Peter Whittle | Look at Me Celebrating the Self in Modern Britain | London | Social Affairs Unit | 2008

For some time now many schools in the English-speaking world have promoted ‘self-esteem’ as a necessary component of personal and social development programmes. When taken to extremes this can easily create an atmosphere of self-centredness which feeds of the excesses of celebrity culture as reflected in the tabloid press.

Peter Whittle has put together an interesting and informative account of how this exaltation of the self has grown in recent years. The cover of this slim volume about modern Britain’s conversion to hedonism reveals in pictorial form the kernel of his argument: increasing numbers of people in modern Britain feel the need to be recognized as ‘special’ by others.

There is a further concern with the superficial obsession with the lives of ‘celebrities’, the naked desire of some to be recognised as celebrities in the making, the rise of the therapy culture and the ubiquitous use of the mobile phone in public places. (I would also add that the common tendency of people to wander around public places with MP3 players hanging from their ears is another manifestation of the isolation of modern man from the surrounding culture.)

The style of the book is that of good journalism. While this genre often struggles to retain its effectiveness when transferred to a book format, Whittle succeeds in stating his case with vigour and energy. He uses fictional case studies of people who ring true for many of us; it is through these characters that he illustrates and expands the key theme of the book. For example, we meet ‘Kayleigh’ who believes that all she needs to do to be recognised as special is to ensure that other people realise it, although I was particularly taken by ‘Marc and Sue’, the young urban professionals who deem themselves citizens of the world! While there is a tendency to fall into caricature at times (and sometimes with no little humour) there is a sense of realism underpinning each character: these are the people we hear braying loudly into phones on trains and in coffee shops and observe falling out of stretch limousines at the weekend. Whittle argues that this type of behaviour is what happens to society when shared values give way to a narcissistic individualism which sees others solely as an audience for one’s own need to be seen and heard.

The general tenor of the book is hard-hitting, almost too much at times. Two questions emerge from this: (a) is this a true depiction of contemporary life in the United Kingdom? and (b) if so, how did the United Kingdom arrive at this level of social collapse? It seems to me that Whittle has bravely contradicted the narrative of the ‘liberal’ consensus, especially that of the educational establishment, whose advocates are now scurrying around trying to repair the damage to the family and social fabric which have come from the social policies of the last 40 years.

However, there are limitations to this genre: although the general arguments are sound and make for a pacy (even racy) read, one may be left with a feeling of almost quiet despair at the end. In Chapter 8 the author suggests, albeit forlornly, that any efforts to remedy this situation must be based on a rediscovery of the ‘adult within’ with a focus on reforming an education system which has replaced self-discipline with self-esteem.

Despite the possible way ahead outlined in Chapter 8, what is needed now is a more dynamic approach to addressing these issues, one which tries to peel away the layers of social neglect and long-standing educational atrophy which, I suggest, mark modern Britain. (All Must Have Prizes by Melanie Philips deals with the educational aspect of this.) This is where organisations like the Centre for Social Justice, a think tank headed by the former leader of the Conservative Party, Iain Duncan-Smith, have a major role to play in reforming the social culture of Britain.

In conclusion, this important book will reflects the widely held view that many aspects of modern UK culture are both pernicious and decadent. However, and more importantly, it also asks serious questions of the opinion formers in society: how did the nation which gave us the self-deprecating humour of ‘Dad’s Army’ and the gentle, family-centred tranquillity of ‘The Antiques Roadshow’ evolve into one whose streets and town centres can become almost infernal in their bleakness at the weekend?

Leonard Franchi is a member of the Department of Religious Education in the University of Glasgow. He writes in a personal capacity.