Towards the end of the twentieth century, for a complex of political and Gramscian culture-war reasons, rock singers and sports stars were made the new cultural aristocracy. People like British Squadron-Leader Andy Green, the first man to drive a car at supersonic speed, the sort of man who would have received recognition and celebration in the past, were slighted by a government apparently committed to the most negative aspects of the adversary culture. When in 1997 Green returned from his record-setting run in the USA he had no reception and hailed a taxi at the airport to get home.
Nihilistic rock music groups were invited by Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair to Downing Street. The milieu of a concert by these Downing Street guests was set out by Dr Anthony Daniels, who attended one in Glasgow on behalf of the Daily Mail:
In the lavatories, 13-year-olds queued for the cubicles. Like Russian voting booths, each had more than one person in it at a time, and they weren’t answering the call of nature—unless, that is, you count taking drugs as answering the call of nature. Meanwhile, directly outside, a couple of policemen stood guard …
He concluded that the concert answered a question which had puzzled him: the children emerging after eleven years of compulsory education from schools in the poorer areas appeared to have learned nothing. They could not read properly, spell, or do the simplest arithmetic, and their general knowledge was non-existent. What, then, did they know? “They know the words of pop songs.” This was the culture which had political imprimatur.
Later, in April 2008, television personality Jade Goody was accorded what amounted to a state funeral, the route being lined with crowds from dawn and with coverage on all television channels, a eulogy by Mr Max Clifford and the public condolences of both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Miss Goody’s only accomplishments had been the possession of a foul mouth, a robber and drug addict for a father, and a violent criminal for a husband.
Dr Daniels’s comments on British education were not mere hyperbole. An official report in 1999 claimed one in five adults could not find the entry for “plumbers” in a telephone directory and that innumeracy was even more widespread. A 1998 Gallup Poll indicated only 56 per cent of the adult population could identify the Queen as the British head of state. A Basic Skills Agency report calculated 24 per cent of the population was functionally illiterate and innumerate. Showing how seriously the government took this, the Minister for Schools, Jim Knight, responsible for class-room standards, published a short letter on his website in 2009, claiming “there is [sic] also a lot of positive things going on in our schools”, which contained several basic spelling and grammatical errors, including “archealogical”, “acheiving” and “maintainence”. The minister with responsibility for Science, Margaret Beckett, told the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology in November 1997, that perceptions of science careers among young people were “most alarming”, and “deeply depressing”. This was not, of course, followed by any discernable action to rectify the situation.
An OECD report on “Literacy in the Information Age”, published in June 2000, also demonstrated “astonishing” levels of illiteracy and innumeracy, with Britain thirteenth of nineteen countries surveyed and behind all the other major English-speaking countries. In November 2001, the government’s chief adviser on exams and curriculum suggested the statutory school-leaving age be lowered to fifteen. How could any Prime Minister reconcile this drop in standards with a claim that: “education is our number one domestic priority”? The same leader promised in 2000 to spend a further £750 million on sport. (Britain’s annual budget for space research a few years later, in 2005, was £175 million.) After the 2000 Olympics the Sports Minister said, not of academic or intellectual achievement, but of sport:
we need to invest … to ensure that gifted young people know exactly what they have to do to get to the very top … In the past many talented people found their way to the top by chance not design. We need to do better if we are to support tomorrow’s stars through their early years of development … We have to recognize that preparing to compete with the best is a full-time business for many athletes. It requires focus and immense energy for the necessary training regimes and this is much more difficult if competitors have to fit training round a full-time job.
This indicated a mindset fixated on the celebrity culture: the policy goal was to create a tiny minority of professional “stars” as distinct from a culture in which people enjoyed participating in games, or enjoyed the challenges of achievement and creativity or even exercise for themselves. And how odd that it should be thought undesirable for sports “stars” to have a full-time job! At least in Brave New World the people themselves had played. Sports commentator Paul Hayward has written:
Soccer provides the perfect synthesis between pop, sport and the catwalk. Its modern icons date Spice Girls and dye their hair à la David Beckham. Anthony Clare, the psychologist, has written that Britain’s gleaming all-seater stadiums are the new cathedrals … young people … are susceptible to the daily bombardment of World Cup imagery … To turn one’s back on the country’s national obsession is to make a cultural outcast of oneself.
After the 2008 Olympics, many British commentators wrote as if the fact that British athletes had won a relatively large number of medals was somehow a sign of national recovery and renewal. The preparation of these athletes had largely been paid for by National Lottery money, in other words by a decadent tax levied on the stupid and the desperate.
In 2008 the 1948 London Olympics were estimated to have cost about £20 million in 2008 terms; the 2012 London Olympics were estimated at the same time to be costing £10 billion, that is 500 times as much. This showed an official sense of priorities for which the only term was insanity. Great intellectual or scientific achievers, or moral heroes, were by comparison so ignored that no comparison with the adulation heaped upon sports stars and entertainers was even possible. Sports events, which had already taken up the back of newspapers, tended to migrate to the front pages. A few years later India Knight wrote in the Times: “It’s not original to state that the deification of football players in this country has reached demented proportions.”
While the increasing use of surveillance cameras in Britain often evokes references to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is Huxley’s Brave New World, with sport as a mass-drug, that seems to be coming more generally true. A new hymnbook, Songs for the New Millennium, produced by a committee of British Anglicans and Methodists, included a song titled “Ogi-Ogi O” which portrayed Christ as a soccer boss who:
Came to play in our league and formed a local team
Of fishermen and bankers and some who were real mean …
He’s the real business at home or away …
Remember that player-manager
Who travelled through the land.
He got in the face of authority
So they hung him on a tree.
In July, 1998, following England’s defeat by Argentina in the World Cup, the Bible Society, with the backing of the Archbishop of Canterbury, called on the nation to forgive David Beckham for having been sent off during the match, as though some vast moral or spiritual issue was involved. Dr David Spriggs, the director of the Bible Society and a Baptist minister, said, in words from which, to quote Peter Simple, satire might slink away ashamed: “What is so important is that David has faced up to his mistake, and asked the forgiveness of his team-mates and the whole nation …” The BBC made a “Where-were-you-when-it-happened?” documentary about this match, as if it had been a great historical event.
This attitude to football is not of course confined to Britain—Honduras and El Salvador once went to war over a soccer match—though it seems most intense there today among English-speaking countries. In Australia the Associate Professor Robert Manne provided another example among many of the pseudo-spiritualisation of a group of men kicking a ball, complete with a rebuke for those who—quel horreur!—treated it with “jocularity”:
In many areas [the taxpayer-funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation] enriches the popular culture. Let me illustrate through one example—its coverage of football in Victoria. For as long as I can remember, I have listened to the local ABC football program on winter weekends. Before the match begins, the football issues of the week are discussed. Sometimes these involve surprisingly complex questions concerning the laws governing the game; sometimes delicate social matters, like the problem of on-field racial abuse. Time and again I have been deeply impressed by the subtlety, the common sense, the basic decency displayed. Because I am a passionate supporter of the Geelong Football Club, on occasions, once play begins, I am obliged to turn to commercial radio. The contrast in style is clear. Here the ethos of the old world of ocker jocularity, with the undertow of male aggression, unchallengeably still holds sway.
Why was being a “passionate supporter” of a football club anything to be proud of, or to display with a suggestion that it signified moral virtue? To be a “passionate supporter” of a chess club, for instance, might at least indicate an interest in the life of the mind.
A worldwide silence was held in December 2001 to commemorate the death of George Harrison, an event which also occupied the first fifteen pages of the British Daily Mirror and most of the first five pages of the Daily Telegraph. Steven Glover commented on the fact that the major up-market broadsheets across the political spectrum ran “long, reverential obituaries of the sort normally reserved for titanic figures who have changed the fate of nations”, and added:
it was the broadsheets which really appalled me. Perhaps—after a decade of watching the inexorable dumbing-down of the broadsheets and their gradual adoption of a tabloid, celebrity-dominated agenda—I should not have been taken aback, but I was … The treatment of George Harrison’s death suggests the broadsheets have lost all sense that they are the guardians of higher culture.
In 2008 a former Rwandan child-soldier, brought several years before to Britain and educated there, complained of a “pathetic celebrity culture” dominating every aspect of life. He had not yet seen the international coverage of the death of Michael Jackson the following year. Universities had to give matriculants lessons in basic literacy, while sports stars’ used shirts sold for tens of thousands of pounds.
A survey published in Country Life in October 2000 said two-thirds of schoolchildren did not know where acorns came from and 40 per cent did not know in which season harvest-time fell. It was reported in February 2001 that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority proposed Shakespeare be dropped from the English education system entirely, along with a requirement to study classical novelists and poets. The only requirement would be the study of a single novel. Journalist and creative writing teacher Philip Hensher, writing in the London Spectator of February 17, 2001, told of marking the work of a class of would-be journalists:
These were people who were mostly studying for A-levels in media studies … The standard of literacy in their written work was roughly what I would have expected to find 25 years ago in the work of one of the less-able classes of nine-year-olds in an inner-city state school.
In February 2003 it was reported that in a national internet quiz on general knowledge the question most entrants found hardest was the English translation of Hitler’s Mein Kampf—“My Struggle”—hardly, one would have thought, a question calling for great or esoteric linguistic ability. Other surveys showed large numbers of schoolchildren ignorant of the most basic facts of history and geography including in some cases, as Roy Kerridge recounted in The Story of Black History, published in 1998, what country they lived in.
At the beginning of 2008, a survey of 3000 adults indicated that by that time one in four believed Churchill to be a fictional character (along with the Duke of Wellington, Florence Nightingale and Richard the Lionheart). A few weeks after this, however, it was reported that in a survey of 1400 primary school children, carried out to test knowledge of astronomy, one in three believed Churchill had been the first man on the moon. In addition, two in five children thought Mars is just a chocolate bar, while a third believed Earth is not an official planet. 
In August 2001 the OECD released figures indicating the proportion of seventeen-year-olds receiving education or training in Britain was lower than in almost all other industrialised countries, including Poland, Ireland, Spain and Italy, and barely ahead of Greece. According to official figures 7 million adults in Britain, out of a total population (including children) of about 59 million, lacked basic literacy and numeracy skills. Another OECD study of twenty-eight countries showed that an average of 66 per cent of those aged thirty-five to forty-four had “upper secondary” qualifications, with the British figure being 63 per cent, just below the average. With twenty-five to thirty-four-year-olds the average was 72 per cent and the British figure was 66 per cent, showing a widening gap.
In August 2001, according to the Guardian, there was a reported shortage from more than 100 local education authorities of 3500 full-time teachers. The real figure was much higher. Other teaching posts were often filled by foreign teachers with dubious qualifications or command of English. Head-teachers admitted in one survey in September 2001 that more than one in five teachers were not suitable for the jobs they would be asked to do. The head of one comprehensive school admitted appointing two people who “had walked in off the street with no qualifications”. Not only mathematics, science and technology, but even English were among the hardest subjects to recruit teachers for. A survey in early 2003 commissioned by the General Teaching Council indicated that one in three teachers was planning to leave the profession. More than 500,000 secondary-school pupils were being taught mathematics by unqualified teachers.
In August 2001 the chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, responsible for inspecting university teaching, resigned in protest when most of the higher education inspection system was scrapped. The Secretary of State for Education proposed in a 2002 green paper the introduction of more vocational GCSs, such as “leisure and tourism” to counteract a “culture of snobbery”. Proportionate numbers of A-level passes, and of first-class university honours degrees, continued to rise as standards were lowered. The Chief Inspector of Schools from 1994 to 2001 said:
Bog standard comprehensive schools have failed, the Prime Minister’s spokesman tells us, to deliver. The time of the bog standard university has, it seems, come … if it were not so tragic it would be comical. 
In early twenty-first-century Britain, science and technology, except perhaps for IT, but certainly in the case of space research, have a quaint, dated air, with 1950s resonances of The Sound Barrier (its pioneering aircraft called the “Prometheus”), Dan Dare, and school-boys wishing to be test pilots or aircraft designers. The gradual decline and downgrading of science and technology in popular culture is quite easy to trace. In the post-war Quatermass television series, science and technology, though they could be abused, were at least portrayed as important. By the time of the later James Bond films, they had become comic and not to be taken seriously. It was poignant to read in the Ladybird children’s book on London, published in 1961, “There are many fine museums in London, but the one we will go to next is the Science Museum in South Kensington. What an exciting place it is!”
People deeply interested in science still exist but are fashionably regarded as nerds, freaks and losers. Leading US neurosurgeon Dr Ben Carson made the same point about American students: all the rewards and glamour went to sports stars. All the cultural pressures were against the nerds. What women’s (or men’s or teenagers’) magazine would run a story with a scientist hero? Sir Arthur C. Clarke mentioned that, meeting Prince Charles in 1998, he recalled to him that:
Our first meeting … had been at an exhibition circa 1958 optimistically called: “Britain enters The Space Age”. His Royal Highness laughed and answered wryly: “We never did, did we?”
“Space opera” is a genre term for old-fashioned science-fiction of the Western-set-on-Mars type with ray-guns replacing six-shooters; the idea of a real opera about space is merely bizarre. It was Alfred Noyes, a Catholic remembered by the modernists, if at all, as perhaps the most reactionary and old-fashioned English poet of the twentieth century, who between 1922 and 1930 wrote The Torch-Bearers, a great epic poem in three books of several hundred pages celebrating the advance of science:
Who, when that good Dutch spectacle-maker set
Two lenses in a tube, to read the time
Upon the distant clock-tower of his church,
Could dream of this, our hundred-inch, that shows
The snow upon the polar caps of Mars
Whitening and darkening as the seasons change?
Or who could dream when Galileo watched
His moons of Jupiter, that from their eclipses
And from that change in their appointed times,
Now late, now early, as the watching earth
Farther or nearer on its orbit rolled,
The immeasurable speed of light at last
Should be reduced to measure?…
In Britain all that is gone. The idea of a serious poem celebrating science (or perhaps of one celebrating anything) is simply out of the question. Compare Kipling’s poems to technology and the effusions of Britain’s recent Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, on a footballer:
O Jonny the power of your boot
And the accurate heart-stopping route …
Other comparably infantile material emanated from the pen of Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter.
In science and engineering degrees as a percentage of all bachelors’ degrees in 2001 were as follows: Singapore, 68 per cent; China, 58 per cent; South Korea, 36 per cent; Taiwan, 34 per cent; Germany, 31 per cent; UK 28 per cent. These figures must be seen against the different absolute sizes of student populations. They are, however, suggestive about national cultural attitudes.
In June 2007 the think-tank Civitas claimed that issues and knowledge vital to education had been scrapped in schools in favour of trendy subjects and fashionable causes. No major subject area had escaped, its report, The Corruption of the Curriculum, claimed. The authors included Chris McGovern, chairman of the History Curriculum Authority. It said traditional subject areas had been hijacked to promote fashionable causes such as gender-awareness, the environment and anti-racism. In science-teaching controversial reforms had made fewer, not more, pupils interested in the subject. The new science curriculum replaced laboratory work and scientific probing with debates on abortion and nuclear power. In geography, it concluded, children were no longer taught facts about the world but how to be global citizens. 
The state education system apparently paid little regard to teaching mathematics, physics or science. Only 7 per cent of pupils were educated in private or fee-paying systems (including the last remnant 164 grammar schools) but these comprised 40 per cent of pupils specialising in maths and physics at A-level. In 2005 there were only 3000 undergraduates studying physics and eighteen university physics departments—nearly one third—had closed since Labour came to power in 1997. By 2006 chemistry departments had also closed at some of Britain’s best universities, including Exeter, King’s College London, Dundee, and at Sussex, which had previously produced two Nobel chemistry laureates.
In September 2003 the Curriculum and Qualifications Authority had announced plans to replace the exam grade “F” for “Failure” with “N” for “Nearly”. Another plan was to replace the word “Failure” with “Deferred Pass”. It was claimed that almost 50 per cent of eleven-year-olds are unable to read, write or add properly.
George Molnar, in Utopia: The Perennial Heresy, first published in 1971, like C.S. Lewis in Screwtape Proposes a Toast, had noted that:
Some current trends in education pursue mediocrity as an ideal. They do so in the name of democracy which is itself conceived along vague, sentimental lines. In fact, in some English schools good pupils are not promoted lest they cause a trauma in those who are left behind.
In Britain, and to various extents in other Anglomorph countries, political correctness has meant in recent years the actual handicapping of gifted students in various ways, one of the most obvious being the destruction of the grammar school system, which had offered good education and upward social mobility to students whose families were unable to afford the very expensive “public” schools.
The demon Screwtape had also noted complacently that in such a culture a delightful by-product of compulsory levelling would be that the decreasing number of outstanding individuals would increasingly become the prigs and cranks which the rest would suspect them of being anyway.
In schools the number of physics candidates at A-level slumped from 46,606 in 1985 to 28,119 in 2005. It had been about 50,000 in 1980 with a smaller population. The number of trainee teachers with physics qualifications fell by 70 per cent between 1993 and 2000.
Speaking at the Royal Society in December 2003, Sir Alistair MacFarlane, the former Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University and chairman of the Royal Society’s education committee, called for urgent action to tackle the crisis in science education and to reverse the decline in the popularity of science, engineering and technology among pupils and students. He said that in ten years the number of pupils taking A-levels in chemistry had dropped by 18.7 per cent, in physics by 29.6 per cent, and in Mathematics by 25.4 per cent. He said further that the plummeting popularity of these subjects threatened the prosperity and quality of life of the whole nation. The Daily Telegraph editorialised on November 21, 2005, that the near-disappearance of physics from sixth-form classrooms would have a tangible, long-term and deleterious impact on the British way of life. Most obviously, it was further proof of the cretinisation of the syllabus:
We are witnessing a migration away from hard subjects—hard not only in the sense of “difficult”, but also in the sense of having definite right and wrong answers … The decline of physics teaching would be worrying in any country, but is especially so in the homeland of Newton and Boyle, Hooke and Babbage, Faraday and Watt, Kelvin and Joule, Rutherford and Hawking. Many foreigners think of Britain as quaint and heritage-obsessed—a view that sometimes spills over into our own self-image. But our forefathers would have found such a notion incomprehensible.
Suddenly panicked by oil-prices and the imminent ending of North Sea oil, circles in the British government raised the prospect of building new nuclear reactors. It was announced in 2008 that Britain would proceed with new nuclear power stations, but from the rather vague first reports it seemed they might use French or German expertise and British labour. Tiny Iceland outstripped Britain in developing hydrogen as an alternative fuel source.
The government’s attitude to science and science education has been marked by dysfunction, drift and policy incoherence. There are low educational standards, astrology and New Age superstition, and massive immigration from anti-modernist Islamic areas—a great combination for the future.
Senior Labour government adviser Alistair Campbell’s spectacular ignorance of, and indifference to, science, was marked by the fact that when he appeared on the quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire he did not know, out of a choice of two countries, which had launched the Skylab space station.
The point of such a detailed examination of one period and place is that all of this has occurred in the culture which was the birthplace of the world’s first great learned society, which extended help and support to scientists all over the world, the country which pioneered the agrarian and industrial revolutions. From steam power and the screw propeller to the telephone, radar and television, the communications satellite, antibiotics, nuclear fission, jet propulsion and the computer, in each case British scientists were at the forefront.
The list—the roll of honour—grows if we consider the great scientists from the British Commonwealth, the USA and elsewhere who worked and studied at least partly in Britain, such as the New Zealand-born Rutherford, the Australian Howard Florey, who with Alexander Fleming discovered the application of penicillin, and the Canadian Sir Frederick Banting, who discovered insulin, or the great plastic surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe, born in New Zealand and trained in Britain and America—indeed countless distinguished scientists and other scholars from virtually all over the world. By 2005, 58 per cent of British people surveyed did not know the steam engine was a British invention and 77 per cent did not know the jet engine was. Reporting this, journalist Anthony Browne commented:
Britain’s scientists have done more to unravel the mysteries of matter than any others. Of the four main forces of nature, Brits unravelled the mysteries of two—Newton with gravity and James Clerk Maxwell with electromagnetic radiation. Of the three planets unknown to the ancients, two [Uranus and Neptune] were discovered by the British. Britain is second only to the US in the number of Nobel Prizes it has won—twice as many as France and seven times as many as Italy and Japan.
It was reported in the Daily Mail of January 1, 2008, that the National Health Service would spell out patients’ rights in a new “contract”. This, it was said, was likely to cover “the right to be treated in clean hospitals”. It seemed incredible that things had deteriorated to such an extent that this needed to be stated.
British-born Astronaut Michael Foale urged greater British involvement in manned space-flight, and greater British support for the international space station. Mark Hempsell, a specialist in orbital platforms from Bristol University, supported him, stating that in the next century space would be the biggest industry the world had, yet Britain had nothing to do with launch vehicles or basic space infrastructure. Space would be where the energy market was, the place for tourism and travel as well as communications satellites.
Professor Andre Balogh, a space physics expert at Imperial College, London, disagreed, saying: “The UK has to be selective among the extremely sparse resources we have.” This was when the country, the fourth-largest economy in the world, was spending nearly a billion pounds on the Millennium Dome and the previous year had spent £21 billion on Christmas presents, though before Mr Blair’s 2000 promise of £750 million for sport. £85 million was spent in 2005 on Christmas presents for pets.
In August 2004, it was revealed that the National Lottery had raised £16 billion, enough to fund not merely the British but the US space program nearly twice over. The journalist Bruce Anderson commented that many liberals two hundred years ago believed that if mankind could only liberate itself from its worship of gods and its deference to kings, barbarism would inevitably give way to the reign of reason and virtue: “In one respect the liberals have had their way: gods and kings are not what they were. Instead, we have lottery tickets, astrology and pop music.”
This is an edited extract from Hal G.P. Colebatch’s recent book Fragile Flame. He has tracked British cultural and social decline in several articles for Quadrant.
Daily Mail, 11 December, 1997 (asterisks in original).
 Weekly Telegraph, 18 March, 1998.
 International Express, 17 February, 2009.
 Daily Telegraph, 5 November, 1997.
Economist, 17 June, 2000.
 BBC, 22 June, 2005. According to the same source for 12 October, 2005, NASA’s budget was more than US $16,000,000,000—yet NASA regarded itself as being stinted. China’s space budget was estimated at US$2,300,000,000.
Daily Telegraph, 6 June, 1998.
 A major space-programme, or even simply to clean the lethal bacteria out of Britain’s filthy and appalling hospitals, could have been financed for less money.
 Times, 23 December, 2007.
 Robert Manne, The Barren Years (Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2001 p. 130. It was Mr Manne who made the memorable statement that: “I almost never listen any longer to ABC Local Radio. I am simply not interested in the kind of middlebrow market at which it aims … (The Monthly, December-January, 2008).
 Daily Mail, 2 March, 2008.
 Daily Mail, 4 March, 2003.
 This England, Autumn, 2002.
 Daily Mail, 3 February, 2008.
 Daily Mail, 19 March, 2008.
 Spectator, 11 August, 2001.
 Guardian, 30 August, 2001.
Weekly Telegraph, 22 August, 2001.
 I am not referring here to the historical accuracy of the film The Sound Barrier, which left something to be desired (The Sound Barrier was actually first broken by the great American test-pilot Charles Yeager), but to the values and attitudes behind it.
 Arthur C. Clarke, The Sentinel (HarperCollins, London, 2002), p. 206.
 One “folk-song” was written in the US about the Mercury astronauts, “These Seven Men,” and performed by Mike Stewart of The Kingston Trio, but it was unfortunately dirge-like.
 Imprimis, Vol 34, No. 2, February, 2005
 Daily Mail, 11 June, 2007.
 Guardian, 7 January, 2005.
 C. S. Lewis, Screwtape Proposes a toast and other pieces, Font, London, 1977). Originally published in The Saturday Evening Post about 1960.
 Op. Cit., footnote 6, page 184.
 Weekly Telegraph, 11 November, 2009.
 Anthony Browne, Spectator, 23 July, 2005.
Daily Telegraph, 19 December, 1997.
 Weekly Telegraph, 25 August, 2004.
 Spectator, 13 September, 1998.