Profile: Citizen with attitude: Laurence Marks on the abrasive writer who wants us to worry about our duties not our rights

Click to follow
FOR A philosophical treatise, David Selbourne's The Principle of Duty, published a fortnight ago, has evoked an astonishing public response. Its animating thesis is that we would be happier if we paid more attention to our obligations as citizens and less to our claims upon the community, a change it would encourage by persuasion or coercion.

The book has been taken up by the Times (two extracts, three leading articles and a pounds 10-a-knob public seminar), reviewed sympathetically, and preached as a text by political columnists, the Archbishop of York and the Chief Rabbi. The Education Secretary, John Patten, has got into the act by arguing that its principles have - surprise, surprise] - informed many of the Government's policies, a kiss of death it has happily survived. Its ghostly presence can be seen in some of Tony Blair's recent speeches, recognisable from Blair's use of a similar conceptual vocabulary.

The allure of the argument is easily explained. The world-wide failure of confidence in collectivism, dramatised by the collapse of the East European regimes, robbed the left of its ethical raison d'etre. There is also a dispiriting sense that in Britain communal loyalties are being mutely abandoned. Blair's candidacy for the Labour leadership has opened British politics to a risorgimento. There is an appetite for new ideas. Selbourne's timing has been perfect.

Who exactly is David Selbourne? And where, as they say in California, is he coming from?

He is 57, a former lecturer in politics at Ruskin College, Oxford (which he left in 1986 after a terrific row about academic freedom), an admired journalist and a freebooting, idiosyncratic political and cultural historian. The Principle of Duty is the kind of book it is, largely because of his embattled personal history.

His father, Hugh Selbourne, a North Country doctor, was a dominating, intransigent, super-ego- driven patriarch of the kind who leave their sons either shell- shocked for life or impelled to success by a hunger for self-approval that can never be satisfied. David and his two younger sisters grew up in Dukinfield, a working-class community outside Manchester, where Selbourne pere, himself the son of a poor Jewish tailor's assistant, struggled with lean resources to relieve the diseases of privation he saw all around him.

'I was brought up in this dark cotton town, where we lived next to the mills,' says David Selbourne. 'I have very dark memories of conditions there and of my father, one of the town's few doctors, working day and night with his tremendous sense of scruple. It killed him. He thought his life had been misspent, and I knew it had not. I didn't, in that sense, have a conventional middle-class upbringing. If I have a desire for ethical engagement, that's where it comes from.'

Father and son quarrelled and eventually became estranged. 'He disapproved of my free-thinking but admired it at the same time. He felt my going to Oxford was a parting of the ways. He anticipated my becoming alienated from him before it happened, and became very defensive about himself as he thought I saw him.'

Selbourne studied classics and ancient history at Manchester Grammar School, got a second in law at Balliol and read for the Bar, but turned to authorship. He had several plays performed, including one, The Two-Backed Beast, that vividly portrayed his father (who went to see it and protested at having invented dialogue put in his mouth). While teaching in Birmingham, he met the second important influence on his life.

This was Norman Booth, a self-educated ex-miner (not unlike Hardy's Jude) who had bicycled to Oxford, persuaded the first college he came to, St Catherine's, to accept him, studied under G D H Cole, a prominent socialist thinker, and qualified as a lecturer. 'I admired the life Norman had led and the passion of his involvement in ideas,' says Selbourne. 'The philosophers of the past were living beings to him. He felt he knew what any one of them would have said when confronted by the problems of our own time. He really taught me political theory. It was under his influence that I applied for the Ruskin job in 1966.'

AT RUSKIN, David Selbourne developed a serious didactic purpose, becoming absorbed in socialist ideas, though he joined no party. Selbourne had been there for 20 years when his dispute with the college became a national scandal. Selbourne had written an article for the Times about the corruption of Liverpool politics. The paper was being blacked by the labour movement after Rupert Murdoch's move to Wapping, which threatened to break the print unions. Ruskin was a partly government-funded, trade union college for mature students, who demanded that Selbourne apologise and mounted a boycott of his lectures and tutorials.

Worse was to follow. The teaching staff unanimously dissociated themselves from him, and the students called for his dismissal. It was clean contrary to Oxford's latituditarian spirit, which has usually managed to accommodate everyone from high churchmen to evangelists, and from the intellectual right to Marxists, without strain. A government-appointed inquiry into academic freedom at Ruskin, chaired by Sir Albert Sloman, vice-chancellor of Essex University, backed Selbourne - but was not allowed to say so out loud because Selbourne was suing the college. After piling up huge legal costs and resisting settlement until the last minute, Ruskin eventually paid him two years' salary.

He says he found it a bitter experience. He worked for the Sunday Times for a while. 'David was a tremendous journalist and writer in his ability to get to the nub of a story,' says one of the paper's senior editors. 'But he could be hell to deal with. He was prepared to take any comment on his work as a slight on his professionalism. We parted acrimoniously.'

Selbourne had already begun alerting readers to the grave consequences of the coming crisis of the left. He and his wife Hazel, a teacher (they have a grown-up son and daughter), sold their flat in Oxford and moved a couple of years ago to a village outside the Italian city of Urbino.

His books have received mixed reviews. Death of the Dark Hero (1990), analysing the end of Communism, was praised for its sharp observation and 'dry, snapshot prose'. The Spirit of the Age (1992) was a pessimistic account of the post-Communist world, refracted through what he claimed to be traditional Jewish thought. For this purpose he invented a Messianic outsider he calls 'the Jew' - a romantic concoction that bears a faint, cousinly resemblance to some of Disraeli's writings

At about the same time he wrote a strange article for the Guardian urging its Jewish readers to abandon their Englishness and embrace their destiny as apocalyptic seers, advice that may have surprised a number of kosher butchers and suburban dentists.

THE PRINCIPLE of Duty is dull stuff. The Times Literary Supplement tried to make sense of it and concluded that it was a 'hollow rodomontade', though other reviews were more indulgent. The language is drained of energy and overloaded with discursive quotations, bringing to mind Macaulay's complaint that reading Seneca, another excessive aphorist, was like dining on anchovy sauce.

It is a didactic description of democratic society, in 338 numbered and cross-referenced sections, defining the reciprocal duties of what Selbourne calls the 'civic order' towards the citizen and of the citizen towards the civic order and his fellow-citizens. It argues that the assertion of 'dutiless rights' has corrupted society, and proposes that those who deny their obligations to it should lose the benefits of membership of it.

For libertarians, the vibes are bad. In the historic accommodation between order and liberty, the book shifts the balance away from the latter. The English spirit has usually distrusted the institutions, from standing armies to the Child Support Agency, of the civic order. Who will exercise a disproportionate influence on what constitutes the civic order? Socially and economically powerful elites, of course. And who will influence which infractions will be penalised by, say, loss of pension rights? The same elites.

Perhaps one should regard him not as a reliable liberal theorist

but as standing in the great tradition of Jewish worriers. The Yiddish story-teller, Isaac Bashevis Singer, used to say that the Jews are a people who can't sleep - and won't let anyone else. This time Selbourne has succeeded in rousing the neighbourhood. Windows are being slammed open, lights switched on, the kids are crying and the police have been sent for. The book's flaws and opacities may come to seem less important than its honourable share in igniting a national debate.

(Photograph omitted)