Fear not, the old verities live on…

There’s been a slew of ‘what does this say about Britain?’ articles in the wake of the News of the World scandal (the answer can be summarised as ‘nothing good’, by the way). This is from The New York Times and is by an expat journo coming home. He concludes:

…a man who had a season in Downing Street over the past year as one of Mr. Cameron’s advisers surveyed the turmoil of the News of the World scandal and offered a revealing conclusion. Britain, he said, resembled more than anything, a “post-communist society” — unhinged from the old verities, and not yet in sight of anything enduring to replace them. It made for a disheartening verdict on a deeply discouraging week”

All to be expected, of course – the OpEd factory never sleeps. However, I thought it might be worth pointing to an instance that suggests things weren’t so white in the old days, that upstanding and morally superior time before we suffered the depredations of Murdoch, before we fell into our morally ‘unhinged’, Sodom-like state.

We’ve been here before, but worse. It was back in the ’60s but before the decade had really begun to swing. The affair had it all really: a full house of dodgy relationships, between politicians, the press, organised crime and the police. At its heart were two corrupt politicians who not only socialised with the most notorious East End gangster of our time but lobbied on his behalf, including in Parliament. But it was an affair that involved almost the entire British Establishment, covered up as it almost certainly was with the connivance of party leaderships and press barons. Its consequences were the creation of a nexus of relationships – a sort of loose conspiracy – which may well have hampered the investigation and prosecution of London gangsterism for years.

Bob Boothby (top) and Tom Driberg, one Tory and a former government minister, the other a perennial Labour backbench rebel, were both one-time lovers and frequent party guests of Ronnie Kray, who used to procure rough boys for their delectation. The foreign press got wind of it all, Stern publishing an exposé, which was picked up by the Sunday Mirror. A cover-up was rapidly and effectively put in place, the Sunday Mirror even paying a lumpy £40,000 to Boothby in an out-of-court settlement (enough to have funded a country house). There can be little doubt that it was all facilitated by the leaderships of both political parties. The fact that Boothby had written for the News of the World (ahem) and Driberg for the Express, both of them having close connections to press barons, also helped hush things up.

Whilst cross-party political influence inhibited press investigations of the affair, it’s highly likely that it also deterred the police from clamping down on the Krays’ criminal activities. As such this was a knowing, deliberate conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, one which was never unwound and prosecuted: in this sense, it was much worse than today’s scandal. It seems we adhere to the ‘old verities’ more than our disheartened commentators might think.


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38 thoughts on “Fear not, the old verities live on…

  1. zmkc@ymail.com'
    July 28, 2011 at 08:05

    You are right, of course – there never was a utopia. The Profumo affair, while not, I think, involving press barons, was not a high moment in the nation’s life either. All the same, I still have the impression that loucheness, or really something worse, has soaked into the British consciousness more deeply than ever before – there is general scorn for any hint of belief in the idea of acting nobly. I feel shamefaced mentioning the idea, in fact.

  2. Gaw
    July 28, 2011 at 08:32

    I like how Peter Oborne, in particular, seems to use ‘louche’ as a euphemism for ‘drug-taking’. I hope it catches on as louche is a great word.

    I think we’ve lived through an age of irresponsibility, to coin a phrase. Responsibilities are now flying back to the roost like homesick, superpowered chickens. But we still need to sort the bankers.

  3. Worm
    July 28, 2011 at 08:59

    I wonder how many tattooed, bull-necked east end hardmen there are wandering around out there who have the skeleton in their closet that they were once procured for Ronnie Kray

  4. jameshamilton1968@googlemail.com'
    James Hamilton
    July 28, 2011 at 09:08

    “..there is general scorn for any hint of belief in the idea of acting nobly. I feel shamefaced mentioning the idea, in fact.” I almost agree, but I’d put it less strongly: everything that might be put under the heading of “noble behaviour” is as yearned for and admired as much as it ever was, but it’s reported differently. The reporting tone is always – “here’s an example of what we used to be like” whereas – did this start with wartime propaganda films of the “Listening to Britain” type? it would once have been reported as typical Britisher conduct. We are unkind about ourselves in the media – or at least, sneered at by journalists and broadcasters – where we were once far kinder and more forgiving.

    The changes over time in what amounts to British behaviour can be fascinating. Some have described Britain as having passed in the 1950s from an Apollonian culture to a Dionysian one, and others think similarly but represent the change as a reversion to the meme.

    Take drinking. We’ve accurate figures for the amount of alcohol drunk in the UK going back well into the nineteenth century. Those figures reveal that anyone who says Brits have always been binge drinkers are wrong, and not merely because most of us remember a time when you were expected as a matter of course to “hold your drink” i.e. continue to behave well under the influence. Consumption per head has doubled since the late 1950s, but never quite reached Edwardian levels. Now consumption is on the way down again..

    Another way to look at it is via the shift in societal taboos. Sexual liberation occurred at almost the exact moment the War on Drugs got underway. Racists and paedophiles are shunned, where it might once have been unmarried mothers and homosexuals. (Presumably because they are seen as a threat to the stability of society, as unmarried mothers and homosexuals once were). There’s always been a strong moral structure here in Britain, and there’s one now, but it hasn’t always been the same one.

    • Gaw
      July 28, 2011 at 09:12

      Thanks James. What I wanted to say but couldn’t. I think your last sentence is spot on.

    • Worm
      July 28, 2011 at 09:45

      top commenting James

  5. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    July 28, 2011 at 09:26

    Dear old Robert, Eton, Oxford and the city, the ideal apprenticeship for shifty old buggers. He had however a wonderfull mahogany voice, we can but imagine the post coital tristesse fag n’ chat…”ere, ow was yer week”, “hectic old chap, hectic and yours?” “blew some effin geezers ed orf darn the boozer mush, then went darn Catford, sorted the Richardson mob”

    As for the expat journo, can we ever again trust this profession, if indeed we ever did in the first place, those not slithering around the dark places are seemingly drenched in hypocrisy. The decent members of the press must be wondering what hit them.

    There is an old and therefore unfashionable saying ‘power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely’, everything changes and nothing changes, such is our lot, just look at this years TDF, won by a miserable shit faced Aussie, where’s the justice.

  6. markcfdbailey@gmail.com'
    July 28, 2011 at 10:39

    Of course Boothby batted as well as he bowled; continuing to tup Harold Macmillan’s wife whilst indulging his side dish of young cockney toughs. That smooth old fraud and Cameron template – Macmillan that is – was fully conscious of the cuckold’s horns sprouting from his head. As was every one else.

    James is right, there is a strong moral structure still in Britain, but it is the morality of individualism: the sense that anyone might have any obligation towards anyone else is on its deathbed and old reactionaries like me regret it.

  7. jameshamilton1968@googlemail.com'
    James Hamilton
    July 28, 2011 at 11:16

    I’m wondering now if one of the current British moral memes is that it is impolite to present arguments against decline?

    It’s easy to compile a list of views which are “accepted” as polite even if you reasonably disagree with them. For instance:
    1. London is unfriendly
    2. Bliar
    3. Nice people prefer old books
    4. insert your own, and remember the time (we must all have done this) when you nodded along…

    So, is it now impolite to disagree with the view that the country’s going to the dogs in (insert manner) in the way that it was once impolite to talk about money? And if so, how much of that is down to the spread of 80s NME-style cynical, cool-nihilistic attitudes about human nature into wider media and journalism?

    • markcfdbailey@gmail.com'
      July 28, 2011 at 11:28

      I actually thought it was the other way round: that the Whig version of history was now so well entrenched that it must not be gainsaid.

  8. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    July 28, 2011 at 13:18

    Plus ca change et cetera.

    There are two conflicting conservative strands of thought: (1) that human nature fundamentally doesn’t change and hasn’t changed since Adam and Eve and therefore cannot be changed by progressives; and (2) that things ain’t wot they used to be. Amazing how easy it is to forget that these do conflict.

    One thing is for certain: there has been no point in British history in which you couldn’t have gathered a bunch of old codgers together and heard them agreeing that things have finally gone to the dogs.

    • markcfdbailey@gmail.com'
      July 28, 2011 at 13:53

      Curmudgeon, Brit, not codger. Well, not yet at any rate.

    • markcfdbailey@gmail.com'
      July 28, 2011 at 13:56

      The two points can conflict, but they can also work together: it’s those of a ‘progressive’ (and how I hate that word) bent trying to force a change in 1) that causes 2).

    • Gaw
      July 28, 2011 at 14:44

      Isn’t ‘fings ain’t wot they used to be’ the original revolutionary impulse? The defence of ‘ancient liberties’ and ‘natural rights’?

      I think your distinction, Brit, is a crucial one: it’s an aspect of the difference between a conservative and a reactionary. The latter has more in common with a revolutionary as they both think it’s imperative to change everything for the sake of an ideal. Not a recipe for a peaceful life.

  9. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    July 28, 2011 at 13:23

    Apropos of nothing, there was a lengthy piece in this week’s ST by Andrew Sullivan, in which he explained why Britain is so much better than it was when he left 25 years ago…

    • markcfdbailey@gmail.com'
      July 28, 2011 at 13:52

      Well if AS says it then it must be wrong.

      • danielkalder@yahoo.com'
        July 30, 2011 at 19:50

        A rare good piece by the immensely overrated AS; even a stopped clock & all that.

  10. rory@peritussolutions.com'
    July 28, 2011 at 14:28

    Maybe instant & constant scrutiny these days shows us a lot more of the bad stuff. This is good if it holds people to account but can also lead to pitch fork wielding mobs and a waste of resources.

    The traditional media are very narrow – the majority of people don’t engage with them beyond entertainment or sport and the journalists aren’t very representative of society.

    Maybe personal experience is the best indicator available to us? As always there are plenty of bastards about but plenty of decent people too. I am just back from a house swap with a French family. They were strangers a few months ago (still are really) but were lovely, kind & decent and we each left the other’s house clean & tidy and had great holidays. I will try to keep them in mind when I meet the next bastard.

  11. Gaw
    July 28, 2011 at 14:58

    I hate to introduce the subject but it seems to me that one’s class background is important in influencing one’s attitude to the past as per the Robin Hanson quote James cited the other week:

    …nostalgia presumes that our previous social orders were especially functional, moral, good to people like us…

    I grew up on stories which demonstrated how the past hadn’t been so good to ‘us’ (working all hours for bugger all for starters).

    I once asked my maternal step-grandfather whether he’d like to live his life all over again. Without hesitation he answered ‘no’. Why? ‘The people – horrible’, said with a shudder.

  12. rory@peritussolutions.com'
    July 28, 2011 at 16:05

    I suppose a hard life can harden one’s attitude to others, it would be easy to see the world as a brutal place full of people taking advantage of each other.
    “Try not to be a victim” is the advice I remember most from my youth!

  13. davidanddonnacohen@gmail.com'
    July 28, 2011 at 16:14

    I’ve seen two ideas about the NotW scandal that, from an American perspective, seem to make some sense. Neither are about decline.

    The first is that, under British libel law, truth is much more important than under US libel law, where it’s basically impossible for a public figure to win even if the story was false. As a result, British papers will go to much greater (and even illegal) lengths to find true, interesting facts to publish. More broadly, a lot of stuff you all would consider illegal (e.g., publishing state secrets and the names of criminal defendants) we consider good clean fun.

    The second is that, by taking the money out of politics, you made newspapers much more influential with politicians than they are in the States. If it was the Sun wot did it, politicians will tiptoe around Rupert Murdoch, which leads to NotW reporters believing that they are untouchable.

    But in the end, you all are much more into your newspapers than we’re into ours. I’m not sure how the causation runs, but we just care less about our drab, grey, monotone, monopolistic papers.

  14. davidanddonnacohen@gmail.com'
    July 28, 2011 at 16:24


    We all fantasize about Camelot because we all assume that we’d be Lancelot. The sad fact is that, at least in the West, the only time to live (if we had a choice) is now.


    There’s no necessary contradition between the two conservative statements: it was ever thus; and things are going to Hell. It is only the expectations of society and, if those fails, the force of law that make Man fit to live together, and we seem to be throwing those constraints overboard at an alarming rate.

  15. jameshamilton1968@googlemail.com'
    James Hamilton
    July 28, 2011 at 17:00

    Can anyone think of a restraint we’ve thrown over recently? I’m trying to think of one and can’t.

    I do mean “recently.” The 1960s are getting on for half a century ago, and some of their after-effects have clearly stalled: underage pregnancies and births have remained stable for a decade and are now dropping slightly. Alcohol consumption has gone down. Divorce stabilized some time ago. Births out of wedlock have climbed – c.40% now, but Sweden was at that level in 1980 and they seem to be surviving. Even crime – which began its steep rise in the 1950s – has been flat for the last six years and peaked getting on for 20 years ago, although crime is one of those subjects where it’s “polite” to assume that it’s still rocketing and everyone involved in the British Crime Survey is bent.

    Everything recent seems to be some kind of restraint. Drug laws – gone the wise British system of pre-1967. Speed cameras. The drink drive limit.

    What kinds of things am I missing? Internet porn? Mind you, that wasn’t the British, exactly, and some figures show a drop in the incidence of rape in countries where internet porn is most easily accessed. No more XXX cinemas, and the top shelf of newsagents is reserved more and more for pigeon-fanciers and caravanning. Public behaviour by children? Much as I dislike being stuck on a bus with someone else’s music, I well remember ghetto blasters and reckon this hasn’t changed much in my lifetime.

    There’s a wonderful passage in Philip Larkin’s Letters in which he engages in a music war with a noisy neighbour. “Tonight,” he says at some point in the 1950s, “I am going to give them Ellington – The Big Sound.”

  16. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    July 28, 2011 at 17:21

    There are ca 30% more of us on this group of offshore islands than there were in the nineteen forties, it is noticeable, especially in the south east and midlands whilst not overcrowded to the extent that coastal dwellers are pushed into the sea we are nonetheless, packed in a tad. Remarkably we have not started belting one another with clubs, perhaps a sign of some progress.
    Not at the BBC though but, we are the contents of a zoo as far as they are concerned, will no one rid us of this turbulent priest.

  17. Gaw
    July 28, 2011 at 17:25

    Talking of the Beeb, I’ve just read there how teenagers are becoming more abstemious:


    I’m beginning to feel part of an irresponsible blip.

    • Wormstir@gmail.com'
      July 28, 2011 at 18:21

      I can well believe that – when I was out clubbing heavily in the early 90’s EVERYONE in the club was absolutely off their faces on large amounts of pharmaceuticals. these days it’s actually quite unusual to see someone slumped in the corner with their eyes rolling around in their head.

    • johngjobling@googlemail.com'
      July 28, 2011 at 18:41

      Someday, somewhere, someone will write an opera based on ‘information centre’ guessing games…Die Zaubernumbers. The cast consisting of 2.5 tenors, 14.6% soprano and nine litres of baritones. The conductor will forgo the baton and stick his finger in the air.

  18. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    July 28, 2011 at 19:34

    It was always more complicated than you think…

  19. Gaw
    July 28, 2011 at 20:53

    I think you can predict people’s attitude to the state of the nation by whether they bandy about the word ‘post-imperial’ or not.

  20. danielkalder@yahoo.com'
    July 28, 2011 at 21:31

    I don’t live in the UK any more, but I’m always suspicious about crime figures for the simple reason that governments and the police are well known to massage & redefine them to suit their purposes.

    I suppose one thing that definitely has declined, although I’m sure someone will pop up to state otherwise, is the standard of education, especially higher education. Given the massive expansion under Major and subsequently Blair many an academic these days can be found tearing his hair out at the tragic & pitiful efforts of the young swains under his tutelage.

    And now the youth will have to pay more for the increasingly meaningless pieces of paper they acquire, of course.

    Also, proof reading in books has definitely gone on the slide. Probably tied into the above. It’s rare these days that I make it through a recently published tome that doesn’t have at least one error, often many more. My own books have suffered in this regard.

    • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
      July 29, 2011 at 06:42

      …Yet a well-known magazine (and now web) editor told me he reckoned the general standard amongst would-be writers has improved immeasurably since email and the internet became ubiquitous….

      • mail@danielkalder.com'
        July 29, 2011 at 17:25

        Possibly, it may depend on the type of magazine. Appleyard may be of help here, since he will remember the days of humongous expense accounts and serious articles by the likes of Chatwin in the Sunday papers. Were they better back then? Probably in some areas, less so in others. American mags still run massive serious pieces and many of them are overlong and tedious. The average mega article in The Atlantic could be cut by 30% of that I have no doubt.

        But copy editing and proof reading is still pretty sh!t these days.

  21. danielkalder@yahoo.com'
    July 28, 2011 at 21:32

    … and I hasten to add, the errors were not mine.

  22. zmkc@ymail.com'
    July 28, 2011 at 23:18

    I think the Lloyds collapse, because it ruined so many members of what was a sort of semi-hidden semi-ruling class who were a major repository for a whole lot of the kinds of values James rightly describes as once being seen as ‘typical British behaviour’, had a greater effect than is usually recognised. (Just to go off on a mad tangent.)

  23. danielkalder@yahoo.com'
    July 29, 2011 at 00:30

    On another mad tangent, I’m pretty sure Driberg was friends with A. Crowley, AKA The Great Beast. At the very least he hung out with a Satanist or two.

  24. jameshamilton1968@googlemail.com'
    James Hamilton
    July 29, 2011 at 06:20

    Yes, I might go for grade inflation. But I wonder just how long ago it got underway: at Oxford at the end of the ’80s I came across exam papers for my part of my course but dated 1918.

    They were just terrifying. What’s more, this was history, a subject that has inarguably evolved for the better in academic terms over the ensuing years (e.g. the aforesaid Whig Interpretation had yet to be Butterfielded into the daylight in ’18).

    Nevertheless, I’d have struggled with the ’18 papers: they were just geared more highly than Mods ’88 would be, and the level of conceptual thinking required was altogether more refined.

    That more or less concurred with my experience of mock A-levels. We were given 1960s papers, and after those, the experience of the real exams themselves came as an enormous relief.

    On the other hand, though: I spent 7 years doing evenings in homework clubs for kids from Kensal tower blocks, and found that they were actually a year or two ahead of what I’d been 18 years before, especially in maths and languages. And the teaching materials for history for GCSE were well ahead of what I’d had at O Level assuming that one was to go on to university study in the subject: how much of an idea of the story of the nation one drew from them was another matter. But then, I hadn’t been taught that at school either…

  25. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    July 29, 2011 at 10:31

    Day one of Rupe’s revenge. Of note is the comment… Barbara Slater, director of BBC Sport, said: “We are absolutely delighted that F1 will remain on the BBC”. You’ve just lost the exclusive contract petal.
    Once again the BBC tailors reality to suit it’s own wrong headed slant on life. It ain’t just the people dressed in black who tell fibs. Thing is though but, we didn’t have to buy their rubbish.

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