What are we to do about our ever-growing population of unemployed, sexually promiscuous, drug-addicted, alcohol-sodden benefit cheats? Britain’s toxic underclass is the special subject of Theodore Dalrymple, author of Spoilt Rotten and one of our most celebrated essayists. A great many academics and intellectuals have applied themselves to this problem, but he is unique in two respects.
First of all, Theodore Dalrymple is the pseudonym of Dr Anthony Daniels, a retired NHS psychiatrist who spent the final part of his career working in a Birmingham prison. As such, he knows whereof he speaks. Indeed, I can’t think of any other “expert” on the lumpenproletariat who has such an intimate knowledge of his subject.
Second, he is a conservative. By that I don’t mean a card-carrying member of the Tory Party. Rather, he is a right-wing intellectual in the same tradition as Edmund Burke, Michael Oakshott and Roger Scruton. Few other writers are as disdainful of politically correct pieties about Britain’s welfare dependents, possibly because few other writers have met so many of them. He is the polar opposite of Polly Toynbee -- or, rather, the sort of writer Toynbee might become after spending five years in Holloway prison.
At the heart of Dalrymple’s work is a paradox. On the one hand, he is a passionate believer in personal responsibility, arguing that the failings of Britain’s underclass are, in large part, due to their low moral character. For instance, on the subject of alcoholism he writes: “Drinking is always a choice and never merely an automatic and ineluctable consequence of a state of addiction.”
Yet he also lays the blame at the door of the liberal intelligentsia. At least one third of Spoilt Rotten deals with the shortcomings of state schools, attacking progressive educationalists for downgrading the importance of literacy and numeracy. The consequence of this, he claims, is that large sections of the population can neither read nor add up, something he knows from having worked in one of Britain’s poorest areas. When he asked his patients whether they were any good at arithmetic, half of them replied ‘What’s arithmetic?’
How can both of these things be true? Dalrymple devotes a whole chapter in Spoilt Rotten to debunking the notion of victimhood, ridiculing the idea that drug addicts are the “victims” of poverty or parental neglect. But at the same time he maintains that the ignorance and brutality of the lumpenproletariat is a direct consequence of the welfare state -- that they are its “victims”.
The solution to this paradox, according to the author, lies in the cult of sentimentality. This is the belief that it is always better to act on impulse than exercise self-restraint, that emotion should always hold sway over reason. This cult, which Dalrymple traces back to Romanticism and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in particular, has filtered down to the very bottom of our society with predictably disastrous results.
Take William Blake’s credo that it is better to murder an infant in the cradle than to allow him or her to nurse an unacted desire. In Dalrymple’s eyes, this has led to a generation of children being wantonly over-indulged and robbed of the ability to delay gratification, an essential life skill. In the absence of any self-discipline they are condemned to a life of under-achievement, both personally and professionally. “It comes as a genuine shock to parents of children to whom nothing has been denied that they should turn out selfish, demanding and intolerant of the slightest frustration,” he writes.
There is a great deal more in this vein, with the author pouring buckets of vitriol into what he calls “the great swamp of sentimental sludge and slime”. That suggests that the good doctor has become a grumpy old man in his retirement, but the remarkable thing about Spoilt Children is that Dalrymple never lets his anger obscure his compassion. Throughout the book you get a powerful sense that his outrage is rooted in a commitment to social justice.
Yes, he believes members of the underclass should be weaned off the nanny state and forced to take responsibility for themeselves, but he also believes it is leftwing intellectuals who have reduced them to a state of helpless infantalism, mainly through the promotion of the cult of sentimentality. He is not a Christian, but it is only when Britain’s benefit dependents rediscover the doctrine of Original Sin that they will be able to help themselves.