We don't care any more

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The Independent Online
LAST week, writing in the Times, Paul Johnson once more compared Tony Blair to Margaret Thatcher and added that the Labour leader's Spectator lecture on Wednesday "ought to be music to the ears of all sensible men and women". But was it music or Muzak?

The ideas that Mr Blair was trying to express have been so unfamiliar for so long that even he struggles to put much flesh on them. They are represented by such words as duty, responsibility, public virtue, citizenship, civic pride, community. They were perhaps best expressed by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: "People must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other". When a child is scolded by a strange adult for running into the street or swinging on the straps of a Tube train, he learns something that can never be learned from teachers or child-minders or social workers. Those people are paid to supervise children and "the essence of public responsibility", wrote Jacobs, "is that you do it without being hired".

At some point during the past 30 years, Britain lost touch with those ideas. We became a society that regarded the rights of the individual as paramount: the right to consume, on one side of the political spectrum, the right to self-expression on the other. Both main parties thus betrayed their heritage, but Labour's was the greater betrayal. As R H Tawney well understood, the original impetus of the British left was the control of those who exercised their rights irresponsibly: in those days, factory- owners and landlords who asked "may I not do what I like with my own?" But the left was supposed to offer a better way, of mutual help and support, restraint, co-operation. Tawney and his contemporaries would be horrified if they had to listen to some of their heirs defending, or at least excusing, criminals, thugs, rioters, vandals, bad and feckless parents, disruptive pupils in the classroom. Such people are often explained by the left as victims, prisoners of their circumstances. What can you expect if they are forced to live in high-rise estates? Why shouldn't they steal if they see business people and City slickers making millions? Wouldn't you feel like smashing things up if you couldn't get a job and your parents couldn't get one either? Fair enough, up to a point. Tory policies are bound to create social stresses. But the victims of anti-social behaviour are not for the most part the rich who symbolise the injustice, or the liberal middle class who have invoked inequality as the excuse. It is not the affluent who have to tolerate riots on their streets; not they who are afraid to step out of their homes for fear of violence; not they who have their public amenities vandalised; not they who have to send their children to schools made almost unmanageable by "disturbed" pupils; not even they, despite their complaints, who suffer the majority of burglaries. It is in their own areas that criminals and vandals do most damage, to their neighbours who are themselves poor and deprived.

By failing to understand this, Labour abdicated its position as the popular party, the one that stood for Chesterton's silent people. The Tories became the politicians who spoke the language of ordinary concern. Thus Labour doubly betrayed its constituency: not only did it fail to speak out for those in the inner-cities and the council estates who suffered from their neighbours' exercise of irresponsible rights; it also failed, through its inability to gain power, to restrain the irresponsible rights of the new, late 20th century rich.

Mr Blair's recognition of all this is heartening and timely. But putting it right will need more than his prescription of fining parents for truancy or evicting noisy tenants from council property - neither of them ideas with which the Tories would have any difficulty. The values of community, duty and responsibility can only return when the British regain what De Tocqueville called the "habit of association", some sense of loyalty and commitment to things that were lesser than the state but greater than the individual or the immediate family: trade unions, workplaces, local councils, neighbourhood schools and hospitals. But 16 years of Toryism have grievously weakened such institutions. It is not clear how Mr Blair proposes to repair them, but his speech is a start.