Monday, June 12, 2006

Good citizens are not vigilantes

On Saturday I posted in praise of an essay on the Spiked website which argues that the government's emphasis on combating antisocial behaviour is making ours a more lonely and fragmented society.

This has been a live issue ever since then, with the leak of government plans for a "Don't moan - take action. It's your street too" campaign.

Most commentary on this idea has been outraged. David Davis, for instance, is quoted in the Daily Mail as saying: "It is brazen beyond belief for the Government to try to shift responsibility on to the shoulders of the public."

The government's response in the face of this has been confused and defensive. Again in the Mail, a Home Office spokesman is quoted as saying:
The idea that we are asking neighbourhoods or local people to act on their own is complete nonsense but we want them to work in partnership with local police and their community.
They want neighbourhoods to work in partnership with communities? It is hard to make any sense of this.

In reality, if the government were saying that local people should take more responsibility, it would be a thoroughly good thing. In a healthy community, people are prepared to take responsibility.

As a new article on Spiked by Josie Appleton says today:
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.
What the government seems to have in mind is to encourage citizens to complain about minor nuisances more readily. But as Appleton says:
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 "Don't moan - take action. It's your street too" would be a good slogan. Unfortunately, it is not what the government really has in mind.

1 comment:

Paul Leake said...

You missed out Nick Clegg's comments there too:

"The suggestion that people should do more for their own safety is frankly a bit rich coming from a Government that has let criminals walk freely on our streets."