On Monday, Conservative leader David Cameron spoke to the Royal Society. The title of the speech was “Civility and Civil Progress”. The full text of the speech can be read here.
Cameron bemoans the decline in what he calls civility and most people wouldn't disagree. However, we conveniently forget that in the past things were at least as bad if not worse than now. Throughout English history there has been an undercurrent of what we might call “coarseness”. Look at Chaucer or Shakespeare or even Dickens. The depiction of civil society as rough, tough and occasionally cruel but not lacking in humour runs through all three. The language is sometimes subtle, often much less so. We may think of the past as “merrie olde Englande” but there has always been a harsh undercurrent about urban life that continues today.
Today’s “yob” would be recognisable to Victorian, Restoration or Mediaeval Londoners, as would petty crime, abuse and various forms of anti-social behaviour.
Civility therefore is not normal behaviour in closely packed cities and towns and there’s no point David Cameron imagining we can all transform ourselves into angels overnight – not that he does of course.
Cameron distinguishes between the authoritarian response to a lack of civility (more Police, more powers, use of ASBOs, ID cards etc) and a different response. Now, I do agree with those who say that the Blair Government has been instinctively authoritarian and especially so since September 2001. The Conservative record was patchy with some support for ID cards under the leadership of Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. Thankfully, Cameron stands opposed and I applaud that though Liberal Democrats are instinctively anti-authoritarian.
The alternative to an authoritarian response is much more difficult – if it were easy, we’d have tried it, I’m sure. Cameron calls it a “revolution of responsibility” but I’m far from convinced he’s thought it through. He argues that parents cannot abdicate their responsibility for bringing up their children to the school. In the same way, neighbours cannot rely on the Council to look after everyone and businesses cannot rely on the Government to protect the environment for example. Now, this is a fine message but I think it has problems:
First, we exist in a consumption-driven society where we are encouraged or conditioned to work hard, play hard and spend hard. The market and its demands have changed society and societal structures. My late mother didn’t have to work after she gave birth to me because my father earned enough to keep us all. Nowadays, it is the norm for both parents to have to work to maintain not only a basic standard of living but even in more affluent areas, to maintain the standard of living (cars, holidays, clothes) that advertisers say we need to aspire to.
The “rat-race” isn’t just about the commute to work. Mr & Mrs Rat have to live in a nice house, drive a nice car, go on expensive foreign holidays. Master Rat has to have the best clothes, the newest gadgets and the newest mobile in order to be a part of the Young Rats gang. Our whole lifestyle is predicated on consumption and aspiration. The consequence of that is we are time-poor and cash-rich. Mr & Mrs Rat are so busy working, spending and living that imparting civility to Master Rat goes off the radar. Master Rat grows up with his self-esteem measured in terms of clothes and gadgets.
Changing the politics is only a part of the response and not even a very big part. Of course, we need to see more power, responsibility and authority returned to elected and accountable local bodies from Whitehall and Westminster but that, in itself, won’t change anything. Busy people will no more be able to get involved in the newly empowered local bodies than they can now.
Unfortunately, Cameron then goes on to beat a familiar drum railing against Police form-filling, helath & safety and child protection laws. All this is mood music for the Daily Mail but has to be challenged. As I argued above, in a legal system where guilt needs to be proven and where the Police are accountable, we need adequate safeguards for the protection of the innocent. If by not following proper process, we open the floodgates to miscarriages of justice and return to the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s, then Cameron will not have done any of us a service.
As for the role of teachers in classrooms, I suffered corporal punishment at school. It didn't help then and I doubt it helps now. We cannot institutionalise an acceptable level of force on our children - of course, teachers also have a right to protection from assault and injury - and while Cameron himself pointed to the solution (greater parental involvement) it simply won't do to clear out the existing legal framework before longer-term social changes are seen to have an effect.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the speech is Cameron's views on the roles and responsibilities of the media. As a Liberal Democrat, I share his frustration at the inability of the media to contribute constructively. It was incredible recently to see newspapers roundly condemning the behaviour of the sailors captured and subsequently released by the Iranians but when the sailors were allowed to sell their stories, the papers were like vultures.
The newspapers belittle, condemn and depress. Intelligent debate is rare, the smallest peccadillo , the slightest off-message nuance, the tiniest skeleton in the closet - all are dug up and exposed to the world and one by one institutions are besmerched. Politicians cannot be anything other than perfect so they become bland and boring. Society is portrayed as violent, brutal and drug-addled and that perception takes root. The coverage of immigration in the last three years has taken hysteria, misrepresentation and xenophobia to new depths.
"Freedom of Speech" isn't just about the right to say what you think - it includes the responsibility not to abuse that freedom. Perhaps if we are looking for someone to blame for the current state of the world, we shouldn't blame Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair but men like Rupert Murdoch, Robert Maxwell, David English, John Junor and Richard Desmond but then of course they aren't accountable or electable, are they ?