New Labour’s attitude problem

The Queen's speech was thoroughly antisocial.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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The Queen’s speech on 13 November 2002 expressed a very New Labour preoccupation with civil society.

Its focus was on reforming individuals’ behaviour, and their interactions with each other. Civil society has normally been understood as an area of life not governed by the state. New Labour’s vision of civil society, by contrast, is one in which individuals’ everyday lives are brought into an increasingly intimate relationship with state authorities.

As prime minister Tony Blair spelled out in the Observer newspaper on Sunday 10 November, when he decided to leak his own speech: ‘Respect…is what makes us a community, not merely a group of isolated individuals. It makes real a new contract between citizen and state.’ (1)

This ‘new contract’, in Blair’s words, is the notion that ‘with rights and opportunities come responsibilities and obligations’ (2). In fact, it is an expression of the burgeoning therapeutic state, in which individuals’ behaviour towards each other is monitored and modified by official bodies in order to meet New Labour’s goal of ‘restoring social cohesion to fragmented communities’ (3).

New Labour’s version of civil society is not only one which demands a closer relationship between individuals and the state. The phrase, on Tony Blair’s lips, also encompasses the demand that people should be more civil towards one another. So when the Queen’s speech announces the government’s intention to tackle antisocial behaviour, this sums up the UK government’s concerns about society today. People, it seems, are just rude.

To counter these bad-mannered tendencies, we have a raft of proposed new laws and measures designed, not to stop people committing crimes as such, but to stop them making a general nuisance of themselves. ‘My government will introduce a bill to tackle antisocial behaviour that damages communities’, reported the Queen (4). What this behaviour is, exactly, is unclear. The pre-speech news headlines focused on everything from chewing-gum dropping to fly-tipping; Tony Blair believes that ‘[i]t is petty crime and public nuisance that causes so much distress to people; vandalism, graffiti, low-level aggression and violence’ (5).

What is clear is that, to the UK government, anti-social behaviour is not a type of behaviour but an attitude. According to Blair, the 1980s’ promotion of individualism meant that ‘[m]any neighbourhoods became marked by vandalism, violent crime, and the loss of civility’ (6). Some of us might think that there is a world of difference between being beaten up, or even having graffiti sprayed on your car, and the fact that people don’t say hello to you in the street. But to Tony Blair, all of this is part of a continuum of attitude problems. New Britain will be a place where you don’t only refrain from smacking your neighbour – you walk around the estate with a respectful smile clamped upon your face.

The constant theme here is that British people need the state to tell them how to behave nicely. Everything from parenting classes to penalties from parents of truanting kids, to tougher action against ‘anti-social tenants and their anti-social landlords’, is put forward as a solution to the fragmentation of society. Even those aspects of the Queen’s speech that propose liberalisation of existing laws, such as the promise (yet again) to reform the licensing laws for the sale of alcohol, come complete with measures designed to get people to drink nicely. As Her Majesty put it: ‘This will abolish fixed opening hours and introduce a range of measures to reduce antisocial behaviour.’ (7)

This year’s Queen’s speech makes clear that the government wants a more intimate involvement with every aspect of people’s lives. But our five-year experience of New Labour tells us that the impact of all these new laws, on the ground, may well be negligible.

Commentating upon the constant legislative presided over by New Labour, Observer commentator Andrew Rawnsley exclaims that this government has been an ‘exceedingly busy…hyper-active…even a manic government’ (8). Rawnsley goes on to state that, in the last parliamentary session, ‘Ministers broke all records by passing into law more pages of legislation than in any previous session’. But – ‘[t]he Government is so frantically creating new powers that Ministers neglect to ask themselves whether those powers are usable by those to whom they are given’ (9).

Many have remarked upon New Labour’s tendency to bring in new law after new law, that the aim of these laws seems to be more to generate headlines than anything else, that these laws are often unworkable and have very rarely been used. That fact means that it would be wrong to equate New Labour’s authoritarian desire to interfere in every aspect of life with the reality of living in a directly repressive state. There won’t be counsellors in the pubs and teenagers won’t be rounded up in droves for sneering at people.

But at the same time, New Labour’s legal trajectory does have an impact, and it matters.

What Blair wants to do is create a culture in society in which people behave in a particular way. And he recognises that the law cannot do that. He has the nerve to quote Martin Luther King on the 1960s civil rights struggles: ‘ laws “restrain the heartless; they cannot change the heart”.’ (10) He wants to change our hearts, does Blair – and he’d rather do it with love.

However, while all Blair’s laws might fail to change people’s behaviour directly, they do create a certain sense of restraint about the way one goes about everyday life. The picture painted by New Labour is of a society where people are a nuisance to one another, where they don’t trust one another and they are probably right not to, and where if they feel aggrieved or offended they can expect support from a third party.

Blair says that ‘[t]he informal networks between people and families are what best protect communities and build a strong society’. But in this context, how can interactions between individuals remain genuinely spontaneous, or informal? (11)

While the petty little bills against chewing gum or spray paint can be dismissed as gesture politics, they spring from a particular view: that people have a destructive impact upon one another. This same view gives rise to the more fundamental proposals, ‘at the heart of [the] government’s legislative programme’: ‘a commitment to reform and rebalance the criminal justice system to deliver justice for all and to safeguard the interests of victims, witnesses and communities.’ (12)

The reform of the criminal justice system in favour of the victim is not an idea new to New Labour – although New Labour has been pushing this idea ever since it came into power. This Queen’s speech is not the first time the government has talked about abolishing the rule of double jeopardy, allowing defendants to be tried twice for the same crime; about limiting trial by jury; about allowing evidence of past convictions to be brought into evidence. And it is not the first time the government has pushed to the forefront the emotive issues of rape and child abuse to propose legal changes that would affect the way the law deals with a whole range of crimes.

Nor is this the first time legal groups and civil liberties campaigners have reacted with disquiet to such proposals – rightly pointing out that this trend leads away from the presumption of innocence, and towards a situation where defendants do not get justice, but a guilty verdict. For anybody who prizes their liberty, and recognises that the police and the courts are not always right, these proposals for victim-oriented ‘justice’ should be a major cause for concern.

But so long as New Labour succeeds in popularising the notion that the problem with society is people, the arguments against victim-centred ‘justice’ will lose ground. For today’s therapeutic state, we are all considered victims, at the mercy of other people’s nuisance-making and anti-sociability, and we are encouraged to look for protection to those with the powers to fine, imprison, or order. Maybe it’s time we got off the couch, recognised that other people are not out to get us, and exposed the counsellors in government for the quacks they are.

Read on:

Put liberty first in New Labour’s second term, by Mick Hume

Second bite at double jeopardy, by John Fitzpatrick

Justice in jeopardy, by Josie Appleton

(1) My vision for Britain: by Tony Blair , Observer, 10 November 2002

(2) My vision for Britain: by Tony Blair , Observer, 10 November 2002

(3) My vision for Britain: by Tony Blair , Observer, 10 November 2002

(4) Full text of Queen’s speech 2002, Guardian, 13 November 2002

(5) My vision for Britain: by Tony Blair , Observer, 10 November 2002

(6) My vision for Britain: by Tony Blair , Observer, 10 November 2002

(7) Full text of Queen’s speech 2002, Guardian, 13 November 2002

(8) Never mind the quality, feel the quantity, Observer, 10 November 2002

(9) Never mind the quality, feel the quantity, Observer, 10 November 2002

(10) My vision for Britain: by Tony Blair , Observer, 10 November 2002

(11) My vision for Britain: by Tony Blair , Observer, 10 November 2002

(12) Full text of Queen’s speech 2002, Guardian, 13 November 2002

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Topics Politics


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