The big idea that's tough on crime. And if you're poor, tough

That's New Behaviourism, the theory of social responsibility that New Labour is taking to its heart. Vanessa Thorpe reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THOSE political pundits who have spent the past six years searching for the big idea to follow Thatcherism can breathe a sigh of relief. At last there is a phrase which captures the emerging Westminster dogma - New Behaviourism.

"Majorism" never really took off and "Blairism" did not have quite the right ring, but New Behaviourism looks set to become flavour of the new millennium with policy-makers.

The label was re-discovered by the Economist this week, but was first coined in 1985 by the American academic, Mark Granovetter. He used it to express the importance of social relations, as opposed to pure economic factors, in understanding human motivation. In recent weeks, the words have come to stand for the centre-left social theories which have floated to the top of key government ministries.

Its central idea is simple: behaviour is not defined by income alone, and that being poor is not an excuse, or an alibi, for anti-social behaviour. Understandably, New Labour has grabbed it with both hands.

As a second-cousin to "stake-holding" and as the wimpy, intellectual younger brother of "tough on the causes of crime", it is an idea closely associated with the views of the Home Secretary. Home Office sources say he plans to develop the idea in a public lecture on social responsibility in the spring.

The date of the speech has not yet been set, the source said, but it will be part of a concerted effort to draw together government policy and present a fresh social philosophy to the nation.

Tony Blair himself, along with Frank Field, are obvious disciples. "But, it is such a broadly liberal term that I would say even William Hague is a New Behaviourist," says Rick Nye, director of the independent think- tank, The Social Market Foundation.

"Mr Hague spoke here recently on Freedom and the Family," says Mr Nye, "and many of his ideas about community responsibility and the family are just the same as Jack Straw's."

The Home Secretary's introduction of curfew orders - along with measures to force parents to take responsibility for their children's actions - shows New Behaviourism in action.

A speech made by Mr Straw to his Blackburn constituency party last week also sheds light on the ideas behind the concept. "Our programme is the pragmatic implementation of lasting and enduring values," he said, talking of a rejection of "the outdated philosophies of the laissez faire right and the statist left".

"We are building a decent society founded on fairness, justice and compassion and where rights are matched by responsibilities to each other. These are values which appeal well beyond our traditional heartlands."

Left-wing MP Tony Benn believes New Behaviourism will alienate some of Labour's "traditional heartland". "New Behaviourism is just a phrase used to cover the inequalities of our society," says Mr Benn. "And it does not really get to the heart of the matter. They have simply redefined the class system so that almost everyone is middle class, except for those people who want to live in cardboard boxes."

For a die-hard socialist like Mr Benn, the theory harks back toharsh Victorian social policies embodied in the workhouse and the idea of "deserving" and"undeserving" poor.

Comments