Communitarians, authoritarians and nonconformists

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The Independent Online
From Professor Anthony Giddens

Sir: Jack Straw ("Good neighbours start here", 4 July) accuses Anna Coote of naivety in daring to criticise communitarianism. I was surprised, though, by how naive his own views seem to be.

Not all forms of communitarianism are authoritarian - no one could conceivably say such a thing, for example of the "philosophical communitarianism" of Charles Taylor. Yet the authoritarian tinge of the more primitive versions advanced by Amitai Etzioni and others is plain to see. Strong communities, duties, obligations - this is the traditional stuff of conservatism, not socialism. Ms Coote is right to say that there is a tension between individual freedom or empowerment and strong communities.

The cry for more draconian forms of policing corresponds to the public mood but otherwise makes very little sense. Moreover, it's simply not true that strong communities are inimical to crime. The key factor influencing whether a neighbourhood is a high-crime one or not is impoverishment, material and psychological. St John's Wood, by and large, is a law-abiding place, but it's probably less of a strong community than Hackney.

The case Mr Straw describes - someone walks in and steals the TV while the household is watching it - seems a crime in anyone's lexicon. No special "community safety order" is needed to deal with it.

Anna Coote has initiated a very important debate and leading Labour politicians should listen. Jack Straw says that his party's policy is arrived at through a "distillation of high ideals and gut instinct". For all our sakes, I hope not. Let's at least hope that high ideals outweigh gut instinct. And rational debate plus consideration of evidence should get a look in somewhere.

Yours faithfully,

Anthony giddens

London, NW1

5 July