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You can’t be taught how to ‘have a go’

Yes, we could do with more have-a-go heroes, but we could do without the RSA’s plans for patronising training lessons.

Tom Bailey

Topics Politics

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The Royal Society of Arts (RSA) has published a report extolling the virtues of ‘have-a-go’ heroes. Apparently, due to budget cuts to the police force, and lessons learnt from the riots, we need Brits to be more vigilant in stopping everyday low-level crime and anti-social behaviour. However, before we run off and form a citizens’ militia, the RSA thinks we need a bit of official government training first.

It would indeed be good to have a bit more participation from the public in stopping unruly kids burning down bus stops or smashing up a telephone box (if those that still exist actually work), or preventing a petty thief from stealing an old lady’s purse. Yet today officials often tend actively to discourage such an approach. Stories are often heard of well-meaning vigilantes being arrested for assaulting the criminal they were trying to stop. And the police actually warned people not to join so-called ‘vigilante’ groups during the London riots last year.

Surely a bit of support for those on the right side of the law is to be welcomed? It is true that people are often too quick to call the police over minor issues. Anti-social behaviour and disputes on the street are often escalated by police presence. Putting some trust in people to resolve problems themselves without the intervention of the armed wing of the state would be a good thing. On this the RSA has a point.

The problem, however, is the deeply patronising nature of the RSA report, entitled First Aid Approaches to Managing Antisocial Behaviour. The RSA wants people to be trained in ‘conflict resolution’, alongside having self-defence classes should attempts at conflict resolution fail. According to the RSA, ‘citizens need training’ before they start to intervene informally on the streets. We even need to be instructed about when it is appropriate to apologise, apparently. According to the RSA, ‘the public have little or no confidence to intervene and this approach would go some way towards healing anxious communities’.

The idea that the public needs some sort of professional conflict resolvers (is that a job?) to teach them how to tell a bunch of trouble-making kids to clear off, or tell the idiot on the bus who refuses to tap his Oyster to get off, is patently ridiculous. The everyday scenarios that have-a-go heroes encounter will be unpredictable, with all sorts of factors at play, not to mention with each person involved being different.

If a have-a-go hero is going to intervene in a situation, he will have to decide for himself what is the correct approach to take, be it a ‘clear off!’, ‘calm down mate’, or a threat of violence. Today it seems popular to devise guidelines in the public sphere for every form of human interaction, including at work, university, or even in the bizarre rules about behaviour drawn up by Occupy London Stock Exchange. Far from ‘healing anxious communities’ (patronising much?), official guidelines for human interaction usually amount to nothing but meaningless jargon. There are no blanket guidelines for unforeseen social situations. People should be trusted to work out for themselves at the time the best way to deal with a situation; as inevitably that’s the only way someone can know for sure how best to act. People don’t need the state, or whoever it hires to do the job, to tell us which tone of voice or manner of body language we should have when we feel like standing up to some minor criminals.

In light of a small number of brutal attacks visited upon have-a-go heroes, the idea of teaching people self-defence may seem like a good proposal. While there’s nothing wrong with someone deciding to take some self-defence classes so they can more confidently confront anti-social behaviour, the idea that we need the government to sponsor classes makes no sense. A few classes in self-defence is pretty pointless – most people forget all the fancy grabbing techniques and pressure-point squeezes when the fists start flying. Unless intense martial-arts lessons are taught, those who aren’t the sort to handle themselves in a fight should probably just sit the have-a-go hero-ing thing out. When a fight breaks out after a have-a-go hero intervenes, they may either win or lose (as is the nature of a fight), but a few hours learning self-defence in the local sports leisure centre on a Saturday morning is hardly going to change much.

We do need more have-a-go heroes. And people simply dealing with problems on the street without needing the law to get involved is essentially a good thing. Despite the kneejerk claims of many commentators, the public is not going to turn into a vigilante mob baying for blood if it is encouraged to be proactive on anti-social behaviour. That’s the thing the RSA doesn’t seem to get either – the best way to encourage the public to ‘have-a-go’ is to have enough faith in them to allow them to trust their own instincts.

Tom Bailey is a history undergraduate at University College London. He is currently interning at spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter: @tbaileybailey

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Topics Politics

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