Ideas at the House: Alexander McCall Smith – Society is Broken, Festival of Dangerous Ideas

Ideas at the House: Alexander McCall Smith – Society is Broken, Festival of Dangerous Ideas


(APPLAUSE) ALEXANDER McCALL SMITH:
Thank you very much, Mark. Thank you very much indeed, Mark,
for your very generous welcome, and thank you, ladies and gentlemen,
for coming here today to hear me talk about
a slightly unusual subject for me. I normally talk about my books, and it’s quite pleasant, in a way, to be able to talk about
something else. I must say that I’m slightly humbled by being in a festival
of dangerous ideas. I mean, it’s daunting enough
being in a festival of any ideas… (LAUGHTER) ..but to be in a festival
of dangerous ideas is terrifically exciting, particularly when you have
some difficulty looking dangerous… (LAUGHTER) ..or talking in a dangerous fashion. Ian Rankin, whom you mentioned, he would have been far better,
more credible character for this, but here goes. I’m going to speak
fairly briefly today – it’ll just be 30 minutes,
maybe slightly less, so it’ll be a fairly brief talk. And then we’ve got time for arguments
after that, which they are calling questions but really will be complaints,
arguments and disagreements… (LAUGHTER)
..and dangerous comments as well. So that all lies ahead of us. I agreed to give this talk
a couple of months ago, and since then something really
dramatic has happened in the UK that touches very closely on the subject that I’ve chosen
to speak about today. You’ll undoubtedly
have seen the reports of all this in the press and you’ve watched, no doubt, endless
footage on it on television news. These were the riots
that started in London and then convulsed
several major cities in the UK. And there was
absolutely shocking destruction – buildings were set on fire,
our shops were looted, cars overturned and set alight. People were terrorised
out of their houses and off the streets. The dramatic pictures,
the really dramatic pictures, I think, were the ones
of the looting that took place. Shop windows were smashed and crowds of people gathered
to help themselves to whatever they could lay hands on. An interesting feature
of that looting was that the only shops
that were left untouched were the bookshops. (LAUGHTER) Now, you’ve got two possible
explanations for that. One is to suppose that the rioters
at least had some respect left, and the other explanation
is the obvious one, which we can go into later on. And people’s reactions to all this ranged from utter disbelief
that it was happening to complete shock and disgust. The press, as you can imagine,
had a tremendous field day. It came at a time
when there wasn’t much other news, so it was very well timed
from that point of view. And politicians and commentators
of every stripe came up with a wide range
of explanations. Some blamed the last government and some blamed
the current government. Now, it’d be an interesting study
to find out what is the general rule as to how long you’ve got
to blame the last government before you have to start blaming the
government that you’ve just elected. There’s obviously a period when you can legitimately
and with conviction blame the previous government, but then, after a couple of months,
a couple of months, a year, then you have to say that the problems are the fault
of the current government. Now, of course, when dealing
with something of this sort, which obviously was
a really major issue involving profound social change, the line of causation,
if you’re talking about blame, obviously stretches back decades,
generations even, and that’s something
which I’d like to touch upon in what I’ve got to say, that we’re talking here
about a problem which has got its aetiology
going back 40, 50 years, perhaps. But going back to the issue of blame
for these riots, you really could,
if you wanted to start blaming, you could take your pick. People blamed politicians
and educationists, and politicians and educationists
blamed people. Socialists blamed capitalism and capitalists blamed socialism. But nobody actually blamed
themselves, and that actually isn’t
all that unusual. How often do you hear people saying, “It’s my fault,
it really is my fault. “I’m totally responsible for this”? I don’t think you really hear that
very often. And wouldn’t it be refreshing,
really refreshing, if we heard it from politicians
just occasionally, if they said,
“Yes, this mess is our fault. “It’s definitely our fault.” Or if they said to their opponents, “Look, please don’t blame yourselves.
It was us.” (LAUGHTER) “It really was us.
We’re the ones to blame.” You don’t really get that. Now, on the subject of blame,
incidentally, in the UK the most popular people
to blame for most things are, these days, bankers. Now, there’s no doubt
that we had in the UK a bunch of bankers
who were real shockers. Your Australian bankers,
like your treasurers, were much, much better. Australian bankers walked on water,
they really did. If you look out over Sydney Harbour,
you’d see group… (LAUGHTER) ..you’d see groups of bankers
walking to work. -(LAUGHTER)
-Amazing sight. But not in the UK and the US – no, it’s that the bankers
are to blame for everything. The weather isn’t behaving itself?
The bankers, they’re responsible. Difficulties with the rail network?
Bankers, of course, bankers. Problems with the banking system?
Bankers. Well, that’s reasonable enough,
I suppose. But anyway, let’s take…
let’s go back to the riots and to those appalling incidents. One of the most shocking incidents was an attack on a Malaysian student
in London who was knocked to the ground,
had his jaw broken, and he was then robbed
of his bicycle. A man came up to help him,
got him up to his feet, and, as he did so, he robbed him
of the contents of his rucksack. And at the end
of all this appalling treatment, the student had the grace to remark
that he still liked the UK and that he thought
it was a great place. He also remarked that this wouldn’t
have happened in Malaysia, which he said was
a well-organised country where the police did their job
efficiently. (LAUGHTER) Now, on that point
of the police reaction, the extraordinary thing was
that in many cases the police actually failed to act. Calls for help were ignored and people were left to wait
in terror for the mayhem to subside, and, as a result, people felt,
quite understandably, that the state had simply failed
to help them. And on that subject of policing, one of the interesting things
about policing in the UK is how touchy-feely it’s become. Police forces now all have
their logos and mission statements – everybody has to have
a mission statement, and that includes the police. And their mission statements
are all things like “Helping communities
to help themselves” or “Working with you
for a better future”. Now, what people actually want
from police mission statements is probably something like “Stopping
crime and catching criminals”. (LAUGHTER) Or “Stopping looting
and wide-scale arson” – that would be a start. Now, let’s look at the cause
of these riots. There were plenty of pundits with theories ranging
from the overly simplistic to the overly complex. But one thing that emerged, though, was that the majority of those who
were charged with rioting offences already had quite a number
of convictions. Many had no job and they were in every sense,
I suppose, the dispossessed. But it wasn’t just the dispossessed
who went on the rampage. Some of the people who helped themselves to the shops
and burned things actually were quite comfortably off and their reason, therefore,
for participating in this must have been different. After all, how many sets of trainers
does one actually need? It was interesting also to see
how many children were involved. Some of the rioters
were as young as 10, and one 12-year-old was charged with throwing bottles and petrol
bombs and other items at the police, and also with looting. But at least he looted
childhood things – in his case, he looted
bags of potato chips and chocolates, a refreshing sign
that conventional childhood tastes were still there
to assert themselves. Now, the Mayor of London obviously had to make some remark
about all this. He’s a rather colourful
and controversial figure called Boris Johnson, one of the few politicians
available to us with seriously disorganised hair. (LAUGHTER) Which therefore makes one
rather trust him, actually. (LAUGHTER) And this is what Boris Johnson said. He said, “The overwhelming majority,
of course, “came from lower
socioeconomic groups, “from the ranks of those who’ve been
left the furthest behind. “It’s been said of these young people
and they say it themselves “that the world holds nothing
for them, “that they have no jobs
and no future.” And then he went on to say, “In so far as that is true,
it’s something we can try to tackle, “but it’s just not true to say
that there are no jobs available. “The London service economy
is substantially dependent “on migrant labour,
much of it from Eastern Europe, “and employers confirm “that these migrants have skill sets
and a work ethic “that you cannot find
in many native-born Londoners. “Yes, these young people
HAVE been betrayed, “but they’ve been betrayed “by an educational system
and family background “that failed to give them discipline
or hope or ambition “or a simple ability
to tell right from wrong. “We still have,” he went on, “we still have one in four London
11-year-olds functionally illiterate. “No wonder they’re angry
and alienated.” Well, that’s Boris Johnson’s view. Is he right? Have we failed
these young people? And the answer, in my view,
is that we have. Yes, we’ve failed them
dramatically and deeply. These riots are due to our failure,
our fault. They’re our fault because we’ve
allowed a generation to develop that seems to lack
the fundamental requirements to live constructively in society. We’ve allowed the growth of a class
of virtually feral people, unsocialised, aimless and alienated. But it’s important to remember
one thing in saying this – it’s not their fault
that they are like that. They have been made that way
by the sort of society we’ve become. They are the consequence
of developments that were occurring
before most of them were born. What I’d like to say briefly
here today is to tease out the idea that there’s a profound sickness
in some contemporary cultures, especially in Britain, and that we need to do something
about it as soon as possible. We don’t really need
to talk about it anymore. We don’t need commissions of inquiry. We need immediate
and radical commitment. Is that a dangerous idea? Well, I suppose it is,
because it challenges many currently held
educational and cultural beliefs that have become a sort of creed, a set of beliefs that
we’re all expected to subscribe to and not to question. But it’s precisely those beliefs,
I think, that have got us where we are. Now, I’m fully aware of the fact that there are dangers
in this sort of discussion, and in particular I’m aware
of the issue of moral panic. Moral panics occur when
a relatively insignificant threat is blown up out of all proportion
to justify some extreme proposition about the remedy
or, indeed, about the cause. And obviously there’s a real danger
of moral panic over situations like this,
and that wouldn’t be helpful. But at the same time
I think we should be careful not to dismiss as moral panic real concern that people might have
over things going wrong. For example, concern over fascism
in the 1930s was NOT moral panic. It was well-placed
and appropriate concern, and, of course, the situation then
was fraught with danger which eventually materialised. So I think it would be a bad thing if people were prevented
from expressing concern by worries that they might be accused
of promoting moral panic. I think we’ve been far too complacent
about what’s been happening. We’ve been far too much in denial to see these developments
for what they are, and now we see these vivid
and destructive outbreaks of social disorder. I think what’s actually
operating there is a sort of optimism – we want things to go well, we want
the world to be a nice place, we want to believe
that even if there are problems, then they’re problems
that are not too serious or they’re problems that will
resolve themselves in time. And that sort of attitude, of course,
in another context, leads to denial of global warming. It also leads to the denial
of social threats. We decide that there are
certain things we just don’t want to talk about and we believe that by ignoring them,
the issue will go away. Every society, I think,
has that tendency in relation to some problems. Every society has issues like that. And the problem is
that we’ve laughed at and mocked people who talk of
the broken society. Well, here are the consequences. In acres of burnt-out shops
and homes, in the destruction
of people’s livelihoods, in the terrorising of
innocent members of the public, shame on us for
not facing up to the signs of social collapse
and disintegration, for not facing up to the fact that we’ve allowed
a whole lot of people to grow up without values
of any sort, for letting our society be consumed by a wave of violence, drunkenness, and, importantly, share
mind-numbing superficiality and false values, and materialism too
while one’s about it. My glasses have fallen off. Am I exaggerating the situation?
No, I’m not. Let’s take a look, very quickly, at the extent to which
British society… I’m concentrating on the position
in the UK at the moment. I’m aware of the fact, obviously,
that Australia’s very different and things are much better here, but one has to bear in mind that what happens in one place
can happen in another. These things are contagious and social movements and
social trends do tend to spread. But let’s take a look at the UK and ask ourselves what are the signs
of social decay in the UK today. A sophisticated survey
would be too complex. I’ll just rely on some instances
to paint the general picture, and here are some of the features
of the broken society. Let’s take a look at alcohol abuse. There was a recent report
on children’s drinking in London entitled ‘Too Much Too Young’, which was a very appropriate title. And this revealed
that in London alone, children between 11 and 15 –
that is, young teenagers – are drinking the equivalent
of 180,000 bottles of lager a week. That’s as a group,
not as individuals. (LAUGHTER) I’ve been very careful
to stress that. And over the previous four years, ambulance calls
relating to underage drinking had gone up by 27%. That’s a 27% rise in emergencies,
alcohol emergencies in that age group over four years. And then there are many other reports
which make similar points, and, of course, there are
frequent newspaper articles, you see them all the time,
on the problem of drunken youngsters. Primary school teachers –
primary school – they complain in the press about having to deal with
pre-teenagers – these are 9-year-olds, 10-year-olds – with serious hangovers. Now, surely you’d have to be
massively complacent to take the view that there’s
no problem with all of that. But it’s not just
juvenile alcohol abuse that’s causing social problems
on a large scale. There’s binge drinking, the habit of drinking vast quantities
of drink quite quickly so that one’s more or less paralytic, and that’s widespread
in the contemporary UK. You don’t need to go to
the statistics to see that, although there are plenty
of statistics to back that up. You can see it with your own eyes if you go into the centre
of any British city on a Friday or Saturday evening,
and often during the week too. Nobody’s saying that people shouldn’t
go out to bars and pubs at night, but the situation
is clearly out of hand. This is a quote
from an article on the subject published in
the ‘Wall Street Journal’ last year. The journalist is writing
about Cardiff in Wales and this is what he wrote. “Such raucous partying routinely
turns the weekend streetscape here “in the capital of Wales “into a scene from
‘Night of the Living Dead’. “Drunken young men and women
stumble through streets “fouled with trash and broken glass “while the police labour
to maintain order “and help those needing help.” That’s an outside observer talking about Friday night
and Saturday night in Cardiff. The problem’s as serious in Scotland
as it is in England. The devolved government in Scotland
is trying to do something about this. Their strategy is to try to increase
the alcohol price, but that is quite controversial. That was used in Scandinavia to quite good effect
at controlling alcohol abuse, but, of course, you get
a lot of opposition to that from vested interests in the drinks
industry and the licensed trade. Interestingly enough, as this absolute tidal wave
of drinking is getting going, or has been going
for some time in the UK, if you look at the figures for
countries like Germany and France, there was a recent OECD report saying that in fact alcohol consumption
was going down in those countries, so it’s not something
which is necessarily happening throughout Europe. It just seems to be
really seriously bad in the UK. Let’s take a look at another area where we’ll see there’s evidence
of something going wrong. I mentioned alcohol. What about a value
which is absolutely central for a healthy civic society? And that’s honesty. If you don’t have honesty,
then you get corruption, and if you get corruption
gaining ground in a society, you’re in really deep trouble. Look at the consequences
of corruption in sub-Saharan African countries where whatever efforts
they’ve made economically, they’ve had this terrible problem
of corruption. Look at Egypt,
where you had another example of people eventually rising up
against many decades of corruption. Look at Greece, where there was
staggering political dishonesty at the highest level and then widespread public dishonesty
in relation to declaring income tax, or income for tax purposes. All of this actually has
serious social consequences. Let’s take a look
at what’s happening in the UK as far as honesty is concerned. It’s not a particularly edifying
study, I’m afraid. In 2009, a university in London
carried out research involving 15,000 people, so this is a fairly serious study, not one in which you just ask
your 10 closest friends how honest they are. Though that sort of study
tends to reveal a very high level of honesty,
I’ve found. (LAUGHTER) But if you go out and get
15,000 people… Interestingly enough, they must have
been quite honest in their answers because they come out terribly
in the results, and you would have thought
dishonest people would have lied about how dishonest they were. I think we’re up against
the liar’s paradox, a favourite issue in philosophy,
there. This 2009, um… Actually, on the subject of these, very quickly an aside on the subject
of these surveys, some years ago I was writing a book
on the duty to rescue, good Samaritan issues and the ethical
implications of helping behaviour, and I looked at one of these studies
on good Samaritanism, on the extent to which people are
prepared to help other people. It was a study carried out
at an American university in a divinity school. They got the divinity students, who didn’t know
that they were being studied, and told them all to go back to their
dorms and apartments and whatnot and write a sermon on the subject
of the good Samaritan, on which they would be assessed. So the students,
the divinity students, all went off and they started writing
their sermon on the good Samaritan, and then the researchers telephoned
them from the divinity school and said, “Change of plan –
you’re on in 10 minutes. “Come quickly to the divinity school “for the sermon
on good Samaritanism.” So the students all had to rush
from various quarters to the divinity school, and then they had researchers
on their route lie down on the ground… (LAUGHTER) ..and pretend to be injured
and in need. (LAUGHTER) And I’m sorry to say an awful lot
of the divinity students… (LAUGHTER CONTINUES) ..rushed past them, ignored them, and some actually jumped over
the body. (LAUGHTER) So there we are. But this big study in 2009
of honesty in the UK, the results were really awful, and they disclosed
what the press called that we were “a nation of liars,
cheats and thieves. “We can no longer assume that
the average person is honest. “The average person is prepared to
steal, defraud insurance companies, “lie and deceive if he or she
can get away with it.” 13% admitted to stealing from shops, and that must have been
a much higher percentage that had actually done that, so 13% is just your starting point. I think one would probably
add to that. Now, this is a shocking,
shocking figure here. 58% thought it fine to
break broccoli stems off broccoli before weighing them
in the supermarket. (LAUGHTER) There you are,
you see how bad things are. -I mean, that really is…
-(LAUGHTER) Now, broccoli-related crime
may not… (LAUGHTER) ..may not seem all that serious, but insurance is pretty serious, and there were recent figures from
a major insurance provider in the UK which made really depressing reading. This particularly insurance company
announced that one in five
car insurance policies they’d sold over the last year have resulted
in fraud investigations. That’s 20%. 32% of all applicants lied about the length of time for which
they’d had their driving licence. And 47% lied about not having
past driving convictions. So the majority of people –
or almost the majority of people – lie through their teeth
to insurance companies. And then students cheat. There was a very interesting study
by a Professor McCabe, who’s spent a lot
of his professional time studying student cheating
in the United States. And he did a survey of
American high school students in 2001 and he discovered that 74% of them cheated regularly
in their examinations, so that’s a clear majority
of students cheat. So that’s alcohol abuse
and dishonesty, a pretty appalling picture. Let’s take a look at just one more which make up
this rather melancholy trilogy, and that’s violence. Obviously that’s a massive subject. One doesn’t want to get involved
in the arguments over statistics because the criminologists
and the statisticians argue about whether violent crime
is going up or down, but there are observations
or questions that one could ask. Did high schools used to have
metal detectors before you went into class? I don’t remember that. Did teachers of 20 years ago
complain to the same extent about assaults
they were subjected to? I mean, when I was young,
the teachers assaulted us. (LAUGHTER) It’s quite a change. Were doctors assaulted as frequently?
They weren’t. And there are, incidentally,
hard figures to prove the occupational risks
of being a doctor. There was an investigation by
the British medical journal ‘Pulse’ which recently showed a 19% increase
in assaults on surgery staff between 2008 and 2010, with many GPs reporting that they’ve faced attacks
involving knives, baseball bats and even sawn-off shotguns. These things are now routine, so routine that you don’t even
see them in the paper. Well, there we are.
Those are all the facts. Now, I think
in the remaining few minutes, I think I’d like to say something
about what we should do about that and what the causative factors are. I suppose one really needs to have
some view on the causative factors before one proposes a remedy. I think that what actually has arisen
is there’s a vacuum in values. We’ve lost sight
of certain central values. We’ve got lots of values which are,
in fact, trumpeted in society and very trumpeted
and enforced very well, but nonetheless I think
there are some respects in which we’ve lost sight
of the good. And the reason why we’ve lost sight
of the good and values that we might wish
to proclaim as the basis of our civilisation… We don’t like to use the word
‘civilisation’ but we have to have a civilisation. I think the reason
for our loss of those is that people haven’t
been taught them because they’ve been
to chaotic schools where those values
aren’t being taught because teachers
have stopped thinking it’s their job to engage in
character education. There’s been this debate
about character education, and many teachers have said,
“It’s nothing to do with us.” And so children aren’t being taught the difference between
right and wrong. Also, we’ve allowed
defective parenting to become endemic and, in many cases, the home lives
of children are so chaotic that they get no consistent example. And that raises the whole issue about whether we want to encourage
dual parenting – if at all possible,
having two parents in the home – or leaving it up to one parent, and it’s very much more difficult
in particular for women to keep teenage boys, in particular,
under control. But that’s something which
hasn’t been discussed widely because it’s been a sort of
forbidden subject in the UK for political
and ideological reasons. So I think there has been
this failure to communicate values, and why has that failure been there? And I think it’s been
because we’ve had… ..we’ve seen the emergence of an
entire culture of scorn and disdain for the private and public virtues
that make life in society possible. This has permeated our culture
to such an extent that instead of promoting
and celebrating the good, our cultural artefacts, our films,
television, computer games and so on are devoted to the celebration
of violence, destruction, cynicism, greed and every shallow
value that you would care to mention. Now, obviously there’s a marketplace
in culture and one can’t have censorship. We’ve got to rely on social consensus
to try and turn things round, and I think that public broadcasters
in particular need to ask themselves
certain questions – whether it’s their role to entertain, or to hold up a mirror
to a dysfunctional society, or whether they should
concern themselves with educating people, giving people something to aspire to, to open their eyes to the possibility
of art and higher things. And, very specifically,
public broadcasters should ask themselves
what they can do to help people realise
the possibilities of language, to help people to understand
the advantages of talking in complete sentences… (LAUGHTER) ..and therefore to express
a range of emotions and judgements, to have a richer, more nuanced
inner life. They should be required
to stop spending money on trashy reality television, as the BBC now does, in favour of morally,
more intellectually elevating public service broadcasting. More people should stand up
and condemn the coarsening of our relations
with one another. The bad and inconsiderate behaviour
you see every single day if you travel on public transport. The casual dropping of litter, the
aggressive behaviour on the roads. They used to say that,
people used to comment on that, they won’t now. So I think really we need
a fundamental questioning of the role of the media in portraying what we regard as the
essential values of our civilisation. To conclude, I hope that you don’t think
that I’m not optimistic. I do think that we’ve made
tremendous moral progress, and one can come up with all sorts
of examples of that moral progress. But I do think
that we’ve become accustomed to a sort of default position in the portrayal of our society
to ourselves and the way in which it’s portrayed in literature, films, television
and indeed in the plastic arts as one in which there’s
extreme moral and social pathology in which we portray ourselves
as treating one another aggressively and without concern. And we portray so much violence – violence is now the prerequisite
of a successful film, it would seem. I think that that’s something
which is fundamentally wrong, because it doesn’t reflect the way we actually want
to deal with one another, which is affirmative. We want to love one another, we want to deal with one another
with respect, but that’s not the picture
that is being presented, and that leads to this vacuum
in values, this loss of values, and that leads to
the social dysfunction which, unfortunately,
we’ve recently seen. Something CAN be done about it. I think these things
can be addressed, but before we address it we really need to know
what we want to do about it and what are the values
that we should try and profess. And I think at that point,
if I may, Mark, I’ll stop and we can go on to the next stage
of the meeting. Thanks very much indeed. Thank you. There’s an article
in today’s ‘Observer’ in London where they’ve managed to interview a former member
of the Bullingdon Club… Oh, yes. ..to which David Cameron,
the Prime Minister, George Osborne,
the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Boris Johnson, who you were
mentioning, the Mayor of London, all belonged. And this chap gives an account
of the Bullingdon Club at the time when they were there, and it’s an account
of paralytic drunkenness… Yes. (LAUGHS) -..cocaine use…
-Yes. ..and frequent smashing-up
of restaurants, including one Michelin-starred
restaurant. And they used to smash up restaurants
and then at the end say, “It’s alright,
we’ll pay for the damage,” and write a cheque. ALEXANDER: Yes. What hope is there for the kind
of improvements that you want when these people, unpunished, go on to become the government? Yes, well, I think,
to be fair to them, they’re no longer… ..David Cameron and Boris Johnson are
no longer smashing up restaurants… -That we know of.
-(LAUGHTER) One can imagine scenes
in the House of Commons dining room. But no, I think that’s
an extremely fair point and a number of people
have made that, because I think I would say yes, that’s very, very bad behaviour. And you can come up with many
other instances of bad behaviour – bad behaviour of politicians
in their expenses claims and the length and depth and breadth
of the dishonesty of the MPs in their claims. -It’s staggering.
-Well, the news came here. -We know about the duck house.
-The duck house. -And the moat.
-The moat. -The moat cleaning.
-I never saw a picture of the moat. But it raises a wonderful picture of politicians with moats
and duck houses. I don’t know whether you have
a similar issue in Australia. I can’t think of any politician
in this country with a duck house or a moat, can you? (LAUGHTER) You can’t see them with us today. But I think…I think these issues, that sort of, um… Are you looking for politicians or… -No, no, no!
-(LAUGHTER) I’m listening to you,
but I was just trying to work out where the microphones are. It’s hard to see from here, isn’t it? Yeah, well, as I was saying, I think
that sort of behaviour occurs at every level of society, and the bankers were other examples
of absolutely unfettered greed. -And again largely unpunished.
-And largely unpunished. Well, in fact, not largely
unpunished, rewarded, rewarded. They continue to give themselves
million-pound bonuses in spite of that. So yes, it applies at every level. Right, well, I’m not quite sure
what I’m pointing at, but somebody from over here. MAN: It’s me. What do you think is the value of corporations coming into this
argument, apart from the banks, and their responsibility, in that they’re invading every part
of most people’s lives these days? Yes, thanks for that question.
I think that’s very important. I think that there have been
rather interesting developments in the notions of
corporate social responsibility in that I think
corporations now seem to be aware of the social responsibility issues, but, yes, corporations behave badly. They behave with selfishness, with… They’re capable of behaving
with scant concern for environmental concerns and for all the social values that
one would want to have recognised. I think all that I would say
about that is that we should press corporations to face up to
their social responsibilities and to be accountable. There have been
some interesting developments in a number of systems there about
criminal liability of corporations. There’s been a bit of progress
in holding them accountable so people can’t just shelter
behind a board of directors, but, again, that has to be addressed. The Supreme Court
in the United States ruled that corporations are people for the purposes of donating money
to political parties, so perhaps they could be people
in terms of criminal courts as well. How about over there? WOMAN: Good afternoon. May I ask, if you were the minister
of education, what changes would you make
to education now? Because several times
you mentioned a balance between family values
and the responsibilities of teachers in educating young people. So what changes would you make if
you were the minister of education? I don’t know what the position is
in Australia. I don’t know what the situation
in your schools is. I wouldn’t purport
to pronounce about that, but if you ask me what my view was of education and issues
in British schools, I’d say I would very much support what the education authorities there
are trying to do at the moment, which is to restore
an academic atmosphere and a culture of academic…
I suppose, effort to schools. So they’re creating
a whole series of schools which they’re calling academies where they’re trying to undo
the damage that has been done when those values,
the academic ethic, has been pushed out of schools, try to reassert the authority
of teachers in particular. I know these are very general things but one can particularise them
in particular situations, but try to restore
respect for teachers and the authority of teachers. Again, we’re seeing some movement in
that direction in the United Kingdom where street-wise kids currently can
completely compromise a teacher and have a teacher suspended
at the drop of a hat. That’s got to change,
and I think people recognise that, and then ask questions
about what is going wrong where we’re spending this vast amount
of money on education and the kids at 16 are leaving school
unable to add or to write. So I think, really,
if I were minister of education I would just give as much political
and financial support as I could to teachers to try to restore their position and to try to deal with some of
these obvious bizarre difficulties that they’ve been facing. MARK: Thank you. Up there? I don’t… Is there anybody
waiting up in the… MAN: My name’s Lindsey Kelley. Earlier this year, we saw societies
in several Middle Eastern countries uprise against their leaders. I’m interested to understand if
that’s evidence of broken societies. If not, could that be
the first chapter of society starting to break down
in those countries? That’s a really interesting point. I think that’s evidence of societies which actually had been broken
from above, in which civic society
had been suppressed where people weren’t able
to participate in any of the decisions
relating to their lives. And that’s an example
of popular uprising. So those riots, where you’ve got
a political agenda behind them, are examples of people wanting
to construct civic society. I think that’s quite different. Obviously, you get,
as an adjunct to that sort of thing, you’ll get the odd bit of looting,
and revolutions can go wrong. But nonetheless, I think that
that represents a wonderfully heartening
popular reaction to oppression and reaction to the failure
to develop civic societies in those countries. WOMAN: I was wondering if you could
say something about trust, which I think
is a very important value. I come from Scandinavia and we tend to trust each other
more than other places, I think. Yes. I go to Scandinavia, to
Scandinavian countries quite often. My books are translated into
the various Scandinavian languages and I do quite a lot of events there. I’m tremendously impressed
with Scandinavian societies and the extent to which countries
such as Sweden or Denmark – in fact, one could say this about
all those Scandinavian countries – seem to have a very clear conception
of what their civilisation is. And they treat one another
with decency and respect and I’m interested
to hear you saying trust as well. I don’t know what I can add…
add to that. They are, of course, socially
cohesive societies by and large, although some of them
are being tested because the nature of the society
is changing there, becoming a bit more pluralistic, and therefore some of
the previous social cohesion is perhaps being eroded a bit. But generally speaking, there are very close social bonds
between people. I think that what we need to do
in society is to have a whole lot
of social understandings. You can’t really legislate
to change people, but you can have a whole lot
of social understandings which make for a cohesive,
civilised society. And the difficulty in Britain is that a lot of those have
suddenly evaporated and therefore the notion
of consensual policing, which, of course, requires that sort
of attitude of trust on occasion, is being sorely tested. We need to get back to the idea… It comes back to the idea
of civilisation. It comes back to the idea of saying,
“What sort of society are we? “How can we encourage people to
respect and bond with one another?” And you obviously have to do that
through, I suppose, a sort of massive program
of encouragement of civic society. Interestingly enough, in Botswana,
which is a very ordered and really, mind you,
a very good society generally, they have a concept of good behaviour
which they call botho, which is a set of values, and the government
every so often reminds the people these are the principles
that you should actually respect and embody in your daily life. There’s a scene
in the Anthony Minghella film of ‘The No. 1 Ladies’
Detective Agency’, it’s a very moving scene
where the teacher who’s lost his son, his son has been kidnapped
and his son is restored to him. It’s a lovely scene, but at the beginning
he has an outdoor class with these little children
being taught these values. And that’s what actually happens
in Botswana schools. “I must respect other people, “I must try to help other people,”
et cetera. And they’re all reciting it
in a rote fashion, which I think is quite interesting. But you know you were talking
about Scandinavia, and it’s essentially been
a unicultural society – a lot of those countries
have been for a very long time – and relatively recent waves
of migration. Britain has had very, very high
waves, large amount of migration. -Australia has too.
-Yes. But I see very clear differences
between the two things. What has Britain done wrong? You’ve been here enough to know
a little bit about what Australia… I’m not suggesting
that this is a utopia, that we’ve done everything right, but there are differences,
as I say. Oh, heavens. Uh… It is a festival of dangerous ideas. -It’s dangerous ideas, yeah.
-(LAUGHTER) I mean, my personal view on that is that one should try
to achieve integration, but then you don’t want to be
heavy-handed about that and you don’t want to say to people, “Well, you can’t have
your own personal values.” And so it’s a very delicate balance. Generally speaking, my impression is that the authorities in Britain
are doing their level best to pursue this model of integration and encouraging people
to participate and share. But of course, inevitably,
there are extreme social tensions when you have people
of difference views, and in particular I think
one of the issues that is faced are religious differences, which are very difficult
to deal with. I think that
a number of countries in Europe are facing exactly the same problem. The Netherlands is another country,
and France is facing that problem. I think we’ve just
got to keep our nerve and try to say that there are
certain civilised values of the way in which people
will treat one another and those must always be respected
and not tolerated. The writer Ian Buruma has written
a lot about the Netherlands and one of the things that he says
is that a big mistake of the Dutch was to let people go into
sort of silos, if you’d like, to let people arrive and not make
any effort to integrate them, if that’s the word,
into the community, and didn’t really take care of them
either, so they tended to band together
in very small communities. I think that’s happened a bit
in Britain too, hasn’t it? It has, yes. Yes, I’m sure that
that has happened. That’s not the official attitude, but I’m sure that that has happened
and I’m sure that doesn’t help. I mustn’t monopolise you.
Over there again. BOY: Do you think social decay
is a result of too much freedom? ALEXANDER: Um… (LAUGHTER) (APPLAUSE) I think the applause was for you,
not for me… (LAUGHTER) ..because I hadn’t quite
gotten around to answering that. Um…yes and no. -How about that for an answer?
-(LAUGHTER) I believe in free society. I think we must, obviously,
have freedom. Freedom is exhilarating,
it’s creative, et cetera. But I think that when freedom becomes an attitude of indifference to
or, indeed, hostility to the overall social good
and the rights of others, then I think that one’s
in dangerous territory. So I think one wants
the maximum amount of freedom as is consistent
with life in a society. Now, that’s a very, very broad answer but you asked a very broad question. (LAUGHTER) MARK: Over here. MAN: Yes, I’d just like to suggest possibly when you’re talking about
alcohol and violence and so on, you’re actually talking about
symptoms of a broken society rather than the causes, because what I’ve seen in my lifetime is changes that might well lead
to those symptoms. I’d like to suggest a few, such as self-reliance and
being deprecated as a value and the growth of the nanny state
which is looking after us. The idea that somehow one wishes
to become a victim because that gains
one moral authority, and I’ve seen a lot of that
over the last 20 or 30 years. And identity politics,
where people identify as a group, such as women or migrants
or Aborigines in Australia, rather than as members
of an overall society. And these three movements,
and the last one in particular, is related to political correctness
where you cannot criticise… ..in America you can’t criticise
the president because you get accused of racism. Um, and actually, one comment
on the last question is that freedom and licence
are not the same thing, that licence is our problem,
not freedom. Yes. Yes, I think I agree with you about the distinction between
freedom and licence. One of the things you said that was
very interesting at the beginning when you talked about the abandonment of stressing self-reliance
and responsibility, I think that
that is absolutely correct, that probably what
what one sees there is that’s a concomitant
of a materially… ..I suppose a materially
very comfortable society, that the state gives you everything, that people have everything
in material terms. And the idea that you would
improve yourself, that you would make an effort
to improve yourself and be self-reliant in doing so
has been somewhat discredited. And I completely agree with you
in that respect. I mean, we are talking here about… When we’re talking about these people who displayed their attitudes
so vividly in those UK riots, those are people actually really who had none of those values
instilled in them, who probably wouldn’t have been
taught about the value of hard work as a way of achieving of a goal or self-respect as being
a necessary value. And it’s not their fault –
I don’t say that it’s their fault because they’re actually
really the product of a society which allowed that. But yes, I’d go along with the… I wouldn’t necessarily go along
with everything that you said but certainly your earlier comment
there I think is interesting. The blame culture’s interesting. The victim approach that we’re all
victims, that people are victims, I think that that… Obviously there are some people
who are genuinely victims and I think it’s part of
our moral progress that we’ve made that we are now sensitive
to what they’ve suffered. I think that that really is a terrific bit of progress
that we’ve made. So for example, we used to…
I remember… This is a simple little example. I remember when I was a boy at school
how cruel nicknames were. People had nicknames and we insulted
people left, right and centre. This was standard practice. We’ve now become much more aware
of the feelings of other people and we’ve become much more aware
as a society of people’s feelings
of hurt and exclusion. And sometimes that hurt
is historical hurt, and I think it’s very healthy
that we’re addressing that, but then I think you have to be
very careful, obviously, to keep it under control. In all of these issues
it’s a question of balance and we don’t want to encourage people to say that they’ve been victimised
too much because then that becomes
a shelter for them and they then don’t realise that they
must do something to help themselves. All of us experience that
in our lives. We can all find wrongs
that have happened to all of us, some little wrong
somewhere along the line, and I don’t think it’s healthy
to dwell on that too much. MARK: Is there someone up there? WOMAN: Yes. I’d just like to make
a two-pronged comment. Firstly, as a teacher who teaches
in a very disenfranchised community, I get quite frustrated with the blame
that ends up on us that we don’t teach values, and I’d just like to point out,
which you yourself have pointed out, that as a teacher
and for a lot of educators our power is taken away of not only
how we discipline our students but what we teach. Remember that
what we teach our students is mandated by the government
and by external bodies. And I’m quite often frustrated that I can’t teach my students
what they really need to know to help them become good human beings and to enter a society
as responsible people. And I think that when we need
to actually place blame, it’s the government that we need
to face and direct our anger at in those terms. But in terms of a broken society, something that I’ve personally been
thinking about quite recently, and I would hazard a guess that Australia isn’t too far off
where UK is, and we need to look at that as we are very egotistical
in today’s society and we’ve lost a sense of community
and we’ve lost a sense of family. If we look at African nations,
as you say, they have a very strong sense
of community and a very strong sense of family. We think of others,
not solely ourselves. -Yeah.
-(APPLAUSE) I’d just like to add my applause
to what you’ve said as well. I thoroughly agree
with everything you said. Please don’t get me wrong –
I really don’t blame teachers. I really blame the position
teachers are being put in. I’ll give you just one quick example of how bad things have got
in some places in the UK. There was a case recently in I think it was Wales
or western England somewhere, where a primary school teacher,
kindergarten effectively, a 6-year-old boy was creating
in the playground and wouldn’t come back in to the
classroom at the end of playtime. And she went out and tried to get him
to come back in and he wouldn’t, so she lifted him up and carried him back into
the classroom and put him down, which is an entirely
reasonable thing to do. And she was suspended
for touching the child. And that’s the sort of thing
that one’s… An absolute rule…
The education authority… It was a case of a heavy-handed
approach saying to teachers under no circumstances touch a child. So they can’t comfort a child. If a child is crying, you can’t
put your arm around the child. One of the questioners earlier on
mentioned political correctness. Talk about political correctness
going absolutely mad with that. MARK: Up the top again. MAN: Yes. Thank you
for your wonderful talk. I’d like to ask, do you think a symptom
of society is broken is that society rewards
its entertainers, sports stars, rock stars more than it rewards its leaders? -(LAUGHS)
-(APPLAUSE) Yeah. Well, yes, I think yes,
we probably do. I mean, the barriers are never
in the right place. I suppose we do pay these so-called
celebrities far too much money. The difficulty is if they’re
earning it in a free market system, I suppose that reflects badly
on the free market system. But I don’t think footballers
should get more than authors… (LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE) -MARK: Or broadcasters.
-Or broadcasters. Or teachers. I mean, I’d say teachers would certainly deserve
more than footballers. -They…
-(APPLAUSE) MARK: of course
once upon a time they did. Yes, they did, yes. Because the footballers were
virtually paid nothing, but then the clubs got rich
on the takings from… That’s right. In some ways
it seems more equitable that the footballers
are actually getting a reasonable slice of the take
on the gate. Mark, I think that we mustn’t…
we mustn’t be unkind to footballers. (LAUGHTER) Well, there’s something called
the Glasgow kiss. -Yeah, I know.
-Don’t get too close to them. They’ve got ways of pushing us over.
I think we’d better be… It’s not the Edinburgh kiss
for some reason. Well, Edinburgh and Glasgow
are very different in that respect. They don’t go in for
what’s called head-banging to quite the same extent. Not to say it doesn’t happen
in Edinburgh, but it doesn’t happen
on first introduction. (LAUGHTER) -I didn’t say that.
-No, no, no, no. -It’s just between you and me.
-Yes. We’ve got time for a couple more,
starting over there. MAN: Hello. History is full of examples
of brilliant fiction that’s also extremely violent, from ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Othello’ to ‘A Clockwork Orange’
and ‘Straw Dogs’. Do you really believe
that fictionalised violence is such a new and terrifying problem? No, I don’t. I think obviously we need a certain
amount of violence to keep us going. If everything was sweetness and light
it would be pretty dull, and I think we need a diet which has
a certain amount of violence in it for a whole lot of reasons, because it actually informs us
about violence. Also, we do need a bit of excitement
in our otherwise dull lives. But what I’m saying is that we don’t
need just that and that exclusively. And I think we also,
in bringing it in… And it’s not so much
in the written word. The written word actually,
I think, really has less impact. It’s in the moving image
that the issue is. And I think that we need to be aware
of the fact that we’re desensitising ourselves
to violence. We’re not really seeing it for
what it is and we’re requiring it… You go to most films, many films
these days on general release, a lot of adrenaline gets going, there’s lots of violence,
pyrotechnics straightaway, and I think that that is bad. That indicates that we’ve got
a different attitude. We’re not sickened by it,
and that, I think, is really serious. We’re not sickened by it. I don’t know if you’ve ever had
the experience of going to a cinema and seeing some horrible act
on the screen, some horrible act of violence
on another person, and the audience laughs. That I find absolutely chilling. MARK: It reminds me of
that old Charles Addams cartoon where that little, um… ..strange-looking little man
that he used to draw is sitting, laughing his head off. The view is from the screen and you’ve got an entire audience
of people weeping or screaming and he’s just laughing his head off. It seems to be the entire audience
is now laughing its head off. One more. We’re just a bit running over so we’ll have one more
and that’s it, I’m afraid. MAN: You made a point
about education before and the importance of education in solving a lot of the problems
such as alcohol abuse on children. But I think…
I don’t think you really sort of… I didn’t really pick up
sort of any specific policy. You said we need to give them
more funding, but I don’t really see
what we should be funding. I mean, I know that the situation
might be different in the UK, but just coming out of school here, personally I went through
an alcohol… ..there was a lot
of education programs. Yet the problem of alcohol abuse
in young people is still rampant even in Australia and I see it on a daily basis. ALEXANDER: Yeah. I just don’t think that saying
giving funding is the answer. I’d just like to know a bit more
of a specific policy direction that you’d like to take
in order to fix the problem because I don’t really see
where that just… Thanks for that question. You raised very, very
interesting points there. I don’t think that alcohol education
is actually really going to do much. It’ll do something, but its role is
comparatively slight, I suspect. What we actually have to do
is we have to raise the price, because there’s a lot of evidence that as you put the price up,
consumption goes down. You can see the graphs,
just direct connection. You can change the marketing. What’s happening in the UK, and I don’t know whether
it’s happening here in Australia, is these sort of alcopops. Alcohol is being dressed up so that people don’t realise
that they’re drinking… ..well, they know
they’re drinking vodka but it’s done as a sort of
cool drink, as a sweet drink. Marketing… The insidious effect of these cheap marketing ploys
that are used – buy three cans of lager,
get three free, that sort of thing. We’ve got to do that. Also, I think we should revisit
licensing hours. I don’t know
what your situation is here. There’s a live debate
about that here. Is there? Right. What happened in Scotland, I remember the pubs
used to close at 10 and then there was
a 15-minutes drinking-up time. But that was it. Now they’re open, you know,
all hours. And the idea was
that we would introduce a continental drinking culture
by doing that and that we’d all become like
the French and sit around in bistros. (LAUGHTER) And surprise, surprise, we didn’t. (LAUGHTER) Well, that’s all we’ve got time for,
unfortunately. I could personally go on
having this conversation for another hour or two probably. It is a festival of dangerous ideas. I’m not sure that we’ve been
entirely dangerous today, but somebody suggested to me
on Twitter this morning that it might turn into a festival
of cosy ideas if Alexander was here. I don’t think that’s happened myself. Will you please
all put your hands together and thank Alexander McCall Smith? Thank you, Mark. Thanks very much. Thank you.

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