Saturday, March 24, 2007

Obliged to pretend to like it

My House Points column from yesterday's Liberal Democrat News.

I have a feeling I have written this one several times before, and the limit of 375 words always seems to mean that I hit the bottom of the page just as I am starting to get somewhere interesting. So let's take the argument a little further.

The dwindling of the sort of informal authority exercised in the past by parents, teachers and other public servants has not led to an upsurge in freedom. Instead it has led to demands that the state licenses new figures to take over these roles. But because the state cannot possibly take on such a complex task, these new forms of authority are experienced as arbitrary in that they are either ridiculously lax or unreasonably harsh - just like the worst kind of parents.

Anyway, here is the column.

The crime scene

The bright young things at Cowley Street have set up a website ( to "chronicle the adventures of a beleaguered department". It's not hard to see why.

On Monday, pressed over recent knife murders, John Reid appealed to anyone who knew anything to ring Crimestoppers and then gave their number. This seemed odd given his audience: any MP with evidence would surely have contacted the police already. Worse, he got the number wrong and had to correct himself in a later answer.

But there is something about crime that exhausts governments. A dozen years ago John Major wanted us to "condemn a little more and understand a little less" while New Labour was promising to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. On Monday the Tories were full of talk of the consequences of family breakdown, while Reed warned them this came dangerously close to excusing criminality.

The Liberal Democrat response has been the We Can Cut Crime! campaign, which, inevitably, has a website too: This emphasises the sort of practical measures our councillors have been taking up and down the country and avoids the worst of the rhetoric that plagues the debate on crime.

All good stuff. But there are deeper questions here, and they make politicians of all parties nervous. Certainly, Black commentators seem happy to talk about a lack of parental authority and question the influence of rap music - areas where others fear to tread.

There is nothing new about young people loving music that shocks middle-aged politicians. What is different today is that those politicians feel obliged to pretend to like it.

And authority? It's worth asking whether the spread of government into more and more areas of life undermines other sources of authority. Last week Beverley Hughes unveiled a national curriculum for children under five. Every nursery, childminder and reception class in England will have to monitor children's progress towards a set of 69 "early learning goals", recording them against more than 500 development milestones as they go.

Such moves are defended on the grounds that children need the best possible start in life. But why do we always think that means increasing the role of the state and diminishing the standing of parents?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Agreed. The thing that makes me most uneasy about ASBOs is when they are used to - in effect - criminalise rudeness. When civil society contracts, the state expands to fill the gap.