When I contacted Transaction to request a review copy of the paperback edition of The Strange Death of Moral Britain (the hardback appeared in 2004), I was told I would have to wait for a few weeks, because they were completely out of stock of the first print run.  Perhaps this book has struck a chord, as it certainly ought to.

Professor Davies is a stocky, bearded, somewhat peppery Welshman—as I had occasion recently to remind an enthusiastic American reviewer of Strange Death, who had presumed that Christie was short for Christine.  Davies was an academic high-flyer at Cambridge (first-class honors in both parts of the Economics Tripos and President of the Cambridge Union).  He then worked for a time as a BBC radio producer, before becoming a lecturer in sociology at the University of Leeds and then at Reading, where he taught for 18 years.  He has also been a visiting lecturer in the United States and India.  Davies has written other books on morality—Permissive Britain (1975), Censorship and Obscenity (1978)—and several books on humor, most recently The Mirth of Nations (2002).  He is a regular contributor to newspapers and journals, including Chronicles and the Salisbury Review, and to radio and television programs.  He has also been active with various libertarian groups and the Social Affairs Unit.  Christie Davies is undoubtedly one of the most original and interesting of present-day British thinkers.

The Britain of the early 19th century, whose schizophrenic nature was captured, on the one hand, by Jane Austen and, on the other, by George Cruikshank, was a colorful but often dangerous place.  From 1840 onward, however, a general civilizing revolution occurred, thanks to a wave of religious feeling, the rise of a middle class anxious for social acceptance, an upsurge in sentiments of British identity and of patriotism, and the inauguration of an effective police force.  As mock-Gothic churches and Methodist chapels went up all across the country, practices that had always been tolerated, from public drunkenness to cockfighting, were banned and vigorously suppressed.  Toward the end of the 19th century, despite a massive increase in population, rapid urbanization, and often acute social deprivation, crime in Britain had been almost entirely tamed.

How did the Britain of the early 1900’s, with its historically low crime levels and enviable cohesiveness, become the Britain we simultaneously love and hate today?  That is the central question addressed in Strange Death.  To drive home the contrast between what we have lost and what we have wrought, the author gives us some literally arresting statistics.

In 1900, the number of crimes recorded by police in England and Wales was 78,000.  By 2000, the equivalent figure was over five million—less than three recorded crimes per 1,000 persons over the age of ten years in 1900 compared with more than 80 by 2000.  In 1937, there were around 10,500 people in English and Welsh prisons, of whom only 800 were serving sentences of three years or longer.  By 1997, the numbers had shot up to 64,000 and 24,000, respectively—and at a time when the criminal-justice system had become less likely to send anyone to prison.  Almost all of these increases occurred from 1957 onward, during a period characterized mostly by rising incomes, negligible unemployment, and a much narrower gap between rich and poor—thus giving the lie to leftist mythology, which avers that criminal activity is a kind of inchoate attempt at equalizing stark social inequalities.  So safe and secure was Britain becoming in the Victorian Era that at least one contemporary commentator was moved to worry that this implied a “perceptible subsidence of the military spirit in England.”  During those 100 years between the middle of the 19th century and that of the 20th, in addition to the large increase in population (from some 32 million in 1900 to about 60 million), there was also the repeal of much important criminal legislation and an increasing tendency toward leniency in sentencing.

After 1900, the forces that had civilized Britain started to retreat.  One landmark, says Davies, was the 1911 Insurance Act, which replaced the old networks of mutual aid and friendly societies with the promise that governments would always act as a safety net (a precursor of the cradle-to-grave welfare state that would emerge after World War II).  The result, he argues, was that instead of “Who is to blame?” the basic question increasingly became “Who pays if something goes wrong?”  The effects of the senseless slaughter of 1914-18 were also devastating—not just demographically but spiritually.  Society was becoming ever larger and ever more impersonal.  A “change in the scale of society” occurred, brought about by a combination of impersonal technological and economic development and by deliberate choice.  Davies cites the examples of Switzerland and Japan as evidence that technological development need not dissolve traditional communities and ties—but that is what happened, nonetheless.  Piece by piece, there emerged “a managerial culture of measurement and a political culture of equality,” which hardened into a permanent regime, no matter what happened on periodic election nights.

As the intellectual elite from the late 19th century on lost its Christian faith, public argument was more and more couched in purely utilitarian terms.  Things that had long been regarded as morally wrong were now suddenly portrayed not as morally right, but as inevitable.  From this perceived pragmatism came palliative policies that were promoted by a preponderance of pundits and pursued by a majority of politicians from all parties.

Thus, abortion was legalized in 1967—partly because its proscription was deemed unenforceable, and partly to avoid the possibility of harm to the mother or severe disability in the child.  In the early 19th century, physicians had supported the criminalization of abortion to circumvent the proverbial “back-alley abortionists”; by 1967, the majority of doctors supported its liberalization for essentially the same reason.  (Davies argues—perhaps unfairly—that they were motivated more by a desire to retain their preeminence than out of a sense of medical responsibility.)  Meanwhile, capital punishment fell into disuse and was eventually banned because fewer and fewer legislators or judges believed in the desirability of retribution, and there was insufficient evidence for its value as a deterrent.  (Davies is generally opposed to capital punishment, although he feels it may have served a useful purpose in the case of Saddam Hussein, by removing him as a figurehead for the insurgency.)  Homosexuality was legalized largely in order to diminish the possibilities of blackmail—and, thus, of social unhappiness.

Davies contrasts the old moralist Britain of “autonomous individuals making moral choices and receiving their deserts” with what he calls today’s causalist Britain (his coinage), in which legislation is passed essentially “to minimize harm in the aggregate regardless of moral status.”  This was—and is—a distinct position between traditionalists, whose politics were usually underpinned by habit and religiosity, and modernists, who espoused an ideology of abstract rights derived from America.  “In Britain,” Davies writes, “law is a means to an end whereas in the United States it takes on a quasi-sacred quality”—though one can see why causalism should make headway in a country that had always prided herself on her reasonableness.  Seen from the causalist perspective, Christie Davies argues, Britons are not self-reliant or virtuous but “a mass of weak people divided into the virtuous and the offending only by chance opportunities and adversities that caused them to act as they did.”  The clichéd notions that we are all morally equal and that respectability is nothing more than “hypocrisy” have clearly been very, very damaging, as Professor Davies’ statistics (and the daily lives of Britons) attest.  Ironically, the notion that “We are all victims of society” has led to more of us falling victim to criminals; the refrain “We are all guilty,” which Michael Wharton so hilariously put into the mouth of his creation Dr. Heinz Kiosk, has led to many more of our fellow citizens becoming guilty, in fact, of criminality.

Davies’ title is a deliberate echo of George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England, first published in 1936.  Like Mark Twain’s, that death has been much exaggerated.  In fact, it is conservative England that has died.  Today, even many instinctive Tories, like Dr. Davies, have become acclimatized to the new small-l liberal status quo.  And indeed, it is not entirely distasteful.

The author’s calm and balanced presentations of the arguments for and against abortion, homosexuality, divorce, and capital punishment certainly lead him to some nontraditional (if interesting) conclusions—and sometimes to ambivalence—on subjects regarding which conservatives often have very strong feelings.  For example, Davies deems the generally negative view of homosexuality “a puzzle”—and then traces its roots to the Jewish fear of transgressing boundaries, transplanted in Europe with the story of Lot and with Leviticus.  He demonstrates that antihomosexual sentiment has always been strongest in premodern institutions, such as religious hierarchies and military circles—institutions concerned with preserving order and identity within their all-male ranks.  (These same institutions have also been the most supportive of capital punishment.)  With the rise of market forces, Davies clearly believes (and hopes) that these premodern anomalies will eventually vanish—“a pink pound is as good as any other.”  In the meantime, his innate good taste causes him to deprecate the extravagan-ces of the non-British “gay-rights” movement.  That antihomosexual feelings are stronger among men than among women leads him to conclude that they have little to do with “family values”—yet, arguably, men are at least as concerned as women about the possibility of their line’s genetic survival, which homosexuality can so definitely remove.

Christie Davies believes that the strange death of moral Britain could all too easily become the strange death of Britain, if the government continues to hand over more and more powers to supranational institutions.  There has been a generic “loss of commitment to and identification with religion and country, and in consequence a loss of the idea of service and sacrifice and the moral imperative of duty.”  It is curious that, in his detailed description of how British national identity has diminished, Davies chooses not to mention mass immigration as a factor, although, in his discussion of Ireland, he does remark in passing that one of the reasons moral Ireland persisted as late as she did is that she had no “significant foreign minorities.”  Yet mass immigration—from whichever country, whoever the immigrants—is often associated with higher levels of criminality.  (It is worth mentioning in this context that, in the 1950’s, there occurred instances of Jamaican judges offering violent criminals a choice between lengthy jail sentences in Kingston and emigration to what was then seen as the “mother country.”)  Not only is mass immigration often associated with criminality, but the mere presence of large numbers of obviously foreign people in any country (however irreproachable they may be as individuals) automatically tends to dilute the generic sense of patriotism, congruity, and connectedness.  But, like so many conservatives, Christie Davies has a slightly panicky squeamishness when it comes to race.

In the final analysis, Professor Davies seems to believe that what has happened has happened often for very good reasons; that perhaps it was all inevitable; and that, in any event, it is not reversible.  His is a book suffused with resignation—a stimulating and generally brilliant analysis that unfortunately stops short of proffering answers to our present discontents.  There are no suggestions as to how better behavior could be encouraged by, for instance, schoolteachers, or how family life could be encouraged—through, say, financial incentives.  We only find in Davies a generic desire to defy “the Europeans” (as if Britain were not also a European power).  Davies’ nearest thing to a battle cry is, “What is now at stake . . . is not the preservation of moral Britain, for that has vanished, but the power of the British people, expressed through their own institutions to make their own decisions rather than have them imposed from outside.”  For Christie Davies, the growing impact of the European Convention on Human Rights, which was incorporated into U.K. law in 1998 (thanks, it is often surmised, to Tony Blair’s domineering wife, a human-rights lawyer), is an especially ominous development.  What rational person could disagree with that sentiment?  Indeed, it is difficult to suggest remedies for such a profound and multifaceted situation.  But at least Davies could try—and should try.  His only hope is that things do not get a great deal worse—that the Britons of 2100 do not look back at the Britain of 2000 as a relatively crime-free demi-paradise.  Now that is a sobering thought.


[The Strange Death of Moral Britain, by Christie Davies (Somerset, NJ: Transaction) 264 pp., $24.95]