Neighbours from hell
You are in: surefish > culture > books > Neighbours from Hell review
Date: 9 January, 2003

Click on the book cover above to purchase it and raise money for Christian Aid projects. Image: Politico's Publishing

 

'The book is laced with anecdotes and letters from his constituency telling how problem families and gangs of addicts have tormented and even destroyed communities, wrecking houses, driving shops out of business and forcing an ambulance station to close.'

Steve Tomkins says that Frank Field's book about the negatives changes in society today could help turn back the tide of antisocial behaviour

"Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents." Cicero said that in the second-century BC. (He went on to complain that everyone was writing a book.)

250 years previously Aristotle was worrying about the decay of civilisation too. It seems to be natural for every generation's oldies to believe that society is going to the dogs and that their children are throwing away everything they value - perhaps because they remember how passionately they threw away everything their parents valued.

Frank Field, the MP for Birkenhead since 1979, also sees our society in crisis, entering 'a new and darker age' thanks to 'the collapse of decent behaviour'.

In particular, he points to a growing epidemic of antisocial behaviour that the existing legal system has proved unequal to combating. The book is laced with anecdotes and letters from his constituency telling how problem families and gangs of addicts have tormented and even destroyed communities, wrecking houses, driving shops out of business and forcing an ambulance station to close.

Field traces the roots of this disaster and then proposes ways to beat it. The immediate cause is in dysfunctional families which fail to pass on social values.

In the longer term, he argues that Christianity gave our society a consensus about acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, which has now collapsed, and that the national collectivism of the welfare state undermined local solidarity. More recently the 60s idealised unrestricted personal freedom, and the increased pressure on parents to return to work has damaged family life.

How to counter 'the new barbarism'? Field offers a three-pronged strategy. First, the police should be given powers (and money) to act as surrogate parents, placing restrictions on the freedom of young people who are repeatedly found acting antisocially.

Skills

Secondly, schools need to be substitute parents too, teaching citizenship and parenthood skills, with practical training through the use of contracts. Thirdly, the welfare system should be used to enforce acceptable behaviour, tying benefits to a social contract.

So, is Field right about the disintegration of society? It's not something you can measure easily with statistics, especially as convictions for antisocial behaviour are so hard to come by. Instead Field offers many stories form Birkenhead; but while these are truly appalling, such anecdotal evidence inevitably leaves the reader to decide how common such cases really are. Older and more pessimistic readers will I suspect find his diagnosis more compelling than younger and more optimistic ones. Being myself exactly half of threescore years and ten, I'm undecided.

The case for a general collapse of decent behaviour is inconclusive then. Nevertheless, the book makes its most important points convincingly. Antisocial behaviour is terrorising the poorest communities in Britain. Police and local authorities have proved unable to control it and need to be given new powers to do so.

Hopefully this book will make a contribution to turning back the tide. Whether that means rescuing our society from ruin, you'll have to decide for yourself.

Neighbours from Hell: The politics of behaviour by Frank Field, Politico's Publishing, pp156, RRP £8.99, £7.19 on amazon.co.uk - click here to buy the book and raise money for Christian Aid

Read Frank Field's Christian Aid News comment article