The nineteenth century Evangelical Revival and its influence on the moral norms of the whole of society led to a century or more when the essential nastiness of the English was held in check and when we brought up our children to look to the interests of others rather than themselves. So from the later Victorian period until after the Second World War we operated our society on the basis of shared values and we instilled these in our children. These were things we took for granted and they were never codified so we did not really notice when they began to slip away.
Since the 1950s, a huge combination of factors including the decline in religious observance, the increase in wealth and welfare and the development of a multi-cultural society has simply eroded the impetus to operate on the basis of these values. The permissiveness of the 1960s, the selfishness of the 1980s and the perceived need for rapidly increasing regulation (and the MPs’ allowances scandal) at the beginning of the twenty-first century are just illustrations of how the previous self regulating consensus has unravelled.
There have always been aspects of our essential nastiness which it has been difficult to hold in check, some people have always operated against the consensus, necessary elements of regulation have often been put in place, and it took the whole of the time the consensus lasted for us to move fully to universal individual suffrage, but what is remarkable is that the consensus held sway for so long without any framework of law. We now require everything from explicit training in parenthood and definite contracts about society’s expectations of its citizens and representatives in a way the unconscious assumptions of our grandparents and their grandparents did not.
This is broadly the thesis shared by Frank Field in the annual Magna Carta Lecture in Lincoln Cathedral on Friday evening. It was a tour de force from his gentle correction of the reference to MPs ‘expenses’ (rather than ‘allowances’) in the Dean’s ponderous introduction to his revelation that Margaret Thatcher had told him that her greatest regret was that her tax cuts had not led to much higher levels of charitable giving.
The picture is another from the great dividing screen in the Cathedral. The figure does appear to be disappearing up his own backside. But equally striking are the substantial traces of colour hinting at the mediaeval gaudiness of what is now uniformly plain stone.