Rebuilding society is biggest project of all

The screening of the new series of Brat Camp, featuring troubled and troublesome teenagers, caused me to reflect on Tony Blair’s election promise to re-inject “respect” into British society. He had listened, he said, to the people. Iraq has been deeply divisive but now folk wanted to move on and they craved a more civil society. I think it is unforgivably disrespectful of the PM to declare the war passé. For millions it is still a burning sore, a cause for shame that our leaders lied to get us into Iraq, dissing the objectors all the way. We don’t respect Iraqis enough to count their dead. Tony Blair does not respect the homeless, the beggars, our ancient civil law institutions and his own colleagues in parliament. Little wonder derision and distrust blow out his most noble aspirations for society. 

Yet, few would deny that Britain has become a coarse, rough and chaotic place and that the poorest areas are also the most drug-fuelled, violent and brutal. A baby born into a family living in one of the many hellish housing estates has little chance of escaping its hopeless destiny. The disorder has moved beyond the ghettoes. Crime figures just out show a sharp increase in violent crimes. All neighbourhoods can feel the breakdown of societal bonds and mutuality. The glorification of bacchanalia in our media cannot conceal the pessimistic reality. The poor see bad behaviour amply rewarded – look at the rehabilitation of Michael Barrymore on Celebrity Big Brother. Moral degeneration has been one of the accursed legacies of Thatcherism.

The fabulous musical version of Billy Elliott is a reminder of the cruel politics that dismantled families and bonds in the push for a liberalised economy and with that values went into freefall. I don’t want to idealise the past – life in many ways is unimaginably better today for women, for black and Asian Britons and for most children too. Materially, many Britons have never had it so good, but we feel unsafe and disconnected; prosperity alone cannot deliver the good society.  

Change has to start with the most savagely broken and dysfunctional families and localities where there is a deficit of parental care and a surfeit of disorder and self-destructive behaviour.

The irony is that some brave first steps have already been taken by New Labour, with Sure Start and other practical interventions to enable better outcomes for deprived children. The new proposals have considerable merit too if they dispense with the R word, which is a hostage to fortune. They are a combination of the carrot and stick. Families will be fined if they are causing misery to others. The worst could lose their homes for three months or for ever. There have to be such sanctions to kick-start changes. To support such families the government is planning parenting institutes and other measures to teach mothers, fathers and siblings ways of understanding each other and others.

Mark Oaten, when a front bench spokesperson for the Lib Dems, revealed his lack of concern when he responded to these policy ideas with scorn: “This is the worst of the nanny state. Central government cannot dictate how parents form a loving relationship with their children.” I am glad he is gone and hope that the Lib Dems can shed their fundamentalist libertarian beliefs. But only a caring nanny state can halt the spreading degeneration of our society and the disillusion of citizens.

Brat Camp’s offensive teens sharply illustrate how hard it is for parents across the classes to bring up their children or to nurture each other. There was such a thing as society once. When Margaret Thatcher announced its premature death, she knew what was coming. The enormous challenge is how to put us back together again. It is a national regeneration project taken seriously by New Labour. I disrespect many of their politicians and policies but on this I am with them all the way.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a writer and broadcaster

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