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Cecil Parkinson and Victorian Values

January 26, 2016


So, someone else who was famous and powerful in the 1980s died yesterday.  Of course, his “tragedy” (as obituary writers will point out) was that his very real political qualities were overshadowed by an unfortunate personal affair which permanently clouded his reputation.

The word “tragedy” is of course relative.  Cecil Parkinson was a very wealthy man who lived a long time.

The moment of his downfall is forever associated with a sense of hypocrisy associated with the Thatcher government’s championing of so-called “Victorian Values”.  Now I tend to go easy on hypocrisy for a lot of the time.  When people fail to live up to the moral standards that they preach, I feel a lot of empathy.  Indeed, it seems that, given that we’re confined to a reasonably shabby sublunary sphere, that the only way to absolutely avoid hypocrisy is to embrace complete cynicism.  If you always live up to your own moral standards, then those standards can’t be all that high.

The Tories of course believed (and believe) very strongly in privatising morality, just as they believed (and believe) in privatising everything else.   Shredding their Bibles of all those countless references to economic justice, they preached (and preach [should I keep performing this parenthetical manoeuvre?]) that morality was always personal and that charity began (and ends) at home.  By attributing social malaise to private irresponsibility, they of course set themselves up for ridicule when their own private lives seemed to fall apart.

But this kind of hypocrisy seems peripheral to the much larger structural and political inconsistency that has become the defining cruelty of the Tories in office.  They have created situations where “family values” have become an economic impossibility and then vilified those whose families fall apart.  It is a characteristic Tory trait to assert that families exist solely because of the moral fibre of family members.  The economic underpinnings of family life are never acknowledged, and nor is the fact that the time required to sustain familial warmth and support is economically fragile.

I should stress at this point that I’m not being all bourgeois and heteronormative.  Whatever the sex or sexuality of parental figures in a committed familial configuration – makes no difference to the intransigent economic element.  If you want time to be devoted to raising a family – whether it’s ma’s time, pa’s time, ma and pa’s time, pa and pa’s time or ma and ma’s time, then you need to champion an economy that can provide that time.

By the mid nineteenth-century industrial working class family life had become a complete impossibility.  The system of relentless shift-work had made it impossible to sustain relationships of any meaningful nature.   Shorter, more predictable working hours were conceded slowly and gradually following years of campaigning.  However, from the 1980s onwards, the end of collective bargaining in many sectors of the economy again eroded the economic-temporal foundations of what we might call “family life”.

Already, “family life” is an impossibility in London.  In order to prioritise a “booming” (things have to “boom” apparently), a city has been created nearly all of whose inhabitants have to work long hours if they are to afford their rents or mortgages.  Only a handful of people who can access inherited wealth can live in London and see their own kids.  Yet the very people who created this sort of economy are the very first to blame those who cannot afford family life for having destroyed the family.

This is authentic evil.   Hypocrisy becomes evil – not because someone’s private life fails to correspond with their public statements – but when people are put into an impossible position and then vilified for being in that position.   When you pursue policies that make family life impossible and then promote a “family values” agenda – then hypocrisy ceases to be mere discrepancy between ideals and reality, and instead becomes a peculiarly refined species of cruelty.

Things have changed a lot since the 1980s.  They’ve got worse.


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