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Don’t grass, take responsibility

The UK government's latest leaked initiative for dealing with antisocial behaviour seems designed to turn us into a nation of squealers.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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UK home secretary John Reid has backpedalled on an antisocial behaviour initiative with the slogan: ‘Don’t moan, take action – it’s your street too.’

The leaked initiative was greeted with howls of derision, and protests that Reid was apparently asking the public to deal with bad behaviour. ‘How dare you blame us for rising crime’, blustered the Daily Express. David Davis, shadow home secretary, said it was ‘brazen beyond belief for the government to turn around and try to shift responsibility on to the shoulders of the public’.

But that was the last problem with the initiative-that-wasn’t. We do indeed need a society where people are prepared to pitch in and deal with bad behaviour. We should all take more responsibility for what goes on around us – not because we owe it to Reid, but because we owe it to ourselves as citizens.

Everybody will have seen intelligent adults paralysed by a child’s tantrum, a group of rowdy teenagers, or an unstable individual. A minor incident, which in the past would have been dealt with swiftly by passers-by, now causes a blockage in city life.

Everybody has their stories. The other day I saw a six-year-old kicking a ball against a woman’s trolley. Everybody froze and watched, apparently wanting to say something but not wanting to expose themselves. Eventually the boy got bored and moved on. People breathed a sigh of relief: emergency over. A child holding adults to ransom is a sure sign of individual and collective paralysis.

It turns out that public action is the last thing Reid wanted, though. It wasn’t so much, ‘don’t moan, take action’, as ‘take action by moaning’. Home Office officials clarified Reid’s position. ‘[He] wants people to moan and complain to the police and local councils about anti-social behaviour because that’s the only way things will change’, said one. Another added: ‘The idea that we are asking neighbourhoods or local people to act on their own is complete nonsense.’

Why is the idea of local people ‘acting on their own’ so terrible? Individuals and communities taking matters into their own hands is seen as a dangerous business, with the whiff of lynch mobs and vigilantism. ‘We have never encouraged people to be vigilantes and never would do so’, said Louise Casey, the prime minister’s Respect chief. Under New Labour, it seems that ‘vigilante’ has come to mean anybody who acts without the sanction of officialdom. Such is the government’s distrust of people that any kind of independent action can be tarnished with the bogey word of vigilantism.

But why shouldn’t groups of people establish basic norms of behaviour? People are reluctant to put themselves forward now because they fear that nobody will back them up. Those who do stand up appear isolated and insecure, like the person who pleads on a crowded Tube train ‘Could you please move down inside the carriage?’ in a squeaky and artificial voice. They don’t feel that their reasonable request is backed up by those around them, so they are effectively a moaner, not a sensible individual speaking out with authority.

Those who pursue the government’s route of community action end up as moaners and grassers – not necessarily through any fault of their own, but because that is the logic of the situation. Elaine Holland, a mother from an estate in Plymouth, is currently the government’s shining example of a community activist. She appealed for ASBOs against a gang that was terrorising her estate, and eventually got the gang split up and moved on. In private, people on the estate said that something had to be done, but in public she was shunned and called a grass.

Perhaps they labelled her a grass because they sensed that this was something the community should deal with for itself, even though the community was unable to play that role. In the past, this gang might have been dealt with by firm words or by somebody giving the ringleader a slap. Now the estate was paralysed, and the woman who did do something ended up disempowering and isolating herself. Individuals aren’t to blame here – the problem is today’s cultural framework and the broader assumptions about our responsibilities to others.

We are now always encouraged to run to a third party, be it the courts or the local council, to resolve differences with noisy neighbours, local naughty kids or other forms of irritating behaviour. Yet running to an outside body only takes power away from the individuals concerned, because it hands responsibility over to some apparently benign outsider. And introducing a third party tends to exacerbate community tensions rather than resolve them; it legalises spats and ups the ante between people who can’t see eye to eye.

So we’d be better not to moan about anti-social behaviour, and not to grass either. Instead we should try to deal with everyday misdemeanours for ourselves.

Read on:

A tyranny of respect, by Stuart Waiton

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Topics Politics

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