If all political careers end in failure, recent history suggests that their final act is often preceded by ill-advised blather about personal responsibility, rampaging adolescents, and people failing to give up their bus seats. In the late '80s, Margaret Thatcher's last phase was accompanied by the hysterical mood music of lager louts and acid house parties. Four years on, John Major decided to shift the agenda away from Tory infighting with his back to basics drive, a rather nebulous conceit that was kicked off by a conference speech that paid tribute to "the old values - neighbourliness, decency, courtesy". They were, Mr Major assured his audience, still out there in the hearts of millions, "yet somehow we feel embarrassed by them".
Last week, with hooded youths decisively enshrined as the 21st century equivalent of the Droogs from A Clockwork Orange, Tony Blair sounded eerily similar. "Bringing a proper sense of respect and responsibility to others cannot be the job of Parliament alone," he said last week. "Parents, local communities, local people have to join with law-makers and law-enforcers to make a difference." None the less, he had resolved to come over like a polite version of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver and "reclaim the streets for the decent majority". By way of distinguishing himself from his Downing Street predecessor, however, Blair sidelined the vocabulary of "old values", and opted for a word with a decidedly multi-cultural, metropolitan ring. By invoking Respect, he was able to big up (and how long before that one enters the Blairite lexicon?) the supposed values of yesteryear while coming over that bit more "Street": here, it seemed, was yet another example of traditional values in a modern setting.
But what does it mean? The Oxford English Dictionary says the word denotes "deferential esteem shown towards a person or quality" or "heed or regard". Colloquially it has something to do with status earned on account of some unquestionable achievement. As Darcus Howe pointed out in this week's New Statesman, black-on-black violence suggests that the same idea can easily turn nasty: inner-city shootings are often predicated on the victim's lack of respect, and the gunman's wish to enforce it.
Out in the suburbs, meanwhile, it now seems to be used in all kinds of contexts. In the car park of a Cheshire railway station, I recently opened my door, accidentally clipped a neighbouring vehicle and swiftly apologised. "For fuck's sake," said the man at the wheel. "Show some respect."
It is, in other words, a perfect New Labour device: one of those wonderfully woolly signifiers that allows very different people to swarm into Mr Blair's big tent. Is it aimed at terrified middle-Englanders, convinced that Maidstone, Camberley and Harrogate are now Saturday-night war zones, awash with booze and delinquency? Yes, it probably is. Does it address those urban "faith communities" who believe that social problems are largely traceable to the secularist erosion of respect for one's elders and the sidelining of religious morality? To some extent, undoubtedly. (A wish to see more respect was said to have been a recurrent feature of Labour MPs' election encounters with Muslim voters.)
Might it even be squared with lefty-liberal worries about the kind of policeman who last week crash-landed in the headlines after he told a teenager he would "smash your fucking Arab face in", and the idea that esteem must always be a two-way street? Well, why not?
Let's be charitable. First, we might accept that the kernel of the "R" word does represent concrete virtues: civility, courtesy, an empathy with one's fellow human being. Second, if only for the sake of the argument, let's take Mr Blair at what seems to be his word and agree that some time during the last 15 years, Britain mislaid such notions and began sliding into the kind of abyss evoked by the Daily Mail ("Thugs attack Funeral Car," screeched one of its recent headlines. "Now not even the dead are safe from hooligan explosion").
The latter leap of faith is slightly difficult, given that the figures for such disrespectful activities as car theft and burglary have plunged, and, according to the British Crime Survey, the risk of being a victim of crime is the lowest it has been since 1981, but anyway.
If we are indeed being overrun by feral hordes, who swear at the elderly before breaking off to punch strangers and film their distress on their mobiles, we might identify all kinds of influential factors: supposed communities in which
neighbours barely know one another; a society that now places such a premium on individual achievement (the motor, of course, of Mr Blair's beloved meritocracy) that those who cannot measure up might be tempted to acquire their status via mischievous means; paradigmatic TV programmes that cast their alleged stars as figures of endless ridicule.
While we're here, however, it might also be an idea to think back to the coarsening of middle-class manners that decisively materialised in the mid-1990s, when all kinds of opinion-formers decided it was the done thing to adopt a glottal stop, snuff out what was left of their generosity of spirit and behave like a character from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Their new life code oozed from FHM and Loaded, through late-night Channel 4, and on in turn to Westminster. Indeed, just as Tony Blair so cannily gauged the prevailing cultural winds and aligned himself with Cool Britannia, so one of his more high-profile aides became a poster-boy for the new boorishness.
It was Alastair Campbell who reportedly introduced the Labour government to newspaper correspondents in 1997 as follows: "OK, you bastards. Explain to me why I should waste my time with a load of wankers like you." One can't necessarily draw clear lines from our media and political elites to the gang on the corner - but still, given that this is a government whose ministers once alleged that some British rap music may have been to blame for gun crime, it's a point of view.
The same dick-swinging behaviour went on to define much of the New Labour project: David Blunkett's gangster-ish boasts that he could "nail" the odd criminal suspect; government insiders endlessly spreading whispers that ministers might be mad, bad or "psychologically flawed"; rhetoric that sneeringly defined the Government against such inconveniences as woolly liberals, peaceniks and fraudulent asylum-seekers.
For all Mr Blair's piety, the governing style favoured by him and his acolytes still lies some distance from his apparent social ideal. Much of his approach remains Manichean, conspiratorial, self-righteous, cynical - some distance, all told, from respectful (or respectable, come to think of it). So, these are possibly not the best people to be advising us about a revival of heed, regard and deferential esteem, any more than John Major's lot could credibly champion elemental morals before returning to extra-marital affairs and removing money from brown envelopes.
The inequality that separates some of our hooded teenagers from the children of the super-rich seems to be getting worse; alleged social breakdown may have more to do with such soluble problems as a shortage of housing than a decline in moral standards. With respect, maybe the Government should get back to some of that.Reuse content