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What greater tragedy can there be

than is presented by the spectacle of a child

whose life prospects and hopes are smashed at the very outset of its existence?

Winston Churchill.

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The whole theme of motherhood and family life

with those sweet affections which illuminate it

must be the fountain spring of present and future survival.

Winston Churchill.

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The Christmas Lecture

for the year

2004.

Entitled

'Neighbours from Hell'.

The Politics of Behaviour

by

 

The Rt Hon Frank Field MP.

_____________________

 

(1). The new politics of behaviour.

The old politics of class, it was claimed, was swept away by the Third Way. But today's political agenda is no longer just about finding a compromise between socialism and capitalism. Increasingly the new politics is about moderating behaviour and reestablishing the social virtues of self-discipline coupled with an awareness of the needs of others. It is these virtues above all others which are essential to civilised living. The new politics centre on reinforcing what is good and acceptable behaviour.

The forward march halted.

Edmund Burke observed that the most dangerous of all revolutions was that in the sentiments, manners and moral opinion of the citizenry. The first signs of such a revolution are now apparent in Britain. A degree of respect and civility in the behaviour of one person to another is crucial to the wellbeing of us all. That respect was not established easily or quickly. Britain began its long march to respectable behaviour over two hundred years ago.

This long march to respectability is a grand tale recording, amongst other events, an ever-increasing number of families teaching their children a set of values which I call here social virtues or common decencies. These virtues, which became almost universally practised, ensured that the family's behaviour promoted a thoughtfulness for its other members as well as its neighbours. But attitudes, behaviour and customs thus established are under threat.

A growing number of families no longer understand the importance of these virtues to their own family's interests let alone to their neighbour's immediate wellbeing. In a significant respect the drive to respectability has not only been thwarted but reversed. Neighbours from Hell records what has happened when these virtues are no longer practised, and the role government might play in first countering and then reversing this cycle of decline.

A key aspect in the long march to what Britons saw as respectability has been a growth of respect for others, which lies deep in the development of respect for oneself. That growth in dual responsibility, to oneself and to others, has involved a voluntary acceptance of restrictions on what each of us as individuals should and should not do. Central to the counter revolution against common decency is the collapse of a proper consideration of others. Life lived in the absence of such self-imposed rules of behaviour is becoming for a persistent, but increasing minority, a normal state of existence. Invariably bound up, and reinforcing this trend, has been a loss of people's ability to think over the longer-term as a factor in judging their own behaviour. Living for the moment blocks any recognition of the severe downside to the loss of social virtues.

We have as a country so taken for granted the exercise of those virtues that writing about their failure to be transmitted successfully from one generation to another is difficult. To begin a proper discussion on this requires the redevelopment of a language long since fallen into disuse. These social virtues or personal values were so successfully transmitted from parents to children that there was little to be discussed, and there was consequently no call for a public debate. Society worked well in this most crucial respect. End of conversation.

Within a decade the scene has begun to deteriorate bringing with it more than a menacing threat for the immediate future and beyond. There is no one specific move or event which can account for the swiftness of this turn around. A number of social land mines lay buried in our culture awaiting the moment to explode. These explosions have come in quick succession.

That all values are internal to ourselves, and that there are no absolute truths to draw upon, has long been part of a public debate in Britain. Emmanuel Kant brought the Enlightenment to its head by insisting on the moral autonomy of man. This once small tributary of an idea has reached the broad mouth of the river where the rushing water sings to the single tune of 'my views are just as good as yours'.

It was only a matter of time before Christian belief felt the effects of the Kantian revolution. Yet when, for a growing group of the population in this country, faith became doubt, the hope of the most thoughtful doubters was that most of Christian morality would survive without its underpinning with Christian dogma and belief. The wonder is not that what is loosely thought of as Christian morality is in such a rapid and widespread retreat in parts of Britain. The surprise is that it served so long as a force for good after the perishing of its spiritual and intellectual roots.

As the roar of faith's receding tide echoed around society's institutions much of the worship of God beyond the skies became rooted in radical politics. Working people designed a better world for themselves and their comrades by building a mutual commonwealth. Within this ethical furnace building bricks of national duties were forged. The 1945 Attlee government not only nationalised the basic industries but, more importantly, nationalised this moral commonwealth, replacing localised responsibilities with a remote, state controlled system of welfare. The impact on personal behaviour of stripping out from society mutually owned organisation now becomes ever more apparent.

The change in social attitudes from the 1960s has had so many beneficial effects in respect of personal freedom and often happiness. But these changes have not come without cost, although the size of the price ticket is only now becoming apparent. The convention which in one instance curtailed an individual's freedom of action, and came under attack for that very reason, protected many more individuals from unwanted and uninvited attention.

Investment in children during their first years of life has also changed. The pressure for mothers (or fathers) to return to work quickly can have costs for children. The intense efforts which carers put into forming the best pattern of behaviour in children is easily lost if both parents work early in a child's life. Because it's been assumed that good parenting is acquired by osmosis, benchmarks on best practice are not systematically taught as they should be as part of the national curriculum or included in ante or post-natal classes.

The impact of Thatcherism is also part of our present discontent. State collectivism had more than run its course by the early 1970s, but Labour was blind to the need to represent its core collective beliefs to show how they could still enhance freedom. The ration book approach to public services was hung onto like a political wet blanket. The remnants of ration book socialism, except for the National Health Service, were swept away by the Thatcher revolution. In an almost allergic reaction to the collectivism of Mr Attlee, Thatcherism became the engine force behind the idea that collectivism was the antithesis of individual freedoms.

A new balance between freedom and regulation was proper and overdue, but the new cult of individualism was fostered as though the whole of our lives can be lived in seconds which are unrelated to the days of our being. It is these days which demand a collective sense of our existence. Without these collective checks individual freedom begins its descent into anarchy. That anarchy is the sworn enemy of social virtues.

Transmitting virtue.

Manners, sentiments and moral opinions are learned best in families. It is the breakdown in a growing number of families in the teaching of social virtues which is becoming a central issue to voters. To talk of transmitting social virtues is already a foreign language to a minority, but growing number of households. Once the great chain of social progress, linking one generation's wisdom to the next, is broken, families cease to function in their vital role as transmitters of social virtues. A new norm of 'acceptable' behaviour is quickly established in which the cultivation of those social virtues centring around the respect for others plays increasingly less of a role, or no role at all.

A central question for the early decades of the twenty first century in Britain, and I imagine in many other countries as well, is what role can politics have where families have failed. Much of post-war political activity has been seen in terms of high politics, or in macro terms, and this is as true for domestic as it has been for foreign policy. Considering politics in this fashion is crucially important, but it does not constitute by any stretch of the imagination the total sum of what politics is.

The most important change in economic policy during the past thirty years has been a move towards micro economic considerations. The instigators of the Institute of Economic Affairs, reflecting on their success, have written that the macro economy is in fact made up of a host of micro decisions made by individuals and that, by inference, economic policy should be about helping those individuals achieve success. A similar change in thinking wrought by the IEA to the economy is urgently required in respect to our social thinking. To refashion a well known phrase, there is no society without individuals, families and neighbourhoods. Neighbours from Hell is an exercise in micro politics and is concerned exclusively with devising policies so that the decent majority can repel the advance of the scarcely disguised semi-barbarian forces.

This micro politics is about laying the basis for a more widespread transference of the key social virtues. Some commentators see society in terms of a river. But rivers without banks are a contradiction in terms; they quickly become a flood with all the disastrous consequences which follow from that. Over time all rivers wear away their banks, and if they are to remain rivers those banks need watching and repairing. So too with society. Society's banks are made up of conventions, customs and laws. If it is not to disintegrate into greater lawlessness and a form of slow burning anarchy, society's banks need watching and repairing. It is about such work that Neighbours from Hell is concerned.

The Plan.

This demise of a universally practised consideration for other people &endash; for that is what is happening &endash; is greeted by the majority of us with more despair than fury. Fury there often is at the way normal decent life is being ferreted away. But despair is the more prevalent reaction. Who understands? Who intends to act against this growing barbarism which appears ready to sweep all before it in our country?

This tract is the record of one MP as he has observed events and tried to reconstruct a language that could convey something of the degree to which the established order of his constituents' lives has been broken asunder. I was at first shocked by the behaviour which perceptively began taking on a new and grotesque face during the 1992 Parliament. Shock turned to anger at the unfairness of what I was called upon to observe by constituents. There was anger too at the impotence I felt when authority, which included myself, was found to be without adequate weapons with which to fight back. There could be no fight back without changes to current policies and practices.

2. The rise and rise of anti-social behaviour

What my constituents see as politics has changed out of all recognition during the 20 years or so since I first became their Member of Parliament. From a traditional fare of social security complaints, housing transfers, unfair dismissals, as well as job loses, constituents now, more often than not, ask what can be done to stop their lives being made a misery by the unacceptable behaviour of some neighbours, or more commonly, their neighbours' children. The aim here is not to present a detailed survey. The purpose is to provide an overall view of how the collapse of decent behaviour impacts on the lives of decent citizens.

3.Politics changes.

The moment I realised society was unquestionably changing for the worse is still indelibly etched on my memory. I hold my surgeries at Birkenhead town hall and into the small office I occupy came a group of pensioners well into their 70s. I can see their movements now as though it was yesterday. The politeness as the women came to the door first. Those with the most marked disability were effortlessly guided to the available chairs which faced the desk I borrow for the session. Each of the pensioners were immaculately dressed in their best clothes to see their MP. The contrast between these most respectable working class gentlemen and women and the behaviour of the young fiends whose activities they went on to describe could not have been more marked &endash; despite their living side by side.

There has always been some disorder in the town. Weekends are particularly bad, and never more so than when the pubs and clubs reach the throwing out hour. The list of the big 'do nots' can be read from the charge sheet at the local bridewell, which now masquerades under the boastful title of the custody suite. Rarely, thank goodness, is anyone arrested for murder. Although, even here, the numbers are on the increase. But the entry of theft on the inmates' board is all too common.

Almost all the custody suite's temporary residents are there because of drink, or drugs, even though this root cause of their arrest makes only a fleeting appearance on the blackboards which record the cell into which they have been placed. Here then is one glimpse of what is now regarded as the traditional pattern of crime against which the forces of law and order have built up defences for almost as long as mankind has lived together in groups on these islands.

The circumstances described by this small group of pensioners catapulted me into a different world and laid the foundations for Neighbours from Hell. Nothing had prepared me for the description of what they were enduring and the hell which had engulfed them. Young lads who ran across their bungalow roofs, peed through their letter boxes, jumped out of the shadows as they returned home at night, and, when they were watching television, tried to break their sitting room windows, presumably with the hope of showering the pensioners with shattered glass.

Their faces bore witness to this tragedy. They had expected to live out their time in peace and dignity. Their basic sense of justice was affronted. They had worked hard all their lives, always adding more to society than they ever took from it. They had behaved respectfully to their elders. They reasonably expected to be similarly treated. The lady nearest me nervously plucked at her handbag straps. Each face was lined with strain. Most of their eyes were red from being robbed of the certainty of sleep.

The police, they reported, could do nothing. The young people knew their rights. They could not be touched. The visit of these constituents resulted in what has so far been an eight year campaign to try and persuade governments that politics has entered a new and darker age.

Politics changes gear.

The issues which my constituents now raise with me have changed beyond all recognition over the 25 years I have represented them in Parliament. During my first decade as MP the work was tough only because of the sheer weight of the numbers of enquiries. Housing, social security and employment were all issues which constituents raised.

No matter how complicated the issue I could always provide an answer, even if my constituents didn't always like how I responded. My best answers came from Nick Warren, the most talented welfare rights lawyer in the country, with whom I worked for well over half of my parliamentary life. Slowly at first, then in a great tide like the one which confronted Noah, the issue of disorder began to swamp the agenda.

I no longer had answers to give to my constituents. Without rethinking what politics should be about I could extend no hope to meet their quite proper demands for a civilised existence. Robberies, fights and a few murders, as the custody suite's list of inmates testifies, are still part of the scene. Over centuries our legal system has evolved to deal with this kind of traditional disorder. But bad behaviour, which makes normal life impossible for those caught on the receiving end, has not until recently been so prevalent that citizens require protection. Now the innocent are being systematically targeted.

It is here that the new politics are being forged. Discovering a Third Way proved a good rallying cry to shoehorn out the Tory government which had over-stayed its welcome, but it provides no map or compass to this unknown political terrain which voters are currently left largely to negotiate on their own. Some of the older established issues continue. But generally the new politics centres on behaviour, or rather, its collapse.

Yobbism's unacceptable face.

The face of the new politics belongs to Jason. He was my first introduction to a destroyer of peace and order for whom no laws then existed to control his behaviour.

Jason, then all of thirteen years of age, had been busy with his mates, pelting local residents with slates as they tried to go about their business and to the local store. Standing on the roof of a nearby deserted pub, Jason and his not so merry band of accomplices, pelted local shoppers. They won. The business closed and only then did the gang descend from their temporary home. Under what was then the existing law, the police were unable to do anything effective, and Jason realised this early on.

I first learned that the business was about to go under from a phone call from the owner. Her hard work in building up a viable general store, in an area which made that far from certain, was about to collapse. On the heels of that phone call the local residents came to see me at one of my surgeries at the Town Hall. It was a large group of upright citizens, some younger than me (that becomes ever more common now), some older.

The younger ones, I judged, could well look after themselves. But, as they explained, they took great care in coming to see me. To have acted otherwise would have attracted the gang's attention and a series of counter-offensives would have quickly followed. I was assured that, for the same reason, the same carefulness not to draw attention to themselves would be followed on the return journey.

The words tumbled out in a mixture of raw anger and despair. 'Who would have thought that this is how we would end up?' was a common refrain. It is just in the last few years, I was emphatically told, that it all went haywire. 'People talk of things collapsing like a pack of cards. They are dead right, except it is my life that has gone, not simply cards.'

Jason, if not already, will very shortly be an alcoholic. Like all too many very young teenagers across the country alcoholism gives the quick buzz, and a buzz is the key determinant of what is and what is not done. Cheap, double strength cider, is sold in an increasing array of stores and off licences. One litre of this deadly mixture goes for a pound. Licensing committees have very little power to limit the number of licences. A refusal is quickly appealed and appeals are almost always successful.

Drinking amongst the gang is not a social experience. Unlike older people who learned to drink first with their parents and grandparents, and only then alone with their mates, drinking for Jason and his like is all about getting drunk as quickly as possible. As Jason is feared locally he can buy his alcohol as and when the fancy takes him, although he is clearly under-age.

Attack on public workers.

Ray has worked as a paramedic at Birkenhead ambulance station for the best part of twenty years, which almost exactly parallels my time as the town's MP. He reports on the build-up of anti-social behaviour during that time culminating in the town's ambulance station being temporarily closed. What is extraordinary is that this closure was as a result of continual wild aggression by children as young as eight or nine years.

What happened to the ambulance station in Birkenhead is not an isolated case in the town or, more importantly, in the country. A noticeable change in behaviour occurred well over a decade ago and was then simply dubbed as 'bad behaviour'.. The ambulance workers' cars parked around the station became the target of attack. Twelve years ago the attacks became so sustained that the cars were moved into the station.

Then the station came under attack and defensive grills were screwed onto each of the windows, which proved an example of one step forward, two steps back. These security fences provided a means for access to the roof. Cars leaving the station were stoned. One ambulance worker was 'bricked' while working inside the station, and the new fuel tank came under bombardment. This slide into anarchy at the ambulance station is a parable for our time.

Given the worry of drunks dying by inhaling their own vomit, the police are naturally keen that the worst drunks should be taken to A&E or, possibly, home. If a drunk can fight there is little chance of them dying from their own vomit. Even so the local police are anxious to see younger drunks taken home by ambulance, according to paramedics, than into our new friend the custody suite. Angela, another paramedic, explained how when taking young drunks home it was not unknown, although thankfully uncommon, for a parent or grandparent to join in arguing with the ambulance staff, and sometimes fighting alongside the young drunk who becomes aggressive once again when back on home territory.

In Wirral alone there are already five households which ambulance crews will not attend without police protection. It is not a question of the crews attending unannounced or unsummoned. These are five families who are requesting the help of the ambulance service yet, despite such a request, behave in such a way, and have such a record of fighting and brawling with people who they see as carrying with them an authority, that the police have to be present to protect the ambulance staff as they take a member of the family to hospital. The mob rules even in cases of an extreme emergency and, even though a family member needs emergency treatment, attacks on staff from the families are more than a possibility.

These five families are, admittedly, extreme examples. Much more common are actions again showing that what used to be taken for granted as basic civilised behaviour is breaking down. Wirral Ambulance vehicles are regularly looted as the crews move from their vehicle into the home of a person requesting emergency help. A service which could not be more obviously run for the immediate needs of citizens is nevertheless considered to be fair game by a growing proportion of yobbos.

Undermining authority.

The cry which becomes ever more common from my constituents is simply put. Given the collapse of basic decencies we have seen over the past five years alone, what will life be like in ten years' time, let alone when their grandchildren are beginning their own families. And this fear merely assumes the rot continuing at the same rate. In fact many constituents (and I share this prognosis) see events as showing every sign of accelerating.

Constituents sense that many of the causes of our present discontent are deep-seated and have been building up for many decades. But a single extrapolation of present trends, let alone the nightmare scenario of the whole process gaining greater and greater momentum as it sweeps all before it, signals the urgency of beginning an effective counter-strategy. This new behaviour is bred in families and it is schools who are increasingly manning the trenches in what is nothing less than a war for civilisation as we know it.

No-one should under-rate the pressure many schools are already under. No one is quite sure where Carey is at the moment. She should have been in school but isn't. When she does attend, she and a small band like her, bring a sense of palpable unease to the entire building. A good week for the counter-truant team often results in a bad week for the school.

Carey is looked after by her Nan. Grandparents are increasingly acting as parents, grandparents and foster-parents all rolled into one. The reason why so many nans are becoming parents to their grandchildren is quite simple: drugs, drink or both. And, as is becoming more common, Carey's mum is a drug addict.

As her Nan became older, Carey wrestled out of her control. Slowly Nan's authority was undermined, and there was no one around to help her to repair and strengthen the human dykes which families build to defend civilised behaviour. These defences were simply overwhelmed by Carey's wilful wrongdoing.

The crucial battle Nan lost was to prevent Carey falling in with Jason's gang. She knew the importance of the battle, but was simply no match for it. Carey now chooses how she lives her life, when to come in at night, whether to go to school and when to get blotto with drink.

Death of truth.

Maybe twenty-five or so young people at Carey's school are recognisably in the same group as her.. A big enough group you may say, and the size of an average secondary school class if all of them turned up at once. But the group is small in comparison to the thousand children on the school roll.

The vast majority of the children are normal and a huge credit to themselves and their parents. But just as Carey and her mates are at one extreme, and the majority of normal children at the other, an intermediate group straddles the two. It is here that the battle for civilised values is being fought and will be lost unless we agree the most radical of changes. This straddling group is on the march and growing.

Truth has already become the major casualty. Much of the middle group still knows what truth is. But Carey and her accomplices, and a growing proportion of this group which straddles the extremes, do not now recognise that there is such a thing as truth. This trend has become much more noticeable over the past five years.

Children have always been good at lying. Likewise, while teachers have always been more than moderately effective in finding out the truth, that task is now growing ever more difficult. The most disturbing aspect of a disturbing trend is that for this growing band the word truth has no objective meaning. Truth is what they say it is. It is nothing more, and it is nothing less.

A Rubicon has already been crossed. The operation of truth depends on a constituency conscious of what it is, and for the whole group being willing to attest that fact. An appeal to a child's instinct that truth is important, once an easy exercise, is now met with a growing sense of incomprehension for many, and by direct hostility from others. Some children still know enough simply to disagree that truth is important. For others such talk might as well be in double Dutch, given the meaning the word pThe death of truth is accompanied by an unwillingness to become involved by decent citizens when their active involvement is needed as a bulwark against any further slide towards a social abyss. This is noticeable not only with the middle group of children straddling the extremes. It is there to be seen amongst that large group of children who are happily well adjusted and are achievers.

Even amongst this group who, not that long ago, could be relied upon not simply to act well themselves, but speak out, and sometimes being more actively involved, there is now a noticeable reluctance to get involved at all. The volunteers to recall events where there has been some kind of trouble are more and more a minority caste. This is itself a sign of these children's lack of confidence to operate fully and openly in our society.

5. Demise of authority.

The death of truth links to a second challenging trend centring around the demise of authority. Society can only function if the rules of the game are accepted and challenged at any one time by only a minority. Some of society's key defences all too soon begin to crack and then crumble if authority is made a constant target. No one group has the time or the energy to rebuff every challenge.

The rules work because they are accepted and are thereby seen to work. But the new nihilists push utilitarianism to the limit. What is the value of that rule or person and what is its value to me now? A total emphasis on 'now' marks another great divide in our society.

Challenging authority by a younger generation is nothing new. What marks out what is happening now is the violence which a growing army of young people, and adults too, use as their weapon. To an increasing extent authority is conceded only if it can be physically imposed.

Likewise, with respect, which has been hitherto a gentler social binding force than authority. Respect is no longer awarded, or even conceded, simply because a person holds a position.

This collapse of respect is not confined to office holders, such as the monarch or politicians, or to professionals, doctors and teachers for example, but also to the elderly and even from children to their parents.

6, Here and now.

Here comes yet another great divide which has already been touched upon &endash; the reign of 'now'. The lack of that social virtue which guarantees the consideration of one's actions over a longer period than simply the present swings into its deadly action. A different mind-set reigns. There is only one time span and that is the here and now, and the here and now should provide the biggest possible buzz. A growing group of young people, who consider themselves normal, can see no purpose whatsoever in rules which have been carefully crafted over generations guaranteeing order in the public space. Indeed, in so far as these rules prevent instant buzz and gratification, they are likely to be lashed out against.

Society has become so vulnerable to this attack of the new nihilists partly because the suddenness of the change has not afforded the time to begin constructing adequate defences, let alone examine and remedy the root causes. Once authority worked, and by working no one thought anything more was necessary. By the speed of their surprise attack the new nihilists have shown that authority has no clothes, and stripped of the clothes of respect, authority has all too often been shown to turn quickly and run.

7. Where next?

Where is all this bad behaviour going to end up? The new politics challenges both the left and right. The centre-left's belief was that an amelioration of the grosser forms of inequality would speed the march of civilisation. Merely to recite the phrase throws into sharp relief how these idealist hopes have been dashed.

The right stands equally naked before the new politics. Using the full force of the law doesn't work for the simple reason that the law has yet to be fully crafted to counter the new lawlessness. And, at the end of the day, the law cannot keep being pressed into service if voluntary self control amongst citizens is fast disintegrating.

Seeking legal redress is a sign of just how inadequate and yet how desperate our world now is. Law can only help build the line against a rising tide of disorder. It can punish those who break established rules. It is the most immediate means open to society to protect itself. It can help set against standards of what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. But to be most effective the use of the law has to be backed up by a strategy to teach again all of those social virtues which are central to good and acceptable behaviour.

8. An Agenda for the New Politics

Neighbours from Hell calls for a whole series of policies ranging from more effective measures in holding the line against this new barbarianism, to measures which help re-establish those social virtues that are essential to a peaceful existence. How can the line be held more effectively against what is for many the rising tide of disorder and yobbish behaviour?

Neighbours from Hell sketched out my belief that anti-social behaviour's recruiting sergeant is the dysfunctional family. Those families who fail to teach their young proper respect for others invariably have little idea how to control the resulting breakdown in normal behaviour. While we are helping these families to succeed, the immediate need is for substitute or surrogate parents to step into the breach. The only body which can immediately hold the line in this way is the police.

The Government's anti-social behaviour strategy is modelled on our criminal justice system, which places great emphasis on collecting together and weighing all the evidence. The whole point about trying to control bad behaviour is to prevent such acts of disorder becoming a recruiting ground for criminal behaviour. The criminal justice system is the wrong model for measures to counter anti-social behaviour.

At the moment the police are impotent to impose order. They have to begin the long process of gaining acceptable behaviour contracts or anti- social behaviour orders. This process usually takes months. The police need the power to act just in the same way as a good football referee, who tries, at first, to warn against bad behaviour by showing a yellow card but, if necessary, has a red card which can immediately send off a player. We need to give the police the power of that red card.

After fair warnings the police should have the power to impose immediately an acceptable behaviour contract or anti-social behaviour order. Instead of as now, with the police spending many months gathering together the necessary information, it would be up to those offenders who object to the orders being placed on them to go into the courts and challenge the decision of the police. While such a challenge was going on the orders would of course remain in place.

The Government can set the framework in which society's institutions work, but no police force alone is ever going to be effective in enforcing the basic rules of behaviour. That is the task of the citizens themselves and was, until very recently, a part of British society which operated so effectively that no-one commented upon its success. To remain peaceful over the longer-run societies have to be self-governing.

For thousands of years politics addressed one of the most fundamental of all questions. Never far from the centre of political thinking was the question 'What kind of people do we want ourselves and our fellow citizens to be?'. It is a very recent development which sees political activity mainly in terms of managing markets, although this objective is clearly important. We need, however, to take politics back to the most basic question of what kind of people should we aim to be.

Anti-social behaviour is fast ploughing up what was Britain's once peaceable kingdom. The causes of this fracturing are numerous, but the clock cannot be turned back to create the forces which once shaped a common decency culture. This is no longer practical politics. In place of the guidelines resulting largely from the evangelical revival, and a growing civil society, Britain has to develop a contract-based citizenship to give a new form to the common decencies we inherited.

The idea that welfare should be received free of conditions is a very recent development. For most of the past four hundred years the receipt of welfare has been dependent on fulfilling a series of conditions. Only since the 1960s did an opposing idea gain ground until it was held to be the only proper view. Welfare now needs to fulfil its two traditional roles of providing income, whilst simultaneously giving clear guidance as to what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

In other words, when individuals and families sign up for welfare they will also be required to sign a contract. All contracts have to have at least two parties. Society's part of the contract is to provide the income. The claimant's contract is that this income is received on condition that they respect the common decencies which are so crucial to a happy and peaceful existence.

Religion was the most important driving force in Victorian society in teaching people the basis of the good life, and thereby what citizenship entailed. That option is not open to us now. Where once evangelicals were the great teaching force, schools must step into the breach. The national curriculum must be reshaped so that, amongst the acquiring of other basic skills, individual pupils gain a clear idea of what is and what is not acceptable behaviour and, equally important, what is required of them to be successful parents.

A full discussion of the problem, and what needs to be done to counter the rise and rise of the politics of behaviour, is set out in

Neighbours from Hell:

The Politics of Behaviour,

published by Politico's at £8.99.

You can purchase the book through Politico's directly by contacting John Schwartz on 020 7798 1600 or at john.schwartz@methuen.co.uk

 

The Rt Hon Frank Field's contact details.

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THE CHURCHILL SOCIETY

Internet pages provide general information only.

Whilst we make every endeavour to check our facts, mistakes do occur.

The society cannot be held liable for any special, direct, indirect or consequential damages.

It is your responsibility to verify the accuracy of any information supplied by e mail
or contained on any of these pages.
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