If you wondering whether the radio silence over the weekend means I’ll be letting the MP for Mid-Narnia off the hook for trying to pull a Mourinho over the failure of her 20 weeks campaign and blame everything and everyone but her own abysmal antics then fear not, there’ll be a fresh bout of MadNaddery along in a while.
In the mean time, a quick visit to the UK’s other premium source of spittle-flecked ranting wingnuttery, Melanie Phillips’ blog at the Spectator’s Coffeehouse site, yields this fine example of the Fifth Horsewoman of the Leftist Apocalypse in full flow:
Absolutely untrue. All these problems, experienced disproportionately by those at the bottom of the heap, were foisted upon them by the overclass of which India Knight is a member. It was the champagne socialist intelligentsia which destroyed the traditional family, demonised men, incentivised mass fatherlessness and declared never-married motherhood an inalienable human right, emptied education of content and cut off the escape routes out of disadvantage by withering the grammar schools, declared morality to be a dirty word, paralysed the police through political correctness, enslaved the poor through dependency on the state and then finally destroyed their brains by telling them to eat cannabis cake while themselves showing the way by snorting cocaine on the Square Mile or in recording studios, or getting legless on Crackdaddy cocktails at Boujis nightclub.
Culture is transmitted top-down, not bottom up. It is the supercilious overclass, with its self-obsessed nihilism and the money to get itself out of trouble, which is responsible for our social degradation and collapse — and it is odious in the extreme to blame those whose lives and prospects it has so irresponsibly and irrevocably destroyed.
Phew! Do you think she managed to come up for breath while she was kicking that out?
The object of Mad Mel’s ire, on this occasion is a piece in the The Times by India Knight on the travails of Britain’s social underclass in which this passage, in particular, seems to have been responsible for driving Mad Mel into a fit of apoplexy:
The fact of the matter is that the binge-drinking problem is largely an underclass problem. Teen pregnancies are largely an underclass problem. Teenage crime is largely an underclass problem. Child neglect – we live in a country where a little girl allegedly starved to death in her own home last week – is largely an underclass problem. Our collective problems are largely underclass problems.
The one valid criticism you could level at Knight’s article is that it belongs firmly to school of stating the bleeding obvious. There’s nothing particular new, historically speaking, in the middle/upper classes having an attack of the vapours about the existence of a social underclass and all the social ills that go with it. The only difference this time around is that the UK hasn’t managed to address the problem in traditional fashion by arrange a war of sufficient size to cull the numbers of the great unwashed back to a manageable level, but to be fair to be fair to our political leaders, its not been for the lack of trying.
Nevertheless, Mad Mel is absolutely sure that if there is an underclass then it must automatically be the fault of the coke-snorting champagne socialist intelligentsia that, at some unspecified point in the last forty years – but most likely the 1960s – destroyed the traditional family, blah, blah, blah…
Phillips is wrong on some many levels, not of which being that she’s barking mad, but as a much needed psychiatric assessment is not an option on this occasion then I guess we’re going to have to settle for proving the point by way of a concept that is manifestly an alien one in the Phillips household and resort to looking at a bit of statistical evidence.
So where should we look?
Well, as Mad Mel, Ian Duncan-Smith and David Cameron all seem to think that its the decline of the traditional family that lies at the heart of the problem, then maybe we should be looking there and, specifically, at one of the touchstone issues that all three consider to be of critical importance, the growth in single-parenthood and, more generally, the trend which sees more and more children born outside of marriage.
Evidence-wise we’re in pretty good shape on this one. the UK has a centralised system for registering hatches, matches and despatches since 1837 and as this is pretty straightforward exercise; kids are either born or they’re not and their parents are either married or they’re not, so the usual caveats about data mining and policy-based evidence don’t really apply in this case as we have a clean and unbiased dataset to play with.
We also need to set some temporal parameters here. We don’t need to analyse the full dataset from 1837 onwards because all we’re really interested in is the last forty years or so, the era of the so-called permissive society, so some time in the 1960’s seems a good place to start and as the dataset provided by the Office of National Statistics runs up to 2004 and forty is a nice round number then 1964 seems as good a place to begin as any. In fact, a quick look at the year’s major events for 1964 suggests that this may be the perfect starting point for the exercise. It was the year that The Beatles conquered America and the Rolling Stones and the Kinks both released their first albums. It was also the year that Nelson Mandela and seven other ANC members were imprisoned and sent Robben Island and a year that saw the first major student protest against the Vietnam war. Harold Wilson won a general election giving Britain its first Labour government in 13 years. Lyndon B Johnson was elected to the Presidency of the United States of America, having already served in that capacity for the year or so since the assassination of John F Kennedy. Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Che Guevara addressed the UN General Assembly. Lenny Bruce was sentenced to four month imprisonment on charges of obscenity. The death penalty for murder was suspended in the UK and the Vatican condemned the use of female oral contraceptives. If one could point to a single year and say, genuinely, that the ‘swinging sixties’ started here then 1964 would be the year.
So 1964 it is, and your starter for ten is this graph showing the general trend in births in the UK between 1964 and 2004 by the age of the mother using standard 5 year groupings:
Okay? Shouldn’t be any great surprises there.
What we have here is the overall trend for all births, plus individual trends for women five year age groups plus one additional but important piece of information, the red and blue bar across the top of the graph shows which political party was in power in the UK at any given time over the last forty years with the white gaps in the bar (and the vertical lines on the graph) indicating a change of Prime Minister.
For the sake of completeness, the key to that bar runs as follows:
- 1964-70 Harold Wilson (Labour)
- 1970-74 Edward Heath (Conservative)
- 1974-76 Harold Wilson (Labour)
- 1976-79 James Callaghan (Labour)
- 1979-90 Margaret Thatcher (Conservative)
- 1990-97 John Major (Conservative)
- 1997-04 Tony Blair (Labour)
So, of the last forty years, sixteen have been spent under a Labour government and twenty-four under a Conservative one.
What the graph shows is, to dip into a bit of Rumsfeldian nomenclature, a whole bunch of ‘known knowns’. We know that, overall, the UK’s birth rate has fallen since the 1960’s with the biggest fall running from the mid 60s to the mid-to-late 70s, which neatly coincides with the introduction of ‘the pill’ and the legalisation of abortion. Since then the trend has fluctuated around a mid point of 640-650,000 births a year – the birth rate rallied for a short period at the back end of the 70s and the very beginning of the 80’s, fell back a bit in the early 80s only to recover and peak again at the beginning of the 1990’s and slip back in a gradual decline until very recently (2001/2) at which point, so the conjecture goes, the tendency for newer migrant communities to exhibit higher birth rates than the general population has started to push the number of births up again, but not by that significant an amount. There are still around 240-250,000 fewer births a year in the UK than there were in 1964, a fact that groups like Migration Watch routinely neglect to mention when playing rent-a-quote for the Daily Mail.
(And personally I’m rather sceptical about the migrant thing because there’s been general rise in births in the 25-40 age range since 2000, one that coincides with a population spike in the same age range and much of this current increase appears to relate to births outside marriage, which is inconsistent with cultural norms in many migrant communities, which you’d expect to contribute most heavily to the figures for births within marriage.)
If you look at the age group data, you’ll also see nothing that would come as any great surprise, generally declining trends across the lower ages groups (under 30’s) and rising trends in the 30-34 and 35-39 groups, all of which is consistent with the known trend to toward women delaying entry motherhood in order to develop/pursue a career. I should also point out that the trend line for the under 15 age group is too small to be visible in the graph but that the actual range of numbers of births over the forty year period we’re looking, in terms of number of births in that age group, runs from low points of 187 (1964) and 199 (1983) to high point of 317 (1973) and 293 (2000). Since 2000, the trend in this age group has, again, been downwards, falling to 206 births in 2004. The long term trend is, therefore, a stable one of periodic variations around a mid point of around 250 births a year in total.
The other noteworthy trend, and one which begins to challenge some of the ‘received wisdom’ amongst social conservatives, is that over the last 40 years the number of women giving birth while still a teenager has fallen by about half, from 85-86,000 during the mid 1960s to around 43-44,000 today. What makes this even more interesting as a trend is that if you then factor in the number of abortions in the same age group what you find that, overall, the trend in terns of the number of pregnancies in this age group has been broadly stable for the last 40 years. Teenagers are no more or less likely to fall pregnant today that there were in the 1960s. What has changed over that period is that half of all pregnancies in this age group end in a termination and that where women in that age group do go on to give birth this no longer propels them immediately into marriage. In 1969 a little over 35,000 children born to married women under the age of 20 were born within 8 months of marriage, in 2004 there were only 1,100 or so ‘shotgun weddings’ in the UK in this age group.
Time for another couple of graphs, these being the ones that explode the myth of Mad Mel’s coke-snorting socialist intelligentsia, the first of which covers the trends in births within marriage over the last 40 years:
And the second graph, as you might expect, shows the trends for births outside marriage:
Whoops… we have a problem.
You see, Mad Mel’s ‘coke-snorting socialist intelligentsia jibe’ consists of two parts each which would, of true, show a markedly different type of effect in the trend data.
The first of these is the trope that suggests that decline in the ‘traditional family’ is the product of cultural changes forged by the liberal permissiveness of, in particular, the late 1960s and early 1970s, an view that, to be fair, is by no means confined to the ravings of right-wing opinion writers. Anyone who’s anyone and has a socially conservative message to promote will routinely lay the blame for the decline of the traditional family and all things related at the door of the 1960s and that includes not only David Cameron and Ian Duncan-Smith, of course, but also Tony Blair who had several dabbles in the this kind of thing during his time as PM. Blaming the 1960s for the decline of ‘civilisation’ as we once knew it has been, and still, the leitmotif of the Thatcherite and post-Thatcherite generation of politicians regardless of whether there is any evidence to support such a contention. Maybe things did change in the 1960’s such that today we are still dealing with the direct social and effects of that decade, but if that’s true then we would expect to those changes turning as cohort effects of a kind that bleed across the trend data over time such that a change in attitudes towards marriage, childbirth and the family, which is what we’re actually talking about here, will appear first in one age group and then emerge over time in others until all of them begin to move in the general direction of the prevailing trend.
Is there any evidence of that happening? Well let’s see shall we…
It helps if you know what you’re looking for and a good example of what looks to be just such an effect is to be found in the first of the two graphs (births within marriage) if one looks at the trend lines for the 20-24 and 25-29 age groups, where there a clear lag in the trend away from children being born within marriage which kicks in amongst 20-24s in around 1980, but only kicks in in 25-29s some 10 years later. That looks to be a clear cohort effect and one that suggests a change in attitudes to marriage and childbirth bleeding in over time.
So that proves Mad Mel’s point… yes?
No. It’s rather more complicated than that because the cohort effect we’re seeing here is a reflection of the general trend in which women were, and still are, delaying both entry in marriage and motherhood until their, at the time, late twenties and, more recently, into their thirties as the rising trends in the over 30’s groups clearly show. It doesn’t really tell us anything about changing attitude to motherhood outside marriage but it does show us what we should expect to see if there are cohort effects evident in the data for births outside marriage.
Coming to the data for births outside marriage, we do see a rising trend across all age groups under 35 which kicks in around 1978/9 but slightly later (1983) for women over 35, a trend that begins to rise in earnest from 1980/81 onwards. From 1977-79, this rise coincides with a general increase in the number of births and cannot, therefore, be ascribed to changing attitudes to marriage and motherhood – with a rising birth rate, even a stable trend in the proportion of births outside marriage will result in an apparent increase in the trend data. However from 1980/81 to 1985 there is a dip in the overall birth rate but a growth in the number of births outside marriage, which does indicate that something has definitely changed and that’s its not just the number of births outside marriage that rising but the number of such births as a proportion of all births.
Something has changed and its changed right at the beginning of the 1980s… but what, and what kind of change are we looking at?
Well its not the kind of cohort effect that we would expect if the cause were some sort of generation effect arising out of the growth of the so-called permissive society, such a change should bleed through into the data in stages, giving the same kind of staggered pattern we saw in the data for births within marriage during the 80s and early 90s, a pattern that simply isn’t there. What we have instead in be beginning of a rising trend that spreads across four age groups, with a 20 year difference in age between the youngest and oldest members, within a matter of 2-3 years at most. That is too sharply defined a shift to be a cohort effect, one that could be accounted for by a gradual shift in cultural attitudes emanating from the end of the 1960s and early 1970s.
So in not that then what?
Well, that brings us to the second component of Mad Mel’s ill-conceived jibe. If its not a generational change in cultural attitude, and one can hardly blame Punk, New Wave and the New Romantics for the effects we’re seeing in the data, then we must be looking at socio-economic or legislative changes as the most likely cause. All of which brings us, of course, to Mad Mel’s rant about grammar schools, political correctness and what she clearly see to be the effects of left-wing influence on government policy.
It’s the government’s fault, in short, so let’s consider what the various governments might have been up to over this period in terms of policy and legislation and who was actually in charge at any given time.
Let’s take legislation first and, according to prevailing articles of faith amongst social conservatives that means, at least to begin with, the liberalisation of the UK’s divorce laws and the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality – all of which took place in the final years of the 1960s.
Now, there’s no doubt that two of these pieces of legislation did have a marked effect on marriage and motherhood. The legalisation of abortion gave women an alternative to single parenthood or a hasty marriage, one that many of them took, particularly younger women. As I’ve already pointed out, amongst 15-19 year olds the number of pregnancies in that age group in 2004 was about the same as it was in 1964 while the number of births has halved over the last 40 years. Over the same period, the annual number of births in 20-24 age group has fallen by 160,000, although in that age group only about a third of this fall is accounted for by abortion with contraception taking care of the rest. The overall trend towards both later marriage and later motherhood is at least partially the result of the legalisation of abortion in 1967.
On the other side of the equation, liberalising the UK’s divorce laws will have had some impact on the increase in the number of children born outside marriage, particularly to older women who may be having their first child or adding to their existing brood having previously been both married and divorced. That said, the trend data for both births within marriage and births within 8 months of marriage for over 30s both show rising trends, albeit that the trend in fairly small in the latter case, which shows that older women are more inclined to see marriage and (new) children as a ‘package deal’ than their younger counterparts albeit that the circumstances in which they enter marriage will often be rather different, i.e. as a second (or greater) marriage or following a period of cohabitation with their marriage partner.
However, in both cases the biggest rise in the trend data is, not surprisingly, to be found in the period immediately following legalisation/liberalisation – abortions undertaken by UK residents rose from 23,641 in 1968 (albeit that this was a part year figure as the 1967 Act did not come into effect until 27 April 1968) to 108,000 by 1972 and 128,000 by 1980 while the number of divorces increased from 51,000 in 1969 to 148,000 in 1980. During this same period, which includes the much derided permissive era of the late 60s and early-to-mid 1970s, the annual number of births outside marriage actually declined between 1967, when there was just of 70,000, and 1976/77 when the trend bottomed out at around 55,000, and even the subsequent rise from 1977-79, which marks the beginning of the major shift in the trend in births/marriages, only succeeded in lifting the number of births outside marriage back up to 69,000, slightly below the 1967 figure.
We can rule out legislation as a causal factor as so far as the major pieces of legislation which social conservatives blame for the breakdown of the family are concerned the only trend correlations one finds are that the sharp rise in the divorce rate which rose sharply in the wake of the liberalisation of the divorce laws in 1967 slowed considerably following the passage of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, which stabilised the legal framework for divorce. and actually declined in the wake of the introduction of ‘no-fault’ divorces during the 1990s. Legalising abortion did have the effect of stripping out most of the ‘shotgun weddings’ amongst younger women but, up until the late 1970s/early 80s this only served to hold down the number of children born outside marriage, and if you take those two areas of legislation out of the picture then you really are struggling to find anything that coincides with shifts in the trend data unless you’re dumb enough to try and suggest that the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 is directly responsible for the decline of the traditional family.
That leaves us to consider whether any significant changes in social policy and/or prevailing socio-economic conditions might account for the observable changes in the trend data.
We’ve already noted that the beginning of the rise in the numbers of children born outside marriage emerged during the period from 1976-79, during which time a Labour government was in power nder James Callaghan. Did that government do anything that might account for the rising trend that followed?
Not that I can identify or that would make any sense at all. Yes there was a small increase in the number of children born outside marriage between 1977-79, but one that coincided with a general increase in the total number of births and with a 400,000 increase in the number of women aged between 15 and 44 in the space of three years. Policy-wise, the period is noted for its relative austerity, high inflation rates and wage-restraint, all of which lead to the ‘winter of discontent’ in 1978/9 and Callaghan’s defeat at the subsequent general election in May 1979. There is nothing in the government policy of the time one can point to that would account for change in trend data for births outside marriage but for demographic factors – if anything you might just as easily put the rise in births down to effects of the long hot summer of 1976 and the celebratory mood that surrounded the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, it’s a plausible an explanation as any other.
Now when it comes to the 1980’s, that’s where things look very different. For one thing, the trend in terms of births outside marriage clearly bucks the general trend in births between 1980 and 1990; the total number of births dipped between 1980 and 1984 before rising again to a peak in 1990. During the same period the female population continued to grow (up by another 620,000 between 1980 and 1988) and, crucially, the number of births taking place outside marriage shot up from 69,000 in 1979 to 215,000 in 1992, with the sharpest rises across the key child-rearing demographics (20-34) taking place between 1985 and 1988.
These changes were, as I’ve already demonstrated, too rapid and too widespread across the age ranges we’re dealing with to be reasonably thought to be the legacy of the social liberalism of the 1960s and 70s. What there is her is certainly a generational effect, but its a different generation to the one that social conservatives suppose to be responsible for the decline in the traditional family and a different kind of liberalism, the economic liberalism of the Thatcher government, that bequeathed this legacy to the nation.
What the data shows is the creation of the today’s social underclass and the frightening speed with which it came into being It took only a decade of high unemployment and the near systematic dismantling of the UK’s manufacturing base and the working class communities that depended on those industries for their economic well-being to wreck a generation and create an underclass in which a stable and secure family life is too often the exception rather than the norm.
Mad Mel is right about one thing – the culture of hopelessness, lack of aspiration and economic deprivation which, today, bedevils the children of this first modern underclass was created by a top-down process engendered by a supercillious, nihilistic and self-obsessed overclass, but this overclass was never one made up of her mythical champagne socialist intellectuals – we had to wait for Blatcherism and New Labour for their first appearance on the scene – it was the Thatcher government that created the social and economic conditions that spawned the new underclass while city traders got fat on the proceeds of despair, some of which they happily converted into Porsche 911s and lines of coke.
Equally, it is odious in the extreme to blame those whose lives and prospects have been so irresponsibly and irrevocably destroyed over the last 28 years, but maybe not quite so odious as making such a statement while, at the same time, laying the blame for this sate of affairs at the door of just about everyone but those who were truly responsible. By all means take new Labour to task for its failure to challenge the neo-liberal economic consensus constructed by the Tories during the 1980s but don’t try to pretend that it was New Labour who created today’s social underclass or undermined the traditional family; that dubious honour belongs squarely to Margaret Thatcher and the law of unintended consequences. Clinton was right all along… it is the economy, stupid!
(You see folks, you can still blame the Tories providing you’re prepared to do the numbers and back up your arguments with evidence).
If you want to sum up the shortcomings of the New Labour project in simple, broad, brush-strokes then you need look no further than the observation that, right from the outset, it treated Thatcher’s underclass as symptom to managed rather than a problem to be solved despite the fact that solution has been staring them in the face all along. Assuming that a cull by way of a good old fashioned war is out of the question then one need only look to the solution that trade unionists have advocated all along, the same solution that animated the economics of JM Keyes and Roosevelt’s new deal.
Give ordinary working people the simple dignity of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work and over time, while the problems created by the social underclass will never quite be eradicated – there are always some who are determined to live outside the pale, what American’s would call the ‘1%ers’ – most of them will dissipate over time.
How you do that, especially in a globalised economy that discriminates, by default, against those unfortunate enough to have been born into a high-wage service-based economy when all they really have to offer is hard graft and good strong back? Well that’s the $64,000 question and one for which neither Labour or the Conservatives seem to have any viable answers – you can tinker with the education system, with welfare benefits and ‘workfare’ schemes until you’re blue (or red) in the face, it doesn’t change the fact that there will always be some for whom the best and maybe only opportunity to build a decent life for themselves lies in the kind of unskilled and semi-skilled labour that our economy find its increasingly difficult to provide in the face of competition from China, India and other rapidly developing nations. The strange and unfathomable gods of the global marketplace won’t provide, not for the foreseeable future and certainly not until (and unless) economic growth in China and India, to give put two examples, raises their living standards to a level similar to our own (or recession drives ours down to their level).
Until, the underclass looks like its here to stay, so the very least we can do is be honest in our efforts to understand its origins and ameliorate the worst of the depredations it faces – promulgating ahistorical fictions gets us nowhere… speaking of which…
On May 19th 2008, David Cameron gave a speech in Birmingham in which, perhaps emboldened by the government’s current difficulties, he chose to openly attempt to take up the mantle of Margaret Thatcher by stating:
“All this supports the overriding mission we have set for ourselves: to revive our society just as Margaret Thatcher revived our economy; to reverse Britain’s social breakdown, just as she reversed our economic breakdown.”
If that’s genuinely Cameron’s mission – its difficult to tell as he’ll quite obviously say just about anything at the moment if he thinks there’s a few votes in it – and he does win the next election then all I can say is that, based on the evidence of what Thatcher’s revival of Britain’s economy did for society, we’re screwed.
Or to put it a little more musically, courtesy of XTC, a Cameron victory at the next general election can mean only one thing for Britain…
When all logic grows cold and all thinking gets done, You’ll be warm in the arms of the Mayor of Simpleton.