Diary

Barbara Wootton

It would, I think, be generally agreed that in this country the generation now in its eighties or above must have seen more change in industrial processes and consequently in lifestyles than any of its predecessors at similar ages. This diary records the casual observations of one individual concerning public reactions to some of these changes which have impressed me personally, particularly in their effect upon the unwritten codes which govern the things that may be said, the questions that may be asked, and the language which may be used in the ordinary social intercourse of ‘respectable’ people.

In this context, as might be expected, most controversy is aroused by attitudes and conventions relating to sex or money. For some years past Parliament has been busy paving and cheapening the road to divorce, with the result that it is no longer identified with the road to hell, or even to disgrace. Gone are the days when Princess Margaret was denied the right to marry the husband of her choice, merely because he was ‘a divorced man’, thanks to the breakdown of a previous marriage which had nothing to do with her. Today the Princess undertakes her share of royal functions with all her customary confidence and elegance, notwithstanding the fact that her subsequent marriage to someone other than her original choice itself ended in divorce. Inevitably, cheaper and easier divorce has been followed by a dramatic increase in the rate at which marriages in this country are dissolved. After a long slow rise spread over many years, the annual total of divorces granted in the United Kingdom rose in the 20 years 1961 to 1980 from 27,000 to 150,000; and, what is perhaps even more striking, in England and Wales the proportion of these divorces in which one or both partners had been previously divorced rose from 9.3 per cent to 17.1 per cent.

Marriage, in fact, has lost its claim to permanence. Nor is that the only catastrophe that has befallen this august institution. It has also lost its prestige, inasmuch as there are many who now openly regard it as an unnecessary restriction upon their freedom. Their preference is for informal sexual partnerships, sometimes maintained for long periods, sometimes subject to frequent changes of partner. Although in the nature of the case, the number of such unions cannot be precisely calculated, no one will probably question that this number is considerable, or that it has much increased in recent years, or that examples are distributed throughout the social hierarchy.

Recently I talked with an elderly widow, Conservative in politics and a pillar of the Church, loved and respected as virtually the uncrowned queen of the village in which she has lived most of her life. From her I learned that, while serving early tea to a temporary invasion of her home by children and grandchildren, she had been ‘somewhat surprised’ to find a man in her granddaughter’s bed. Is not that event identified as a sign of the times by two factors: that Grandma, not any of her older children, distributed the tea, and that her only reaction was mild surprise?

Certainly there are signs that we are at least beginning to adjust our vocabulary to this strange new world, not only in relation to such incidents, but also by upgrading particular words not previously admissible in ‘polite society’. The word ‘bloody’ has been the outstanding pioneer. Having extracted itself from its origin in a sacrilegious oath in the name of the Virgin Mary, it has become merely a reinforcement of whatever words it immediately precedes. Indeed it sometimes gets so firmly linked to particular nouns or phrases that they almost cease to appear, unless in its company. Thus a ‘nuisance’ becomes a ‘bloody nuisance’; and how many youngsters have not heard that they must ‘bloody well do what they are told’?

Well, some words get promoted: others (perhaps fortunately) don’t. But there is one word altogether missing, which the contemporary world badly needs – namely, a recognised and inoffensive term for the relationship to one another of the members of an extramarital union, equivalent to the word ‘spouse’ as applied to either partner in a married couple. In some quarters ‘live-in boyfriend’ is said to be a popular candidate to fill this vacancy. But surety we can do better than that! Ought not the English-Speaking Union or some other learned society to arrange a competition?

On the whole, the changes in matters small and great, attributable to the so-called permissive society, seem to have been well-received. Wretched marriages are ended without disgrace to anybody. Formal dinners give way to simple and often more enjoyable gatherings for food and entertainment, by which dinner-jackets and evening-dresses are now imprisoned in their wardrobes. And we have even learned to address one another by our Christian names within a few minutes of our first meeting. If you look for reactions hostile to this informality and disregard of old taboos, you will find them – in the Mary Whitehouse coterie, in sermons, in synods and in occasional public meetings, usually without much public presence. But why does this opposition to current trends appear to be devoid of any aggressive spirit? Why do its members not emulate the tactics of Labour leaders and trade unions in defence of their traditional rights and current demands? What sermon can match a programme of marches, Trafalgar Square speeches, vast newspaper advertisements and repeated TV appearances?

We all know that the Great British Public will not bestir itself in any cause by which it is not deeply moved. We also know that the public, either from ignorance or from dislike, has hitherto shown little concern about the far-reaching social changes of recent years. But nobody knows quite how or why these changes in our habitual attitudes, and in our unwritten codes and taboos, have come about. Shall we one day wake up to the significance of what is happening with cries of either ‘Stop’ or ‘Go’ – and, if so, which?

The invention of money, along with the invention of the wheel, must surely rank as one of the most significant steps on mankind’s long trek from a simple animal existence to the great variety of human culture patterns scattered across the world. The great merit of money is that it provides a common standard by which to evaluate anything from a horse to a wedding-dress, and so makes possible an exchange of practically everything for practically anything else without your having to find someone who can offer you what you want, and himself wants just what you would offer in exchange. The retiring professional motorcyclist, for example, can find plenty of young men eager to inherit his bike, but how many of them can produce a comfortable armchair instead?

The convenience of money is obvious. The immensely complex system by which money gets into circulation in this country is controlled by government in consultation with the banks: but there are still fierce controversies about how much money ought to be put into circulation and where it should go. One school holds that if there is plenty of money about, it will open up new jobs and so provide work for the unemployed. The rival school fears that lavish spending by the public would encourage anyone with goods to sell to raise his prices and so cause further inflation. All that can be said here is that the management of wheels is better understood than is the management of the monetary system. The course which a wheel will follow can generally be predicted by those who are familiar with the force which starts and maintains its movement, and are not unacquainted with the features of the terrain over which it must pass. But in the control of the monetary system there is no equivalent to the confidence with which anyone who gives his wheel a good push to the right anticipates that he has defeated the risk of its falling into a hole immediately in front of its starting-point. However, since any further developments in either the aims or the methods of monetary management necessarily involve healed controversy and complex technical argument, it would be unprofitable to pursue the subject further. Instead we should examine the more familiar problems and unwritten codes relating to money as received, spent or saved by you and me.

Here we do encounter one long-standing taboo which shows little sign of weakening. That is the assumption that everyone’s personal income is in principle a strictly private matter into which only the taxman may pry. Even this principle has, however, never been universally honoured, either at home or abroad. In Britain the salaries of civil servants and certain other public employees are regularly published in standard reference books, while research into company reports and sundry financial publications enables the press periodically to go to town with records of the income derived by such public figures as the directors of many public companies – for whose employees these findings must make interesting reading. Meanwhile the Swedes have adopted an ingenious pseudo-privacy system under which information supplied by a taxpayer to the taxman ranks as a secret document. Nevertheless, any citizen may ask his local tax office to get him a copy of the relevant section of the register on which this information is recorded. In Britain, where the privacy belt is holding well, I have heard it said that the present state of the contrast between our sexual revolution and the absence of any monetary equivalent might be reflected in a general consensus that it would be considered less offensive to ask someone with whom you were not on intimate terms whether he is involved in any sexual relationship, and, if so, with whom, than to put a direct question to him about the size of his income. That might conceivably be true now, though in practice even the first question would be dubious.

The foregoing is not, however, quite the whole story about attitudes to money. In one respect, namely attitudes to debt, the present century has seen a remarkable change. Although, since the first industrial revolution, business enterprises must have habitually been financed on borrowed money, it has never been respectable to run up personal debts. But today a bank overdraft rather than an account in credit seems to be the norm for middle-class people. I remember, when I was ten years old, the horrific impact upon my recently widowed mother when a friend suggested that if she was contemplating financial difficulties, her bank manager would doubtless oblige with an overdraft. Today not only have the bank balances of the respectable changed colour, but our pockets and handbags are also stuffed with credit cards. Moreover, the multiplication of mortgages resulting from the post-war growth of home ownership has greatly popularised a form of indebtedness which carries no stigma. Indeed so firmly have we accepted our self-image as a society of debtors that any increase in current interest rates is regularly greeted by the media as inherently deplorable, and one may look in vain for even a bare mention of the consequential increases payable to depositors in building societies or banks.

Finally, of all the changes in our attitudes to money, the most significant is the universal acceptance of the fact that a unit of money can no longer be expected to retain its value in terms of purchasing power. Thanks to continued inflation, respect for money cannot but be tarnished now that government actually presents its expenditure programmes under the two heads of ‘nominal’ and ‘real’ costs. Why not abolish the nominal and give the real the honour of a recognised title and status?