These are weepy times in Britain. The upper lip is no longer stiff, and huge leaks have appeared in the dam of the emotional self-control that has traditionally surrounded British life. Everyone, it seems, is wading about in a salty flood of remorseful tears. The “Diana Week,” in which red-eyed millions canonized their princess as a wronged Madonna of compassion, was only the most amazing overspill of this mood. Tony Blair’s overwhelming electoral victory in May, which at the time seemed to be about angry ration- ality, has in retrospect the features of an eruption of public shame. The eighteen years of Thatcherism and post-Thatcherism, with their vulgar gospel of selfish individualism, brought the British public to a point at which they could no longer live with their own self-dislike.
This is not as strange a phenomenon as it seems. The English, especially, have in the past been open to upwellings of mass guilt, above all in periods of rapid and uprooting social change. The Evangelical religious revivals of the early nineteenth century, at a time when the inrush of population to the new industrial cities was sweeping away older family structures and moralities, marked such a moment. The 1980s, which also seemed to overwhelm old values with new lifestyles dedicated to cash and the flesh, had a similar impact. Now there is a reaction, into horrified and lachrymose questioning. Where is decency, or community feeling? Where, above all, is innocence?
For the last ten years or so, the British have been facing up to the idea that “the innocents,” in the shape of their own children, are not so innocent after all. This has been especially painful in a society which from Victorian times developed the romantic notion of inviolate childhood—a walled garden, in which a holy and almost distinct subspecies found its protected habitat—with an enthusiasm unmatched anywhere else in the world.
It has been a step-by-step discovery. The first phase was a gradual recognition of the obvious—that most children were subject to constant moral and physical exploitation and that their ascribed “innocence” was constantly being shattered by adults. The Victorian decades of social reform were loud with calls to rescue children from premature conscription into the adult world by being sent up chimneys, beaten by drunken fathers, or turned out into the gutters to satisfy the enduring English lust for underage sex. It was a century later, in the 1970s, that incest involving children was not only recognized to be far more prevalent than anyone had been able previously to admit, but suspected to be merely one corner of a hidden universe of sexual exploitation and pedophilia. Report after report shocked the country during the 1980s, and the old “incest” word was rapidly and completely replaced by the term “child abuse”—subsuming both sex and violence.
It also became clear that the sexual abuse of children was usually done by men (and a few women) who had themselves been sexually exploited in childhood …