A History of England’s Social Architecture

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

Richard Reeves summarizes David Willetts’ already-brief brilliant history of England’s social architecture:

He shows that far from being a modern invention, the nuclear family is a long-standing feature of Anglophone societies. (We are, he says, “the first nuclear power”.) The idea that we used to live in big, warm, noisy My Big Fat Greek Wedding-type families is a myth. “Think of England as being like this for at least 750 years,” he writes. “We live in small families. We buy and sell houses. We go out to work for a wage.”

The English have a private, market-based idea of property, in contrast to the familial property forms of our continental neighbours. Over a 44-year period in Leighton Buzzard, more than 900 houses changed hands. Two-thirds were sold to someone outside the family, rather than being passed down. The years in question? 1464 to 1508.

By contrast, the large familial networks of continental Europe act as the institutional anchor for property ownership and transmission, as well as for the formation of businesses and the provision of welfare. Willetts speculates that the property-managing function of French families may explain why romantic love there is more often associated with extramarital relationships. The orientation towards family-owned firms in Germany helps to explain the strength of the Mittelstand, the medium-sized, locally rooted layers of corporations.

Willetts does not at any point fall victim to the awful if-only-we-were-more-like-the-continentals lament. He does not want to alter our social DNA. But our particular social economy has two important consequences. First, the smallness of our families puts a greater emphasis on non-familial civic institutions. Small families need civil society more. This is why medieval guilds, trade unions and churches have played such an important role in our history.

Second, the welfare role of government is greater in a society marked by a highly privatised notion of property and small families. Breadwinning men are less likely to have family resources to fall back on, so need out-of-work benefits. This system worked reasonably well until the rise in divorce rates in 1970s and 1980s. Then, millions of women, many with dependent children, suddenly became reliant on the state. As Willetts puts it: “A welfare system that was originally designed to compensate men for loss of earnings is slowly and messily redesigned to compensate women for the loss of men.” And everybody — but especially women — ends up poorer. This is why Willetts, certainly no reactionary, is so pro-marriage.

Strong parental relationships also influence children’s well-being, which in turn affects the chances of upward social mobility, another of Willetts’s preoccupations. Drawing on the very latest and best research, Willetts shows how the middle classes are tightening their grip on the opportunities available for the next generation. The professions are all but sealed off from the poor: “The competition for jobs is like English tennis, a competitive game but largely one the middle classes play against each other.”

That, oddly, is from a Guardian review of a Tory MP’s new book, The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future — And Why They Should Give it Back.

Hat tip to Steve Sailer, who believes that this “cultural DNA” is particularly vulnerable to mass immigration.

Aretae mentions the same article as supporting one of three hypotheses on the Industrial Revolution — namely hypothesis three: the English are weird — which brings Devin to share some significant excerpts from Carroll Quigley‘s Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time:

As an island off the coast of Europe, Britain had security as long as it had control of the narrow seas….In this way, by following balance-of-power tactics, Britain was able to play a decisive role on the Continent, keep the Continent divided and embroiled in its own disputes, and do this with a limited commitment of Britain’s own resources, leaving a considerable surplus of energy, manpower, and wealth available for acquiring an empire overseas. In addition, Britain’s unique advantage in having security through a limited commitment of resources by control of the sea was one of the contributing factors which allowed Britain to develop its unique social structure, its parliamentary system, its wide range of civil liberties, and its great economic advance.


  1. David Foster says:

    “This is why medieval guilds, trade unions and churches have played such an important role in our history…” Were guilds really more important in England than in continental Europe? This isn’t my perception from what I’ve read.

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