Terence Blacker: John Reid made an awful blunder: he told the truth

To suggest that citizens should take responsibility for their own lives is politically disastrous
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The Independent Online

It an odd, discomfiting sensation, feeling sorry for the Home Secretary, John Reid. It seems unnatural somehow. His predecessor, Charles Clarke, had given the impression of being a decent man obliged to impersonate a bully in order to survive a hostile press from within a decaying regime. Reid is the real thing. Bovver boots may have a place in government, but at a time when so many liberties are under threat, it is worrying when that place is at the Home Office.

But now, with an innocence that is surprising in a seasoned politician, Reid has made a terrible blunder and is paying the price. He has dared to tell the truth. It is not the Government, or the police, or the media, or even Louise Casey, the Respect Czar (whatever that may be) who has most influence on the quality of the nation's everyday life, but its citizens. For people to maunder on about how some authority figure or other has let them down is unhelpful, Reid is suggesting. They should consider taking responsibility for their own neighbourhoods.

The fact that this relatively mild and straightforward proposal has caused such a row was not entirely Reid's fault. His department put forward a paper to the Cabinet proposing an advertising campaign which would further the campaign against anti-social behaviour. It included the slogan, "Don't moan - take action. It's your street or estate." Newspapers, their bloodlust quickened by the various wounds recently inflicted on ministers, first misinterpreted the message, then triumphantly announced another Home Office gaffe.

For some, Reid was encouraging a spirit of vigilantism which would see brave, innocent members of the public filleted by dagger-wielding yobs. Others took the line offered by his shadow minister, David Davis, that it was "brazen beyond belief for the Government to try to shift responsibility on to the shoulders of the public".

We are living in strange times when a leading Conservative speaks out against self-reliance and tells a Labour administration it should be interfering more, but Davis clearly understands better than Reid this basic rule of political life: when something goes wrong, it is never a good idea to put the blame on the public. To suggest that citizens should take some responsibility for their own lives may sound harmless enough, but it is politically disastrous.

As it happens, Reid's advertising slogan may be lacking in poetry, but the sentiment it expresses is just fine. There are many reasons for the litter, loutishness and violence on the streets, and one of them is the indifference of others, whether it is caused by a fatalistic sense that such things are somebody else's problems or old-fashioned laziness. None of the other bright ideas that are currently being proposed - Respect areas, yob control league tables, parenting programmes and so on - can work unless the public is, and feels, involved.

The media reaction to the Home Office plan, a hurricane of whinge, neatly highlights the problem it needs to overcome. Passive complaint has become the British disease. Because the political class lacks the nerve to tell the electorate to grow up, a general dissatisfaction with those thought to run our lives has become endemic. In pubs and at dinner parties, in newspapers and on pointless television programmes featuring semi-celebrities being grumpy, a low, nagging murmur of complaint can be heard. Its objects vary, but the subtext is always the same: someone else is to blame. The right to moan has become established as an assumed national privilege, and the more we huff and puff about the injustice of life, the less we do to resolve it ourselves.

Not that a heightened sense of civic responsibility will be without its problems. More often than not, those who take action in the manner suggested by the Home Office are the wrong people, motivated by the wrong reasons. A page in Monday's edition of my local newspaper, the Eastern Daily Press, contains two stories of proactive citizenship, neither of them entirely reassuring. A senior policeman in Suffolk has just released this message for the public: "If someone in your neighbourhood is driving a fancy car, wearing designer clothes, flashing their cash and apparently living beyond their means and you think they might be criminal, we want you to call and tell us."

Above this open invitation to the region's sneaks and grasses, there is a story from across the border in Norfolk of a couple who have taken action so determinedly over the past nine years - over planning, the council audits, building controls, the integrity of council workers - that they have just been declared a public nuisance. Not one of their objections has been upheld, but dealing with them has been expensive - responding to just one of their many campaigns cost the local council £39,420 - and has occupied hundreds of working hours.

It is a thin line between on the one hand taking action on behalf of your street, region or estate, and on the other, becoming a crazed serial complainer or reporting neighbours to the police on suspicion of having an inappropriately flashy car, but a campaign to remind each of us that we have an investment in where we live and that we cannot always turn to some nannying authority to make it better is rather brave and sensible.

Ignoring the moaners and seeing it through, in the face of a negative media and with the unreliable support of an edgy, weakened Prime Minister, is likely to be a tough call for the Home Secretary. Perhaps those Bovver boots are going to be be useful after all.