The Prime Minister tried his best yesterday to present his "respect" action plan as a significant moment. He spoke dramatically of the need to update our archaic criminal justice system to deal with what he described as "21st-century problems" and stressed his desire to "reclaim the streets" for Britain's law-abiding majority. But none of this heroic rhetoric could ultimately disguise the fact that most of the proposals amount to little more than gesture politics. This was an opportunity for the Prime Minister to sound tough on our "yob culture". The main goal of the unveiling of this plan was to make the Government look as if it has the problem of antisocial behaviour firmly in hand.
There are some decent proposals hidden in yesterday's mountain of initiatives. Making local councils and police forces more responsive to local communities, for example, might be productive, although we might quibble at this latest proposed method. And it is quite true that relatively small things such as removing graffiti from a deprived area can have a dramatic effect on improving the quality of life. But the Government has adopted such a scattergun approach - dragging in any new respect-related initiative thrown up by Whitehall - that any good ideas are outnumbered by the bad. Many of the proposals - the National Parenting Academy springs to mind - sound as if they have been lifted from an episode of The Thick of It, Armando Iannucci's scathing political satire.
Mr Blair was keen to emphasise the proposed power to evict nuisance neighbours from their homes for three months. This is the sort of headline-grabbing proposal that Mr Blair is keen on, reminiscent of his infamous plan to march drunks to cashpoints. But it raises as many potential problems as it would solve. It might bring temporary relief to one afflicted estate, but where would evicted families go? This would simply serve to push the problem elsewhere. This sort of vagueness is typical of too much of the Government's thinking on antisocial behaviour.
The Prime Minister is also frighteningly blasé about how measures such as on-the-spot fines and child curfews have undermined civil liberties. And he brushes off far too easily concerns that Asbos are a fast track to a criminal record for thousands of children. These are not peripheral concerns. They go to the heart of the question of the type of society we want to live in. We would not dispute that there is a significant problem with antisocial behaviour by young people in this country. And we recognise that antisocial behaviour is a problem that disproportionately affects those who live in poor areas. Doing nothing, or denying the problem, would be an abnegation of responsibility.
But the fact remains that - despite endless Criminal Justice Bills put forward by this Government over the years - Mr Blair has failed to get a grip on the real causes of antisocial behaviour. These are no secret. They include factors such as poverty, the breakdown of families, the scourges of drug and alcohol addiction, not to mention a chronic shortage of youth facilities in deprived areas.
It was left to the new Tory leader, David Cameron, to make the point yesterday that Mr Blair himself might once have made - that top-down government action cannot solve a complex problem such as the rise of antisocial behaviour. This is, no doubt, part of the Conservative repositioning strategy. But it also has the merit of being true. It is futile for any government to attempt to micro-manage people's behaviour through legislation. Whether it is John Major's "back to basics", or Mr Blair's "respect agenda", any politicians offering a quick fix to society's deep-rooted problems should be treated with a healthy dose of scepticism.Reuse content