Saturday, 8 September 2012

The little caesars of the welfare state

The late Sir Rhodes Boyson openly admitted that during his time as headmaster he dealt with misbehaviour in the following ways. With a boy who had climbed onto a roof: “I climbed the drainpipe, collected the boy and we came down the drainpipe together. I held him by various parts of his anatomy, thumping and kicking him all the way down.” With a group of girls smoking in the bogs: “I instructed my caretaking staff to obtain lengths of fire hose and connect these to the water hydrants.” And then hosed them down. These stories are repeated in his Telegraph obituary.

As they say, you don't need to be a Freudian to think something odd was going on there. Boyson was, in his prime, a representative type: a mid-ranking functionary of the welfare state. Short back and sides, clean collar and ties, polished shoes. People of little humour or small talk. Total belief that their own correctness and in 'the rules'. They expected the children, patient or tenants they oversaw to know their place.

These people were reliable servants of collectivism and sincere believers in public service. Boyson began his political career as a Labour Councillor and was head of a comprehensive. (His father was Christian Socialist.) But it's not hard to see how some public servants became supporters of Thatcherism, especially the appeal to restore social discipline in face of open challenge to their authority. Phil has suggested that the left in Britain believes in a 'myth of neo-liberalism' - we were all happy collectivists until an elite group of monetarists took over and ruined it. This is why the current nostalgia for the post-1945 period, extending even to calls to bring back factory work, is myopic. Both the left and the right currently conspire to not understand what all the unrest in the 1970s was actually about. 
In Jack Rosenthal’s drama about prospective London cab drivers trying to pass 'the Knowledge', Nigel Hawthorne plays a terrifying examiner, Mr Burgess. It is a perfect distillation of this social type and made me think of Martin in Brimstone and Treacle. Or perhaps he is a public sector cousin of Basil Fawlty. 20 years later a BBC documentary about 'the Knowledge' focused partly on the creepy Mr Ormes, who clearly enjoys toying with the pupils. The class hierarchies are very starkly drawn in the both the drama and the documentary. The little Caesar types were still going strong in the Public Carriage Office and perhaps elsewhere too.