Civic duty first, or we drown

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE MORAL debate that accompanied the first reactions to the discovery of the Bulger murder in Liverpool turned out to be brief, confused and unreal. The rival claims of 'Nature' and 'Nurture' had their outings; clerics intoned their nostrums on our spiritual malaise; journalists chased that fortnight's fox with ardour and handwringing - making much of the soft toys and dead children - before moving to another topic.

Much of it was little more than verbal reflex and incantation. One voice said that we required a 'national consensus' about the means of tackling crime; another that we needed more understanding about the social aetiology of violence. The recoil itself was, or was not, a 'moral panic'. There was too much sentiment or national self-pity and too little realism in response to it.

Since then, a handful of Labour politicians and left intellectuals have cautiously permitted the words 'individual responsibility' to pass their lips; a few Tory politicians have even stretched their minds to the idea of a nexus between economic deprivation and moral disorder; the Liberal Democrats have stressed the need for more resources in crime prevention and increased moral and practical support for the police. But, for the rest, 'getting tough on crime', more and longer custodial sentencing, 'cracking down' on juvenile offences, and so on, have led the field.

Nothing can come of these responses to our civic crises, however, until a political Rubicon has been crossed: the recognition that citizenship itself is a compound of rights, privileges or benefits and duties. The citizen's rights are the political legacy of Magna Carta, the English and French revolutions, the 19th-century 'class struggle' and the 20th-century victories of the suffragettes. The citizen's privileges or benefits, some of them no more than cash payments by the state, are generally lesser-order 'entitlements', which do not possess, and should not be given, equivalent legal status. As for citizens' duties, they have become a dead letter, or a subject for incredulity and derision.

Moreover, the distinctions between rights, privileges and duties are no longer made, and the failure to make them adds to the confusion. On the one hand, this or that pressure group promiscuously demands more rights, and more benefits falsely elevated to the status of rights, for the allegedly 'unempowered' citizen body. On the other, the cashing of the welfare giro- cheque may be the citizen's only civic act.

At the same time, the state itself absconds from its established civic duties. By 'privatising' the prisons for example, and handing over its ethical and constitutional responsibility to provide an impartial system of protection to other citizens, the state breaks the civic bond.

In such conditions, a truly civic society gradually ceases to exist, or comes to be entirely composed of strangers. Worst of all, lack of civic education has made these arguments incomprehensible to many ostensible citizens, who are further estranged, by their ignorance, from one another.

The truth is that citizenship, despite the continuous extension during this century both of its rights and its benefits, has become a reduced thing in the eyes of its beneficiaries. Conversely, its defects - whether they arise from a bureaucratised or over-secretive state, or from the failure of public bodies to 'deliver' adequate services to the 'customer' have been exaggerated beyond reason, often from opportunistic political motives and for want of any better political agenda. Public debate about the real meaning of a civic society and civic behaviour must surely be running at a lower moral and intellectual level than at any previous time.

A sense of crisis - about plebeian violence, about educational failure, about the corrupt 'dependency culture' - there may be; but it has done little to focus argument on the failure of the civic bond. The principal reason, put shortly, is that the very notion of citizen responsibilities - including responsibilities to the civic order for the conduct of one's own offspring - has for long been an impossible one. It might almost be said to be subject to a cultural taboo, perhaps for the first time in the history of civilisation.

A duty to study, on the part of those who receive the benefits of state education? Fiddlesticks. A duty to live healthily, or pay more for some of the services of the state health service? Stuff and nonsense, arrant and intrusive. A duty to know the history of one's country - indeed, to know where one is - as a moral correlate of holding a passport? Madness. Forfeit fundamental civic rights and lose civic benefits as the price of failure to observe elementary citizen duties? Aristotelian claptrap, or worse.

If so, the long evolution of the idea of civic society must be at an end. Yet it is not, as the widespread sense of moral outrage at anti-social acts and dereliction of responsibilities by others indicates. The citizen, albeit 'alienated', continues to register his feelings of offence at the assaults of others upon what remains of a civic order. At times such as this, the virtuous instinct that man is a social and civic animal surfaces from the depths in which it had seemingly drowned. And it is on this latent civic virtue that political parties must now base their address to the people.

To do so, however, will require the grasping of a very prickly nettle: the recognition that the benefits of public provision are not rights but privileges. To reach a 'national consensus' on this will require something of a cultural revolution.

Beyond it arises an even more uncomfortable prospect for politicians of every stripe: the acknowledgment that civic duties must gradually attain the primacy hitherto given to civic rights, if the dissolution of the civic order is to be arrested. When ethical voluntarism fails, and the degree of civic estrangement worsens, society's self-protection must eventually dictate the loss of civic benefits and even of civic rights as a sanction for certain forms of anti-civic conduct.

Nor can it be seriously doubted, including by the left, that given today's social trends - 'If I wanted to kill a baby, I would kill my own, wouldn't I?' said Child A in the Bulger case (alluding to his younger brother), protesting his innocence - tomorrow's world will demand compulsory community service, less easily gained divorce, parental liability for young people's crime, the repetition of the school year for educational failure, work-sharing and rationed access to places. The failures of socialism and 'Thatcherism' have helped to make such politics inescapable. Neither stoicism, nor liberal-minded recoil from obligation, nor the complacency that diagnoses moral anxiety in others as mere panic can serve to re-compose the civic order.

Moreover if the 'man-in-the-street' is not to be swept away by much uglier passions, politicians of left, right and centre will soon have to act upon that same man-in-the- street's correct perception that the individual needs obligations - to self, familiars, fellows, and to the civic order as a whole - as well as benefits and rights.

And who knows but that the greatest of all civic sins of recent times, the 'privatisation' of the prison service, may in future be undone, and the state resume one of its own principal civic and ethical obligations? For until it does, it remains seriously disabled from insisting upon the reciprocal performance of the individual's moral duty to observe the law. There is a long way to go.

The author's book, 'The Spirit of the Age', is published by Sinclair-Stevenson.

(Photograph omitted)