Commentary by Hilary White

March 19, 2008 ( – Britain has lost “one of the most fundamental and universal features of human society”, the idea of the nuclear family where children have a profound connection to their fathers, Melanie Philips told us this week in her column in the Daily Mail.

Philips was writing about Shannon Matthews, whose story occupied the attention of Britain’s tabloid readers when she went missing after school in February. Nine year-old Shannon was found last week and police are investigating what happened. But the family’s situation, in which Shannon’s mother, Karen, has had seven children by five different men, has caught the attention of some who say that it is indicative of something terribly wrong… they just can’t quite put their finger on exactly what.

At the same time, Britain is awash in gang violence, binge drinking, drug abuse, sex-trafficking, and nearly universal indifference to civic life. The media is full of speculation as to the cause of dozens of apparently random acts of violence, including murders, perpetrated by Britain’s “feral youth.”

But Melanie Philips has embarrassed them all by pointing out the blindingly obvious, the rampaging elephant in Britain’s sitting room, when she pointed to an extraordinary statement from Karen Matthews. Several media reports on the case said that Karen Matthews believes that nine year-old Shannon and her ten year-old brother are “twins,” because they are the children of the same father. 

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The author of “Londonistan” and a columnist and blogger for the Spectator, wrote of Britain’s “underclass composed of whole communities where committed fathers are so rare that any child who actually has one risks being bullied.”

“Where sex is reduced to an animal activity devoid of love or human dignity, and boys impregnate two, three, four girls with scarcely a second thought. Where successive generations of women have never known what it is to be loved and cherished by both their parents throughout their childhood.”

Karen Matthews’ description of her two children born a year apart to the same father  as “twins” is one of many small indicators, like the thin scratchings on a seismograph, that indicate a social and cultural calamity unprecedented in British history. 

Half of England’s marriages end in divorce, a third in Scotland and this issue is almost never addressed in Parliament. The BBC tells us that London is not only the most expensive city in the world to live in, it is the divorce capital of the world with a growing industry of “divorce tourism”. There were more than 150,000 divorces in the UK last year.

But even more alarming is that most people who want to live together simply no longer bother with the formality of a wedding. In 1950, there were 336,000 first marriages; in 2000, there were 180,000 first marriages, a percentage change of – 46 per cent.

Melanie Philips writes that the children of the post-marriage world “are simply abandoned in a twilight world where the words ‘family’ or ‘relatives’ lose all meaning, as the transient men passing through their mothers’ lives leave them with an ever-lengthening trail of ‘step-fathers’ or ‘uncles’ who have no biological connection with them whatsoever.”

Her remarks resonated with me personally, since I remember the first rumblings of this cataclysmic cultural quake and lived through the Divorce Wave. I am not sure if the history of this cultural cataclysm, that has started to be studied and written about only recently, adequately takes into account the incredible speed with which the change came.

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I have always enjoyed disaster movies about the end of the world. Remember that 1998 made-for-tv film, Deep Impact, in which an asteroid hits the earth and most of the continental land masses are engulfed with a gigantic tidal wave? When I think of the social shift from marriage and family life to…well, whatever we have now, I think of that scene in the film in which the intrepid girl-reporter stands on the beach with her father watching helplessly as a thousand foot high wall of water rushes at them at hundreds of miles an hour.

It is no wonder that nothing was done about it, or even written about it, until it was too late.

I know that a lot of Catholics say that the legalization of contraception was the start, but I really think the civilizational apocalypse started when we decided it was not necessary for married people to remain married. Canada’s Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, of course, decided that things in Canada would move along more smoothly if he got all the bits and pieces of the apocalypse into one year and so we had the Divorce Act of 1968 immediately followed by the Omnibus Bill legalising abortion, in case anyone was left in any doubt as to what easy no-fault divorce was meant to lead to.

I was two and three when the Acts were passed. By the time I was in school a few years later, the wave from that quake was only beginning to build offshore, but it picked up speed and strength astonishingly quickly.

In the early part of the Divorce Wave, when I was starting school, most of the other kids lived with both married parents. When I was in early elementary school, the first generation of hippies had yet to break up with their first sets of “partners”. Even at the experimental hippie free school I was sent to in 1974, I was pretty much the only kid in school who had weekly scheduled “visits” with daddy.

In those days the partner turn-over rate was a lot slower. “Relationships” lasted years, sometimes as many as four or five, and marriage was still fairly common. This lasted until we, the first generation, made it to about the fifth grade. It would be another ten years at least before these vestigial conventions were abandoned and the partner turn-over was reduced to the few months or weeks we enjoy now.

Three years later, by the time I started junior high school (“middle school”; grades 8-10) I knew almost no one whose parents were still together and the partner turn-over had increased to the point where most of the mothers and all of the fathers were on “partner” number three or four.

I recall that we, the early generation of the children of divorce, were broadly pitied and were offered groups at the Y with titles like “The Divorced Kids Group” where the kids could come and “share” how they felt about their universe coming abruptly to a halt and the lights going out.

But after that early blip of attention, there was little said about the social malaise until in the 1980s articles began to appear in the women’s magazines about the kids who, for some reason, just couldn’t be bothered about anything. Generation X, the children of the hippies, the slacker generation who were in a state of near catatonic apathy and hopelessness, had no plans, had no hopes, no aspirations and were filled with cynicism and loathing for everything their parents cared about.

It was about this time that the suicide statistics started to be really alarming for kids born after 1965. This was the generation of Kurt Cobain, born a year before me and fifty miles away, the lead singer of the Seattle “Grunge” band Nirvana, who personified this generation’s rage and despair, and whose suicide would be his last angry gesture.

Melanie describes an entire generation, now branching into three or four, who simply made no plans for the future, who knew that everything their elders said to them was a lie, who learned from their parents’ fecklessness that no other human being could be trusted, unless it was to trust them to be self-serving and callous.

I find it refreshing and surprising that the connections between the Divorce Cataclysm and the “youth crime” problem are finally being made out loud, albeit four decades too late.

Read Melanie Philips’ article,
  Reaping the Whirlwind