caused a deterioration.
I saw this for myself in Rome, where I went to report for a newspaper on British soccer hooliganism at a match between Italy and England. For the duration of the English invasion, Rome had the atmosphere of a city under siege (though the barbarians were truly within the gates). Thousands of police were on duty throughout the city, to prevent the drunken riot and looting to which an English crowd, left to its own devices, now almost always degenerates.
At the match itself, in the Olympic Stadium, the English crowd behaved with typical unpleasantness. For about three hours—before, during, and after the game—it hurled insults in unison at the Italian crowd. It chanted, Who the fuck do you think you are? and You're shit and you know you are, with scarcely a break. As far as I could tell, I was the only person in the English section of the stadium who did not join in. It was precisely for this that the thousands had come to Rome. Even worse, this mob of free-born Englishmen accompanied the chanting by what looked unconscionably like the fascist salute—taking the adage, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do," a step beyond urbanity.
The 10,000 Britons who went to Rome—a notoriously expensive city—had well-paid jobs, requiring education and training. The man next to me, for example, was a computer programmer, in charge of the information technology of a city council. All those I asked were employed in skilled capacities; a Sotheby's auctioneer, I was told, was in the crowd.
I asked a few people around me why they behaved like this. Did they not think it unseemly to go a thousand miles just to shout obscenities at strangers? They all claimed that it was both fun and a necessary release for them. A release from what, exactly? Frustration, they replied, if they replied anything. It had occurred to none of them that the petty drama of their internal lives did not provide a justification for antisocial activity. They thought that frustration was like pus in an abscess, better out than in: and I was reminded of a murderer who once said to me that he had had to kill his victim, otherwise he didn't know what he might have done.
At the Rome airport, I witnessed an extraordinary instance of the desire for the appearance, if not the reality, of downward social mobility. An Englishwoman in her thirties ahead of me, unmistakably upper-middle class, spoke politely, with the received pronunciation, at the check-in counter. A little later, I saw her again in the bus that took us to the plane. Now that she was among the soccer-fan friends with whom she had come to Rome, she adopted a lower-class accent and larded her speech liberally with four-letter words.
Soccer fans are by no means the only prosperous Britons who affect underclass hooliganism abroad, however. Recently, the British vice-consul on the island of Ibiza resigned, because he no longer wished to rescue the citizens of his country from the legal consequences of their own incontinent behavior.
Why should the British have become such total and shameless vulgarians in a matter of three or four decades? Why should a kind of Gresham's Law of behavior now operate, such that bad conduct drives out good?
Like so many modern ills, the coarseness of spirit and behavior grows out of ideas brewed up in the academy and among intellectuals—ideas that have seeped outward and are now having their practical effect on the rest of society. The relativism that has ruled the academy for many years has now come to rule the mind of the population. The British middle class has bought the multiculti cant that, where culture is concerned, there is only difference, not better or worse. As a practical matter, that means that there is nothing to choose between good manners and bad, refinement and crudity, discernment and lack of discernment, subtlety and grossness, charm and boorishness. To refrain from urinating in doorways, say, is thus no better than not refraining: it is merely different, and a preference for doorways free of the smell of urine is but a bourgeois prejudice without intellectual or moral justification. Since it is easier and more immediately gratifying to behave without restraint than with it, and there is no longer any generally accepted argument or even prejudice in favor of the restraint that leads to public decorum, there is no standpoint from which to criticize vulgarity.
British society and culture were additionally vulnerable to attack from the intellectuals, for historically they were openly elitist and therefore supposedly undemocratic. That its cultural productions were magnificent, that Newton and Darwin, Shakespeare and Dickens, Hume and Adam Smith, did not speak to or for a national elite but to and for all mankind, has been conveniently forgotten. Nor did it matter for ideological purposes that, though elitist, British society and culture were never closed, but that anyone of talent was able to make his contribution: that Britain absorbed outsiders into its inner circle with ease, from Sir Anthony Van Dyck to Joseph Conrad, from Sir William Herschel to Sir Karl Popper, from George Frideric Handel to Sir Ernst Gombrich. A simplified account of British history has been peddled, according to which it was nothing but a tale of oppression, exploitation, and snobbery (all of which, of course, existed). A rejection of the traditions of British high culture was therefore in itself a meritorious political act, a sign of solidarity with those whom history had oppressed and exploited.
An early avatar of this rejection was the metamorphosis of Viscount Stansgate into Tony Benn, the left-wing politician, via the intermediate or pupal stage of Anthony Wedgwood-Benn. He was obliged to forgo his hereditary peerage to continue to sit in the House of Commons, but the plebeian contraction of his family name was his own invention. Left-wing in everything except his finances, he sent his children in well-publicized fashion to the local state school, omitting to mention the extensive private tutoring they received. A perfect solution to the moral dilemma facing every left-leaning parent of the upper and middle classes: the moral high ground of having self-denyingly rejected private education, while simultaneously having avoided the disastrously low educational standards in the state system that have left at least a quarter of the British population virtually illiterate.
The combination of relativism and antipathy to traditional culture has played a large part in creating the underclass, thus turning Britain from a class into a caste society. The poorest people were deprived both of a sense of cultural hierarchy and of the moral imperative to conform their conduct to any standard whatever. Henceforth what they had and what they did was as good as anything, because all cultures and all cultural artifacts are equal. Aspiration was therefore pointless: and thus they have been as immobilized in their poverty—material, mental, and spiritual—as completely as the damned in Dante's Inferno.
Having in large part created this underclass, the British intelligentsia, guilty about its own allegedly undemocratic antecedents, feels obliged to flatter it by imitation and has persuaded the rest of the middle class to do likewise. And so, just as in Russia under the tsars, every town and village had its Holy Fool for Christ's Sake, whose selfishness and misconduct were taken as signs of his deep attachment to Christian principle, we in Britain now have hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of middle-class people whose willingness to shout Fuck off for hours at Italians is living proof of the purity of their democratic sentiments.
For anyone who does not want to see the lowest common cultural denominator triumph, but who also remains attached to the ideal of liberal democracy, the spectacle of British vulgarity is very disturbing. There are more votes in the flattery of vulgarity than in the denunciation of it.
Does that mean it is destined to be ever victorious?
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