Law and disorder
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Date: 7 January, 2003

Frank 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.

Issues

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 common decencies.

Contract

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.

Let us know you think about Frank Field's proposals. Email press@christian-aid.org or join our discussion about the proposals

Neighbours from Hell is reviewed here, where you can also buy the book and raise money for Christian Aid projects

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