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 drunken 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, said 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 percent for the third quarter of 2008 compared with the year before, according to government figures released in January.