LONDON – Ahhh, Britain. The land of Shakespeare and the Beatles, Churchill and the Queen. Rolling green hills, groovy London shops, hip plaids splashed over raincoats and umbrellas.
Cut to the reality of 2009: the highest teen pregnancy rate in western Europe, a binge drinking culture that leaves drunk teens splayed out in the streets and rising knife crime that has turned some pub fights into deadly affairs.
In the latest symbol of what some are calling “broken Britain,” 13-year-old Alfie and his 15-year-old girlfriend Chantelle became parents last week. The news sparked a flurry of handwringing from the media – and even ordinary folk admitted it didn’t help that Alfie barely looked 10, let alone 13, as he cradled his newborn daughter.
Alfie’s father, who reportedly has nine or 10 children of his own, gamely promised to have a “birds and the bees” chat with his son to prevent him from producing a second child before he grows facial hair.
Somehow that was not reassuring.
Sir Bernard Ingham, once press secretary to former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, told The Associated Press that people from across Britain’s political spectrum are in despair over the country’s social breakdown.
“It’s an indication that we’ve lost our way, that people don’t know the difference between right and wrong,” he said of young Alfie. “The plain fact is society can’t proceed on this basis. I think this is an indication of broken Britain.”
Ingham said Britain’s binge drinking and youth violence reflect the same general fall in standards and discipline.
“I think in time there will be a swing against this permissiveness,” he said, noting a shift from British debauchery in the 18th century to Victorian straight-laced standards 100 years later.
Binge drinking has produced a rise in liver disease among Britons in their 20s and the unpleasant reputation of British “lager louts” at holiday resorts across Europe.
On any given night, London residents can see drunken teens staggering through the Underground subway system. Usually their friends help them, but sometimes collapsed teens are left on their own until police or transit staff intervene.
The rise in knife crime harkens back to the 1950s “West Side Story” era in the United States. The number of robberies carried out with knives rose 18 per cent for the third quarter of 2008 compared to the year before, according to government figures released in January.
Too often now, public disputes have ended in teen stabbing deaths. Rob Knox, an 18-year-old actor in a “Harry Potter” film, was killed in May, while Ben Kinsella, the 16-year-old brother of a television soap actress, was stabbed to death in June. Both were trying to break up fights in London.
Other, less well-known youths have also died in knife fights.
All this was bemoaned, but the final straw came this week, when Britain’s intensely competitive tabloids focused on the young, clueless Alfie.
Alfie’s daughter Maisie was reportedly conceived when he was 12. Chantelle’s parents let the lad spend the night with their daughter, 14 at the time, at their public housing unit near Eastbourne, 110 kilometres southeast of London.
There are still some questions about the birth. The Sun newspaper did not say whether any tests were conducted to prove the boy’s paternity, and the Sunday Times reported that at least two other teens claimed to have slept with the young mother.
Alfie told the Sun he plans to look after his newborn daughter. But in a heartbreaking interview, the boy admitted he didn’t know what the word “financially” meant and acknowledged he doesn’t even get an allowance.
While some saw a larger portrait of society’s ills in Maisie’s birth to underage parents, others called it an aberration.
“I think it’s really shocking and sad,” said Duncan Lees, 36, a caterer. “I think it’s really wrong. But it’s not like it happens everyday. The fact that it’s making such a headline is something in itself. I think it’s good that everybody is saying that it’s wrong.”
He did blame the youngsters’ parents for failing to properly look after their children.
“You have to ask what their responsibilities are to their children,” he said.
There was also an element of class consciousness in many reactions – not surprising in a country where status is often based on where you live, what car you drive and whether your children go to private school.
“I think it’s very sad,” said retiree Risdon Nicholls. “But they lived in a poor part of Eastbourne. That’s not common practice in the rest of Eastbourne, which is a very smart town.”
Nicholls said the British media was exploiting a one-time situation.
“They make it sound as if we’re going to the dogs, and we’re not,” he said adamantly. “This is still a wonderful country – but it’s clear standards have dropped.”