JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 3.6.11
ON WEDNESDAY evening, I made a routine journey to Glasgow to see a play about the lives of the Bronte sisters, visiting the Citizens’ Theatre. It wasn’t the greatest of shows; but it aroused some powerful memories of the role played by the great novels of the Victorian age in shaping the social priorities of the Britain I grew up in, fifty years ago. Like Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte had a great gift for portraying the horror and cruelty of Victorian “care” institutions, funded by the coldest of charity; so that if Dickens’s Dotheboys Hall was the school from hell, Bronte’s Lowood – where little Jane Eyre is sent, after her parents’ death – was the orphanage of nightmares, run by a gang of coldly self-righteous female thugs.
And the point about the Britain of the postwar period was that through half a century of rapid social change, and two huge wars which required the mobilisation of the whole population, we had determined – even vowed – to leave all that behind. The darkness and cruelty of the Victorian age was supposed to have given way to the brighter, better times portrayed on the newsreels. And although there was still plenty of abuse behind the closed doors of private homes and public institutions, the official culture told another story; one about how the British people had learned to love and value one another, to cherish the rising generation, and, above all, to make real pledges to one another, about a future of cradle-to-grave security guaranteed by the state.
And as I sat watching Tuesday’s horrific Panorama documentary about the bullying and torture of vulnerable adults by the staff at a care institution in Bristol, I found myself wondering just where we stand now, on that spectrum between the legitimised cruelty of the early Victorian age, and the postwar dream of a caring society. At the official level, our society often seems more “caring” than at any time in our history; the founders of the postwar welfare state would be dazzled and amazed by the range of public services and benefits now available to those who need them.
Yet in recent decades, this relatively lavish provision of public services seems to have lost its place in the public imagination, as a sign of society’s commitment to itself, and to its weaker members. Only this week, as the Panorama programme was broadcast, Audit Scotland published a disturbingly critical report on the efficiency and competence of Scotland’s Community Health Partnerships, conjuring up the image of a structure designed to deliver “care” to hundreds of thousands in communities across Scotland, but in fact staffed by an army of bureaucrats who often seem to struggle to perform the basic tasks for which their structure was set up.
And behind these widely-advertised failures of management and regulation, there seems to me to lie a wider crisis of faith in the whole concept of publicly-delivered care. We do it; but we pay care workers such rock-bottom wages that managements often end up recruiting the very dregs of society, to do a difficult and responsible job. We do it; but we fear that most of what we spend will be poured into cumbersome and neurotic administrative structures, managed by those who remain in their jobs precisely because they lack the imagination and drive actually to change anything.
The right-wing response to this malaise suggests that all this state provision is bad for us, and that we would do better to return to a Dickensian mix of strong family support for those lucky enough to enjoy it, and charitable provision for the rest. The left-wing response argues that once a society has made the kinds of welfare-state pledges to itself that Britain made in 1945, any retreat from that position inflicts severe damage on the national self-image, destroys social capital, and legitimises whole new waves of bullying directed against the vulnerable and needy.
Either way, though it seems to me that what was lacking at Winterbourne View was exactly the same thing that was lacking at Charlotte Bronte’s Lowood; it was love, and the capacity to give love. A few weeks ago, my own mother died, after a rich, full 90 years of life. Towards the end, she was very frail; but still able to live in her own home, and to feel like an independent and dignified citizen. She was kept there by a powerful alliance of a family who loved her, an NHS that looked after her health, and a whole range of free social services and provisions; she was surrounded by the love not only of her children, but of a society that, for her, was still keeping its postwar promises.
The right is wrong, in other words, to argue that the state can have no role in expressing this greatest of human emotions; it can, and sometimes does, help to express the very best of our collective affection and care for each other, as fellow-citizens. The social-democratic left, though, is wrong to assume that the mere presence of the provision, and the occasional throwing of money at it, guarantees that the loving care is also there. The cold charity of the Victorian orphanage boards could not guarantee that; and neither can the box-ticking bureaucracy of a modern care trust.
What might help, though, would be to know that we live in a society that values people for themselves, and their souls; and not for their mere wealth, or their superficial beauty. When the Panorama film-makers were making their documentary, even they could not resist the odd car-advert shot of their handsome undercover reporter flashing his expensive watch and car along the roads of Bristol, embracing an aesthetic that implicitly sidelines and dehumanises everyone who cannot match that image. And when the care-home thugs were torturing a lovely, brutalised girl called Simone, it was with her weight and her looks that they taunted her; as if they had finally imbibed from our brutal celebrity culture the message that to be beautiful and famous is to be fully human – and that to be anything less than that, in our time, is barely to be human at all.