WE ARE having a spot of bother with local vandalism. My neighbour came home recently and found his garden wall demolished. Since this wall is 6ft high and built of stone, you’d have thought nothing short of a bulldozer was required to wreck it. Instead, my neighbour found a bunch of drunken teenagers carousing on his back lawn. After giving him the obligatory abuse in Anglo-Saxon, they went off to demolish something else.
This summer we have seen a rash of hooliganism on a scale that would serve as excellent training for Saddam Hussein’s resistance movement. There has been fire- raising, a spirited attempt to knock down the parapet of the local bridge (doubtless in the hope that a car would drop 20ft into the river) and intimidation of any adult who objected.
My wife responded in middle-class fashion by alerting the "authorities" in the hope something would be done. When she phoned the local police station and asked the civilian operator if she should take a photograph of the neds who were demolishing the roof of a neighbouring property (there being no squad car instantly available) she was solemnly warned about the dangers of being had up for taking pornographic images of children.
On another occasion, she phoned to ask if a police car could come as there were drunken teenagers congregating and, on past experience, this was likely to lead to trouble. The answer was "no", as a nuisance had yet to be caused. But, remonstrated my wife, there was a pattern of such nuisance. Ah, replied the would-be citizens’ protector, they were not interested in patterns.
Of course, these are petty acts and a far cry from the murder, terrorism and organised crime with which the police also have to deal. But it is the spiralling growth of such youthful anti-social behaviour that explains why most of the population thinks crime is getting worse, while the insouciant politicians keep telling us that we don’t need to worry because the incidence of crime is falling.
This is a dialogue of the deaf. Indeed, the failure to stop anti-social behaviour (not Iraq) was one of the gut reasons Labour lost Brent East last week. The statistics for organised crime do show a decline. But it is the daily drip-feed of public nuisance ("we are not interested in patterns") that destroys the quality of life, not the chance of being mown down by a Kalashnikov. Petty vandalism, abuse, insolence, spitting, drunkenness and noise rarely make it into the crime statistics, but they are resolutely on the increase. Why?
This is a subject tackled in a new book, Neighbours from Hell: The Politics of Behaviour, by the veteran Labour MP, Frank Field - and it is a book every MSP should read. Field gets directly to the heart of what most people suffer when he writes: "The distinguishing mark of anti-social behaviour is that each single instance does not by itself warrant a counter-challenge. It is in its regularity that anti-social behaviour wields its destructive force."
Whence this breakdown in social discipline among the young "storm troopers of nihilistic behaviour" (as Field labels them)?
Field argues that earlier, poorer societies had built-in social contracts. Survival demanded co-operation. Rights (to protection, to food, to a position) came with responsibilities to the group (deference, a specific role in the civil hierarchy, duty). Moreover, young people had to earn the right to acceptance within this structure by passing through certain rites of passage such as baptism or marriage. Along the way, they learned politeness, considerateness and respect. For example, Field points to the role that evangelical Christianity and mutualism played in the Labour movement in the 19th and early 20th century. Young working class people were socialised - ie, accepted as adults - into a tight-knit culture of high personal standards and ideological commitment. An interlocking series of institutions - socialist Sunday school and chapel, trades union and Labour Party branch - laid down rules but also offered social models to which people aspired. All that was swept away by the decay of Labourism and its civic institutions. Now we have a welfare society based on an exaggerated notion of "rights" cut loose from corresponding personal responsibilities expressed in positive social behaviour.
Of course, Field is reflecting his own experience. He is a devout Anglican representing the desperately poor Birkenhead constituency, where ordinary folk have suffered cruelly from the breakdown of that earlier order. But the collapse of the social contract is broader than just the decay of Labourism. Other communities had other socialising mechanisms to do the same job - and these mechanisms have also imploded.
For instance, I was brought up on a bleak housing estate in Glasgow in the 1950s. The adult men of the community were close-knit craftsmen from the yards and factories of nearby Clydeside. The first thing they did was build a Masonic hall on a vacant lot in my street. Today, we treat such secret societies with contempt but the various lodges (Masonic, Orange or Catholic) provided a male bonding and adult civic order that we kids did not dare trespass. Break a window or give cheek to an adult and your dad would soon know and do something about it, or he would face the censure of his peer group. Today, that adult male bonding has gone, and with it the institutions that moderate behaviour on similar estates.
Field’s short-term solution is to give local police officers the power of surrogate parenthood, allowing them to caution and then penalise anti-social behaviour by issuing curfews or anti-social behaviour orders "in a similar way to football’s yellow and red cards". (A good idea, but we will need more bobbies out of their cars and on the beat.)
Ultimately, what Field wants is the remoralisation of our society, and the end of the "I can do what I like, so up yours" culture, by recreating the social contract. He suggests the registration of each new birth should become a public celebration at which the duties of parents and society to the child are spelled out - a sort of civil baptism and the first of a new set of rites of passage into adulthood. The teaching of parenting skills and citizenship would become compulsory and form part of a contract drawn up between parent, school and pupil. He wants welfare payments linked to behaviour, especially in school - abuse a teacher, and your parents’ welfare gets docked.
Field’s main point is unassailable: the law cannot make us moral. For that, we need to build new civic institutions. The earlier generation of popular institutions (churches, lodges, political parties, friendly societies) were usurped by the expansion of the nanny state. We might start to reverse matters by passing genuine power back to local communities.
My favourite Field proposal is that neighbourhood courts should be run locally by elected community prosecution lawyers whose careers would depend on their ability to maintain law and order on their patch. If the First Minister really is serious about making the prosecution service accountable, he should try that. Let’s take the idea further: granting tenancies on council estates should be subject to approval by existing tenants, and the local police superintendent (sheriff?) should be elected.
Now, about that posse, sheriff?