Shot taken from the music video for English rapper Plan B’s ‘iLL Manors’
The phrase ‘Broken Britain’ can simply be perceived as a political slogan, and thus dismissed as hackneyed politicking: preaching to one’s own to gain their support by appealing to their established prejudices. Consequently, it may be difficult to identify this not so much as a Conservative mantra per se as merely a political one. To disillusioned non-voters and some partisan journalists it serves no other purpose than electoral victory and maintaining a superficial moral advantage while in office. Put simply and frankly, it is a means to an end.
However, the use of the phrase ‘Broken Britain’ represents more than mere politicking. It refers to the apparent decay in public morality as manifested in perceived problems such as family dysfunction, underage pregnancy, alcohol and drug addiction and the breakdown of social cohesion and law and order – that is, fundamental moral flaws in society.
The Return of Stigma
In his recent article, ‘What does conservatism stand for?’, Ed Rooksby discusses the beliefs that conservatives traditionally value: the relevance of certain human flaws; the role of authority for social cohesion; liberty as perhaps the supreme political principle; and the general belief in conservation over reform. Rooksby observes:
More recently, conservatism has sought to mobilise resentment and fear on the part of relatively privileged groups (or sections of society which at least feel they ought to be superior) in relation to other subordinate or putatively threatening groups – immigrants, benefit claimants, unionised workers, single mothers and so on.
In other words, modern conservatism has mobilised the fears of privileged social groups, and in so doing places them in a morally superior position to the least advantaged groups in society, serving to stigmatise those groups. In conservatism, social stigmas, unlike politicking, serve a particular function in themselves: deterrence. By stigmatising a particular faction, social outcome or issue, one aims to deter that behaviour; for example, potential teenage mothers and fathers, welfare claimants or anti-social behaviour, thereby limiting the problem and ultimately eradicating it without resorting to government action. Thus, while politicking is a means to an end, stigmatisation is an end in itself within a broader social strategy.
Stigma has been one of the key battlegrounds between conservatives and progressives. Post-war intellectual movements – such as feminism, postcolonialism and deconstruction – have suggested that certain stigmas, such as racism and misogyny, are rooted in the very foundations of the entire Western canon itself. By contrast, stigma has become particularly evident in modern conservatism. Peter Hitchens argues that the removal of stigma from single parenthood has resulted in family breakdown:
As I discussed in my 1999 book The Abolition of Britain, a potent and successful campaign was fought in the 1960s to erase all these distinctions and treat all women bringing up children in the absence of a father as if they were the same. I believe the purpose of that campaign was to remove the social and moral barrier (known to its culturally revolutionary critics as ‘stigma’) against those adults who chose (or were encouraged by the state) to raise children outside marriage.
His colleague Melanie Phillips agrees on the role of stigma in a number of separate issues. On parenthood:
Proper parenting involves giving children clear boundaries for their behaviour and showing them that breaching those boundaries has unpleasant consequences for them. Contrary to what Sir Al [Aynsley Green] maintains, it is not stigma that hurts them but the absence of stigma.
[...] gun crime is the result of a far wider and deeper sickness. For this is a society which has come to distrust or even reject the function of law, social sanctions or stigma in restraining anti-social behaviour.
And on marriage:
To bestow this legal protection upon cohabitation is to turn the ratchet of family breakdown another notch. [...] you undermine marriage by removing the stigma of ‘living together’, illegitimacy and unmarried motherhood...
The Prime Minister, David Cameron, made his views known on fatherless families in an article published on Father’s Day in 2011. Again, stigma is deemed to have a potentially productive effect:
At the same time, I also think we need to make Britain a genuinely hostile place for fathers who go AWOL. It’s high time runaway dads were stigmatised, and the full force of shame was heaped upon them. They should be looked at like drink drivers, people who are beyond the pale.
The specific quality attributed to stigma is noticeably consistent: it is the threat of or actual feeling of shame induced by society that is deemed to restrain or deter wrongdoing. Consequently, the political right frequently blames destigmatisation in ‘permissive’ or ‘liberal’ society for laxer moral standards, leading to increasing dependency on welfare, alcohol, drugs and on society generally, and to its eventual collapse.
Considered in this context, ‘Broken Britain’ serves a similar purpose: it seeks to stigmatise the outcomes of complex social problems. These issues are often linked fundamentally (albeit indirectly) to unemployment – that is, the individual’s relationship or non-relationship with the means of production – thereby providing an additional deterrent to material insecurity. ‘Feral children’ and louts need to be shamed into jobs, obligations, and civil responsibilities; they ought to become like the ‘morally good’ privileged groups in society.
“Sickness” in society
Note the similarity of this conservative rhetoric to traditional Christian moralism, whose modern (notably ‘neo-’) evangelical conservative successors have enjoyed a distinct ascent since the 1980s ‘culture war’. The establishment of guilt, sin or sickness as a fundamental condition forms the foundation for a moral imperative: the responsibility for purification lies with the impure; the identification of sickness transfers the moral obligation entirely to the guilty. The Christian tradition of original sin (not found in the other Abrahamic faiths) established the responsibility for humanity’s absolution from Adam’s disobedience:
Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned: [...] For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.
Fulke Greville memorably summarised this as: we are “created sick, and commanded to be well”: the obligation for purification proceeds directly from the invocation of impurity.
Similarly, the absolving of state responsibility by the withdrawal of welfare benefits – not just from rioters and other criminals but from non-offenders too – has been justified in this express depiction of a social sickness or a moral absence. While such moralising is increasingly deplored in Britain when enunciated in expressly religious terms as outdated, patriarchal barbarism, it is welcomed by certain more fervently conservative elements in society and the press when preached by politicians. This demonstrates the continuing allure and perceived benefits of stigmatisation as means of enforcing moral absolutes in a society deemed to be lacking (perhaps in the absence of faith or other element of social commonality). Society has lost something, and as society – for particularly individualistic conservatives – is nothing more than the sum of its individuals, any loss must be due to the degeneration of at least some of the individuals within it. It must reflect something deeper, something fundamental about the individual.
Readers of Nietzsche may recognise this invocation of sickness as perhaps the key element in establishing the relationship between the pure and the impure, or the moralising guardians and their inherently sick flock. The promotion of the ‘ascetic ideal’ – the pursuit of purity – grants priests “their best instrument of power, also the “supreme” licence for power”:
The chief trick the ascetic priest permitted himself for making the human soul resound with heart-rending, ecstatic music of all kinds was, as everybody knows, the exploitation of thesense of guilt. [...] “Sin” – for this is the priestly name for the animal’s “bad conscience” (cruelty turned backwards) – has been the greatest event so far in the history of the sick soul: [...] Man [...] receives from his sorcerer, the ascetic priest, the first hint as to the “cause” of his suffering: he must seek it in himself, in some guilt, in a piece of the past, he must understand his suffering as a punishment.
The priest identifies suffering as a punishment for sickness, thereby establishing their superior judgmental authority and the sinners’ exclusive moral obligation for redemption; the inferior are the source of social ills whose marginalisation is thus justified to prevent its increase.
In one of his first statements on the riots, Cameron condemned “pockets of our society that are not only broken, but frankly sick”, and his subsequent emergency statement to the House of Commons concluded with the following:
Finally, Mr Speaker, let me turn to the deeper problems.
Responsibility for crime always lies with the criminal. But crime has a context. And we must not shy away from it.
I have said before that there is a major problem in our society with children growing up not knowing the difference between right and wrong.
[...] The potential consequences of neglect and immorality on this scale have been clear for too long, without enough action being taken.
[...] But we need a benefit system that rewards work and that is on the side of families [... and] all the action necessary to help mend our broken society.
We need to show [the world] that we will address our broken society, we will restore a sense of stronger sense of morality and responsibility – in every town, in every street and in every estate.
When ‘Broken Britain’ is recognised as a negligent, guilty absence specifically attributable to its impure constituents (significantly, though certainly not entirely, its welfare-dependent ‘underclass’), this is hardly a new Conservatism but a very piecemeal reformulation of a centuries-old prejudice. In his still controversial study, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, C. B. Macpherson argued that the society that Hobbes, Locke and others wrote about silently excluded those who were not owners of capital, in which the capacity for political obligation was not expected of the labouring poor and the idle. As a simple parallel, the ‘modern’ Conservatives argue that ‘Broken Britain’ is due not to the absence of capital but of moral fibre. Nonetheless, while this absence is expressed in different terms, it is a judgment made in terms of the same presence/absence metaphysic. As Cameron put it in his Commons statement:
This is not about poverty, it’s about culture. A culture that glorifies violence, shows disrespect to authority, and says everything about rights but nothing about responsibilities.
‘Broken Britain’ is due to particular absences – namely, respect and responsibility: the invocation of guilt or stigma establishes the moral terms of debate, and grants the morally pure the right to deny any role in helping, as witnessed in the paring of the welfare state. It is the return of archaic religious morality expressed in different terms, a stigma that seeks to deter, and satisfies traditional conservatism by exonerating government from its share of responsibility for social change.
What does this say about Cameron’s Conservatives? Fundamentally, ‘Broken Britain’ represents a regression, not the progressive ‘born-again’ model Cameron claims to embrace. The invocation of sickness as a stigma is the distinctively conservative element that screams of rank televangelical charlatanism; it is a trick to which Cameron’s recent Conservative predecessors did not stoop, but may be seen as a classic hallmark of cultish fundamentalism. It is used to justify government irresponsibility; in effect, it is the relinquishment of any belief in the role of government in society.
However, for progressives, there are grounds for some optimism in the modern Conservatives’ retreat to antiquated moralism. It shows that conservatism itself meets its limits when dealing with social problems because the effectiveness of deterrence itself – from stigma to imprisonment and even the death penalty – is also limited, an attribution fallacy that requires confronting. Progressives are succeeding in discrediting social stigmas such as those associated with illegitimacy, sexuality, and, more recently, and sexual freedom, which also have their source in religion; ‘Broken Britain’ can surely suffer the same fate. Successive intellectual movements – most recently, the New Atheists – continue to succeed in challenging the assumed supremacy of faith in religious moralism; progressives need to fight its disguised return in political moralism.
While it may be tempting simply to dismiss and ignore the expression ‘Broken Britain’, the key challenge must be to challenge its terms; that is, progressives need to displace this guilt-based morality that currently allows government ministers – like Nietzsche’s ascetic priest, “that denier, calumniator, and poisoner of life by profession” – to claim a moral monopoly. Social problems are not solved just through deterrence: programmes such as El Sistema in Venezuela, also being trialled in Scotland, are just one example of the extraordinary potential of governments to nurture the fabric of society. The emphasis must be on community and inclusion in remedying generations-old problems; they can be far more powerful and beneficial than guilt in building society.
This article is published with thanks to the New Left Project where it first appeared.
A. L. Shaw is a pseudonym. The author read politics at the University of Exeter and political philosophy at the University of York, and is now a freelance writer based in London.
 Mustapha, Act V, Scene iv
 cf. Thatcher’s famous comments to Woman’s Own on 23 September 1987 – “There is no such thing as society” – to which the following statement was issued: “society as such does not exist except as a concept. Society is made up of people.”
 Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘On the Genealogy of Morals’ and ‘Ecce Homo’, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1989), III: §1, p. 97 (spelling amended)
 Ibid., III: §20, p. 140
 C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962)
 Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Twilight of the Idols’ and ‘The Anti-Christ’, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990), §8, p. 132