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> comment by Frank Field
Date: 7 January, 2003
Field MP. Photo: Christian Aid
'Now we are reaping a whirlwind of bad behaviour due to our
failure to consider the most basic of all political questions.
What kind of character do we want our fellow citizens to have?'
Frank Field, Labour
MP for Birkenhead and former Minister for Welfare Reform, argues
in Christian Aid News that radical steps must be taken. The UK is
on the brink of the most dangerous of all revolutions - the behaviour,
moral opinions and manners of its people are beginning to change
for the worse
There were five families in the Wirral whose
brutal and irrational behaviour was such that even if one of the
members of the family themselves called for the help of an ambulance,
the ambulance crew would not attend the family without police protection.
That was just one of the startling facts given to me by ambulance
workers when I began collecting material more than a year ago for
my book Neighbours from Hell: The Politics of Behaviour.
These families are, of course, an extreme example of the breakdown
of civilised behaviour we are witnessing in Britain today. By the
time the book was published, some nine months later, the number
of such families in the four Wirral constituencies had risen to
nine. The new barbarians were well and truly on the march.
Over a 200-year period in Britain, we marched
towards respectability, reaching an apex by the middle of the last
century. What sort of people we were was shaped by two major forces.
The first was the evangelical revival, which instilled a deep feeling
of personal responsibility into an ever-growing proportion of the
population. People felt they were responsible and would be accountable
for their actions.
The other great force was the discipline the
labour movement imposed on the membership of its mutually owned
welfare state. Bad behaviour did not rule for the very simple reason
that it risked the welfare of the entire membership.
Anti-social behaviour is now one of the major issues which concerns
voters. The surprise is not its current dominance but that good
behaviour and a reasonable degree of civility continued to be taught
in families long after the evangelical revival became a spent force,
and that our mutually owned welfare state was ruthlessly confined
to the history books.
Now we are reaping a whirlwind of bad behaviour
due to our failure to consider the most basic of all political questions.
What kind of character do we want our fellow citizens to have?
Addressing this question constitutes the new
politics of behaviour. But because in the past our national characters
were largely formed within families whose values were determined
by civil society politicians took a back seat. Voters are now demanding
that politicians take control of the steering wheel.
What can politics do when a growing number of
families fail to teach their children a set of common decencies?
Those common decencies not only make family life tolerable, but
enable children to navigate successfully the outside world. The
politics of behaviour is essentially about how we reteach these
One of a number of proposals put forward in Neighbours from Hell
is to transform welfare from a rights based entitlement to a contract.
Each contract would spell out what society is to provide and the
other side of the contract would specify what kind of behaviour
society expects in return.
Given that most children are not now baptised,
an obvious place to begin this reform would be to convert the registration
of a birth into a public ceremony. At that event the registrar would
welcome the child into the wider community, spell out what society
wanted to help the family achieve for that child, and in return
give a basic outline of the responsibilities of parenthood. In this
way welfare would become a teaching force akin to what religion
did for Victorian society.
us know you think about Frank Field's proposals. Email email@example.com
or join our discussion
about the proposals
from Hell is reviewed
here, where you can also buy the book and raise money for Christian
out more about Christian Aid News