You looking at me? By Ann Rossiter

2 Jun 05
The government is in a flap about 'respect', or the lack of it as personified by gangs of feral youths wearing 'hoodies'. Is this a real problem or just society having one of its moral panics and, anyway, isn't respect owed both ways? Ann Rossiter investigates

03 June 2005

The government is in a flap about 'respect', or the lack of it as personified by gangs of feral youths wearing 'hoodies'. Is this a real problem or just society having one of its moral panics — and, anyway, isn't respect owed both ways? Ann Rossiter investigates

What is respect? To whom do we owe it, and on what grounds? These questions are being asked by civil servants trying to fathom the implications of the prime minister's announcement that the drive to rekindle respect within society will be central to the remainder of his time in office. He used his first third-term speech on the doorstep of Number 10 to make the point that this issue had dominated talk on other doorsteps around the country during the election campaign. Effectively, he was saying: 'This is the people talking, and they are angry.'

As far as Tony Blair is concerned, the implications for policy are clear: this is a law and order issue. It is the 'law-abiding majority' who are angry and distressed. It is about tackling 'thugs' and 'yobbish behaviour'. However, he also recognised that it was a broader societal issue when he said: 'I cannot solve all these problems… I can start a debate on this and I can legislate. What I cannot do is raise someone's children for them.' The problem with this authoritarian approach to respect is that it assumes that individuals owe respect to authority, without considering what respect society owes to individuals.

There are clear antecedents in New Labour thinking for this approach to tackling antisocial behaviour. Home Office minister Hazel Blears' 2004 booklet, The politics of decency, urged the restoration of old-fashioned values, including greater community engagement, as a way of restoring respect in society. Importantly, she conceded that it was hard to generalise about the causes of poor behaviour, but placed a great deal of importance on inadequate parenting as a causal factor. This includes families spending less time together than they did and a lack of role models in single parent families.

Blears is the minister with responsibility for antisocial behaviour of course or, to give her full title, minister of state for policing, security and community safety. She is not the only minister with a finger in the 'respect policy' pie. David Miliband, with his communities and local government brief, and Tony Blair, as chair of the Cabinet committee on antisocial behaviour, will also have a say.

Although these three might pull in different directions on some issues, there are some points they all agree on. As a result, the crusade for respect is likely to have three prongs: a focus on rebuilding community institutions; a highly visible crackdown on bad behaviour; and more use of the tools the government has to promote good parenting.

There has been a tension between Labour's aim to rebuild community institutions and its desire to improve standards in public service through centrally driven targets and monitoring. In the past, Blears has argued for local people to own, direct and run local institutions.

Radical suggestions in this area are likely to be blocked by the Treasury, concerned about accountability. Instead, we will see more of an attempt to engage parents and other service users in the running of existing organisations.

The PM and his ministers are keen to ensure that the public is aware when justice is being done. In this way, they believe, community coherence can be strengthened – those who offend against its values are seen to be punished. Whether or not we end up with offenders doing their community service in orange boiler suits, the aim will be to make justice visible.

There are only a number of things that government can do in the area of parenting without the tabloid press shouting about the 'nanny state gone mad'. These include residential parenting courses for the most dysfunctional families – 'super nanny' meets the residents of Moss Side, the Asbo (Antisocial Behaviour Order) 'capital' of the UK.

Not everyone agrees that these are the right ways to rebuild respect. Over the past two weeks, commentators have variously argued that we are witnessing a breakdown in the fabric of society, that problems arise from a failure of the education system and that 'boys will be boys'. There is no agreement on the nature of the problem or the right solution. Several doubt whether there is a real problem at all.

There are two ways to try to evaluate whether or not this is a real problem, or whether we are just engaging in one of our periodic moral panics. We can look at the numbers of crimes committed, and we can look at public attitudes to the behaviour of others. The first has the benefit of giving us an objective measure, as far as this is possible. The second, while subjective, can give us an indication of how people feel. This recognises that 'respect' encompasses attitude as well as behaviour.

The British Crime Survey suggests that, over the past 20 years, crime rose and then fell again. It reached a peak in 1995 when around 40% of the population had been the victim of some kind of crime, and has since fallen again. In 2003/04, around 26% of the population had been a victim of crime. This is pretty much in line with levels of crime 20 years ago.

If you look at recorded crime, you get a different picture. It has risen considerably since the 1950s and 1960s. However, it is debatable whether this reflects a real increase in crimes committed or just in those reported. It is also worth bearing in mind that we have over recent years introduced laws against behaviour that once would have been regarded as reprehensible, but not criminal.

There does not seem to be any strong evidence that the problem is worse than it was, if it is one of criminal behaviour. If young people are no more criminal than their fathers or grandfathers, the suspicion must arise that we are witnessing one of the moral panics that the UK is prone to. The phenomenon was first identified by Stanley Cohen in 1972 in Folk devils and moral panics: the creation of the Mods and Rockers, which looks at the media's response to these teenage tribes in the 1960s. Moral panics predate the 1960s however – horror comics caused a scandal in the 1930s and 'white slavery' during the nineteenth century.

The defining characteristics of a moral panic are that it is a semi-spontaneous or media-generated mass movement that springs apparently out of nowhere. It will be based on the perception that some individual or group, frequently a minority group or a subculture, is dangerously deviant and poses a menace to society. In response to these concerns, Cohen suggests, those in positions of power, such as politicians and editors, will man the moral barricades, with the response being disproportionate to the risk.

This description certainly seems to fit current media and public attitudes to a perceived subculture of young adult urban males, dressing in a uniform of baggy trousers and hooded tops – the now infamous 'hoodie'. This 'deviant' group is seen as posing a threat to society through a culture of heavy drinking and rowdy as well as criminal behaviour. If we are in the midst of a moral panic, the issue might well die down as suddenly as it sprang up, as did the scares about cult brainwashing in the 1970s and video nasties in the 1980s.

However, concern about a lack of 'respect' for the decent and law-abiding draws on another thread in Britain's social history. Urban conurbations, particularly London, have always been associated with the belligerent behaviour of groups of the working class, and with heavy drinking. Peter Ackroyd says in London: the biography, that the city manifests, as always, the 'immoderate drinking of foolish persons', citing a thirteenth-century description by a traveller. James Boswell recorded in his diary in 1762 that 'the rudeness of the English vulgar is terrible… bullying and being abusive with their blackguard tongues'.

This so closely echoes complaints by today's tabloid press, of groups of young men frightening the decent citizens of Britain's towns with their out-of-control behaviour and wild drinking, that the suspicion must be that we are seeing the continuation or re-emergence of something very familiar. The difference in the UK in 2005 might be that this once urban phenomenon has spread beyond its previous strongholds in larger cities to smaller towns and villages.

Talking about a lack of respect in terms of criminal behaviour is to discuss its outputs – the impact that a lack of respect has on others. The other way of talking about it is in terms of inputs – in other words, attitudes and morals. This is generally regarded as delicate territory for a politician. John Major's Back to Basics campaign is held up as a warning to any aspiring moralist in government.

However, the prime minister has never been afraid to talk about the moral dimension of the problems facing the UK. We should have sympathy for this approach. Voters do not regard crime and misbehaviour in purely technocratic or sociological terms. Morality should not be a separate domain and has a place in politics, even if we need to be careful about what that place is.

The critical question is whether we have understood the connection between the two. How does the moral language of respect for others and for the communities in which we live connect to the language of Asbos and hoodies? Richard Sennett's book, Respect: the formation of character in an age of inequality, is the most widely read attempt to provide a bridge between the language of morality and the language of behaviour.

He makes a strong case for the lack of respect in society arising from socially excluded groups feeling alienated from society and disempowered. He draws a distinction between respect for authority and respect from authority, and argues that adult dependency and degrading forms of compassion undermine the latter.

For him, respect operates in two important ways. It is mutual and earned – so is central to the way in which the state treats individuals. This means giving people control over their own lives and not confusing supporting communities with policing them. But respect is also owed – how individuals treat society in the form of each other. Any lasting solution to a lack of respect in society has to deal with both aspects.

So far, it appears that the government's programme to tackle the disintegration of respect in society will deal with only one side of this equation – the respect owed by individuals to society. However, this is to tackle only the symptoms of the problem, rather than its cause. There is nothing wrong with this as far as it goes. But it is not likely to reduce the overall instance of antisocial behaviour on its own.

If Blair and Blears are to have an impact on how members of society view and treat each other, they will need to look elsewhere. They will need to focus their attention on building 'social capital' – the bonds of trust and shared norms and values that hold societies together. This requires a totally different set of policy levers. These are not at all amenable to translation into the language of the tabloids. In fact, they are traditionally liberal.

First, society must treat all its citizens as intrinsically valued human beings, irrespective of race, age or class. This applies in both a negative sense – not allowing prejudice to infect people's interaction with the state, including police services and the education system. It also applies in a more positive sense, in providing people with the basic prerequisites of self-respect – the right to work and support themselves and their families.

Second, we must give everyone a reason to work and to learn, in the form of substantive opportunities to improve their condition. Without an incentive to strive, it is inevitable that people will cease to do so and will find themselves alienated from a society that places so much emphasis on the ability to compete.

Third, we must remove the divide that too many people see between themselves and the forces of authority and control – the division between 'us and them'. To achieve this, we need people to see themselves represented in systems of authority whether in education, social work, the police or in government. This should be complemented by decentralised decision-making – giving local communities autonomy and control wherever possible.

None of these proposals should be anathema to a Labour government. Hazel Blears recognises this when she focuses on rebuilding community institutions. But the way it is done is as important as the fact of doing it. She describes decency as shorthand for established norms of behaviour in a cohesive society. She sees antisocial behaviour as offending against these established norms. But the government also needs to consider the ways in which the activity of the state also offends against them.

This analysis broadens the drive for respect within society out of the Home Office and into other parts of government. It also gives politicians and officials a set of criteria against which all policies should be tested. At the moment, the government is addressing the question of respect by tackling law and order problems. It should be frank that this is what it is doing. But it should also recognise that this is not enough. However unfashionable the sentiment, it should remember that it also needs to win respect from the people whose behaviour it is trying to change.

Ann Rossiter is the acting director of the Social Market Foundation


Did you enjoy this article?