When were the good old days?
Today's nostalgia for the values and the safety of yesterday has a strangely
familiar ring about it, says Tracey Lauder
During the latest round of panics about child crime and delinquency, every
other newspaper editorial seems to have been devoted to the decline of the
nation's morals, harking back to the days when children were innocent, 'decent'
people were not terrorised by hooligans, and you could leave your front
The present discussion about crime and moral responsibility has emphasised
a desire to return to the 'good old days'. Christina Hardyment (Sunday
Telegraph, 21 February 1993) thinks that the difference between today
and yesterday is so great that 'young people may seem alien, rough-spoken
and generally disorderly to generations who remember wartime discipline
Tory grandee WF Deedes agrees that his prewar youth 'seems a golden age
compared with what lurks in the shadows for the young today'. Although he
admits that children wandered the streets ragged and barefoot, Deedes assures
us that 'physically, they were safe' (Daily Telegraph, 22 February
1993). While different commentators identify with different golden ages - Victorian
morals, Edwardian gentility, prewar innocence, wartime discipline, and so
on - they all agree that 'then' was better than now.
All our yesterdays
In a Gallup survey carried out for the Daily Telegraph in February,
85 per cent of those interviewed thought it was safer to walk the streets
at night 20-30 years ago. There is a widespread perception that we are now
reaping what was sown in the 1960s with a departure from old-fashioned values.
John Major seemed to have struck a chord with his invocation of the security
It seems that the past is now the source of authority on everything from
cricket to childcare. Indeed, with the past being elevated in this way,
you could be forgiven for believing that the past two centuries have been
a stable continuum of British fair play, high moral standards and well-behaved
children. Typically, in searching for an explanation for the latest panic
about child crime, Robert Whelan of the Family Education Trust asks 'why
can't [children] enjoy being young for longer and do things that all youngsters
used to do?'.
Surely, then, the archives should be full of reports congratulating the
youth of yesterday on occupying themselves in such a responsible fashion?
Well, not exactly.
Today's moralistic commentators and politicians like to give the impression
that things were much better in the past. The funny thing is that in the
fifties they were giving the same impression. In 1957, for instance, amid
press hysteria over the emergence of 'the Teds', Sir Thomas More commented
'would not the proper description be "young thugs", leaving it
The Teds were seen as the epitome of society's decline, with their strange
clothes and milk bar culture, 'a sort of spiritual dry rot amid the odour
of boiled milk'. Back then, the problem was said to be that 'the British
way of life' was being destroyed by 'Americanisation'. That, said the experts
of the day, couldn't have happened 20 years previously, when wartime discipline
kept young people in line. Or did it?
In 1938 an account of English juvenile courts regretted that children were
starting to grow up in 'an atmosphere of restlessness and pleasure-seeking'
which was not 'morally healthy'. Another report of 1939 noted 'a growing
contempt by the young person for the procedures of juvenile courts'.
In the thirties the decline of moral values was blamed on the new forms
of popular culture such as cinema, cheap novels and radio. Every new fad
seemed to undermine respect for law and order. In fact there were more middle
class panics about the behaviour of football fans during this period than
at any time since. The popular fears and desire for past values expressed
in the thirties are strangely reminiscent of the nostalgic wishes expressed
Probably the age which crops up most often as an example of upstanding morality
is the Victorian era. It was then, everyone agrees, that individuals exercised
the most restraint and society was cohered around the highest of values.
However, a brief scan of the contemporary press reveals that the good citizens
of Victorian Britain lived in fear of the Velvet Cap Gang who pushed people
off the pavement and used 'filthy language', and of the 'roughs' who were
'armed with thick leather belts, on which there were heavy brass buckles'.
In fact, it was a frequent lament of the time that whipping was not employed
enough to teach the working classes respect for the law. The upper classes
yearned for the safety and peace of what they recalled as the days before
'the excessive leniency' of the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
Flogging a dead horse
The Victorian era was characterised by all manner of fears and panics and
nostalgia for the 'goode olde dayes', including concerns for the detrimental
effects of bicycles on the nation's youth and the 'sentimentality of judges'
in dealing with ruffians who required flogging. The fear of moral decay was
captured by Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy (1869): 'The outbreaks
of rowdyism tend to become less and less of trifles....And thus that profound
sense of settled order and security, without which a society like ours cannot
live and grow at all, sometimes seems to be beginning to threaten us with
taking its departure.'
There is nothing new about pining for the past. Flogging has been prescribed
for every generation since it was abolished, likewise the workhouse, conscription
and juvenile prison. The golden age of '20 or 30 years ago' has always seemed
attractive in comparison to immediate fears about the breakdown of order.
The only difference today is the wider appeal of such moralistic nostalgia.
Harping on about the past has normally been the preserve of the Conservative
clubs and the British Legion - Tory MPs have always had a thing about whipping.
Previously, calls for the return of corporal punishment were dominated by
the likes of Brigadier Medlicott, Wing Commander Bullus and Sir Marcus Lipton
referring to 'these louts who, long ago, should have been smacked on the
behind by their parents'. But, in the absence of an explanation for the
social and economic breakdown that we are experiencing today, such appeals
to the past can become more common parlance.
(Historical references from G Pearson, Hooligan: A History of Respectable
Fears, Macmillan Education, 1983)
The original hooligan, Daily Graphic, 5 December 1900
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 55, May 1993