He’s a ridiculous character, forever on TV, a white man who wants to be black, with a ridiculous catchphrase of ‘respect’ and a repertoire of annoying hand gestures. If he wasn’t the prime minister of the UK , Ali G could sue him for plagiarism. As Blair’s New Labour heads towards a decade in power, it is launching its most wide-ranging public campaign, based around the ‘R’ word. Even for a government that has taken the process of cultural ideological reconstruction of British social life to be at least as, and probably more, important than institutional change or redistribution of social and economic power, it is a biggie.
Launched prior to Christmas, the ‘Respect’ campaign has three major features: an attack on incivility in everyday life and a perceived epidemic of street crime; a reclaiming of patriotic values in a modernised form, as a celebration of ‘Britishness’ (this latter has been given to Chancellor Gordon Brown to run with, to emphasise the degree to which it is a shared project — Brown has said that he would like to see a Union Jack in every window and on every front lawn); and last but not least an increase in the coercive legal mechanisms designed to enforce this new civility. The now-famous ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders) are to be extended and expanded, to the degree that it will now be possible to more or less run problem individuals or families out of town (even out of their own privately owned houses) and exclude them from their home and neighbourhood for a period of up to three months.
The campaign has been met with the enthusiastic support of sections of the tabloid media looking for a traditional values campaign — the Daily Express has adopted a nationwide ‘good manners’ crusade. The Blair government did not single-handedly elevate the concept of ‘respect’ to its current status, but its adoption of such has made it, for a time, the central motif by which social life is interpreted. When four teenage ‘happy slappers’ — gangs who go on random rampages of assault, filming the attacks on mobile phone cameras — were recently sentenced for the manslaughter of one of their victims, the media commentary was conducted almost exclusively through the medium of the ‘R’ word: why this loss of respect; how can respect be regained, and so on and so on.
Why ‘Respect’? Why now? The question can be answered at any number of levels, although each is expressive of the other. As a political gesture, ‘respect’ is both audacious and clever. It takes themes beloved of the conservative right, and thus serves the goal of retaining the tranche of Tory voters that the Blair New Labour picked up in 1997, and which it has pretty much held ever since as the Tories have stumbled through the political wilderness. Now that their new leader David Cameron has jettisoned much of the Thatcherite image and reconnected to the idea of ‘one nation’ Toryism, such voters have every reason to return to a party they reluctantly abandoned. Respect also connects — albeit it in a quintessentially daggy way — with a section of youth culture, for whom the notion and catchphrase of respect (despite Ali G’s satirical demolition of it) retains some cachet.
It is this notion of ‘respect’ — wannabee teenage gangstas demanding respec’ of each other — that connects back to the deeper ideological history of the notion. For ‘respect’ as a concept could be seen as a sort of degraded copy of the notion of ‘recognition’ that Francis Fukuyama reintroduced to mainstream political discourse in the 90s with his work The End of History and The Last Man , which was taken up on the centre-left in both the UK (by thinktanks such as Demos) and in Australia by writer-politicians such as Mark Latham and Lindsay Tanner. As Andy Blunden noted in these pages, the notion of ‘recognition’, both in Fukuyama and his followers, is a travesty of its original sense in the Hegelian tradition of social interdependence and selfhood, and ‘respect’ is an even greater departure from its critical content. In the ‘gangsta’ context it is an expression of its opposite — respec’ is demanded and gained not because of one’s status as a fellow citizen and social being, but because one is carrying a concealed weapon. The demand for respec’ is an expression of social breakdown and the rule of force. New Labour’s appropriation of it is intended to draw off some of the charge that such a gangsta ethic is acquiring in urban Britain , but it is to socially conservative ends.
The final context in which the ‘respect’ campaign is taking place is in the Blair government’s third-term tackling of two major institutional issues in British life: the education and health systems. Whatever the particular aims of these reforms, no one could deny that they are necessary. Indeed, it is a measure of the Blair government’s claim to being a genuine reforming government that it is willing to take on some of the hard tasks that the Thatcher–Major governments — for all their rhetoric — did not have the courage to tackle.
Despite piecemeal reforms, the NHS is still essentially the old-style nationalised socialist institution that it was when founded in the 1940s. Local NHS trusts provide services and then send the government the bill at the end of the year. This has created a magnificently generous and, for all the criticisms, reasonably effective health service, but also one that is going broke. It will be remembered that Nye Bevan, the architect of the original NHS, believed that the costs of the service would decline year-on-year as the backlog of ill-health was addressed. In an era where medical intervention is an ever-expanding field, health service costs vanish towards the infinite. Given that tax rises are politically out of the question, a greater degree of internal marketisation is inevitable. This is tricky, because the sense of universal health care as a right, rather than a rationable public good, is now deeply engrained in British life — which is why Thatcher never went near it.
In education the stakes are even higher, for Blair and his shrinking band of loyalists are determined to re-introduce both a greater degree of private education with the authorisation of fifty or so faith-based ‘academies’ across the country, and a granting of greater autonomy in the selection process to local schools. These proposals effectively overturn one of Labour’s deepest commitments: to the principle of comprehensive (i.e. general and area-based) schools as the bedrock of the education system, and a return to the differentiation based on grammar schools, state schools, and the great public schools (who sail on undisturbed, whatever happens). For British labour, comprehensivity was the core of its democratic socialism, the principle by which, over a generation, class privilege would be lessened. In the 50s, labour diarist Richard Crossman had given a thumbnail definition of socialism as ‘closing down the last f***ing grammar school’, and the new proposals have attracted explicit opposition from more than eighty Labour MPs — including hitherto stalwart loyalists such as deputy PM John Prescott. The Conservatives have pounced on this and cleverly endorsed the white paper on which the changes are predicated. This gives Blair the nightmare of taking to parliament an education bill that would pass only on the votes of the opposition. To withdraw it would then confirm to the middle ground of voters that new labour is old labour, and that the Tories are the ‘sensible centre’.
And it is in this dilemma that the strange character of contemporary UK politics can be seen. Labour’s ‘Respec’ campaign, a reclamation of national solidarity, is about filling the gap created by its final departure from the democratic socialist impetus of its post-war years. ‘Respec’ becomes not the building of a society in which people have genuine social recognition of each other, but one in which social inequality is accepted, and a sense of deference and national loyalty encouraged. Respect is a way of re-engineering a culture that has a feel and reality of aggressiveness, crime and violence greater than any other in western Europe — an everyday expression of frustration, desocialisation and lost entitlement, seeded in the Thatcher period, and unassuaged since.
To be fair to New Labour, it has made tremendous inroads into the worst of welfare and working poverty — but these have been hardly sufficient to make up for the tremendous rise in desire and expectation that character-ises this highly individualistic and accumulative culture. Crime, violence, an aggressive assertion of refusal — captured in its earliest phase in Martin Amis’s London Fields, and in its more recent form by SBS’s Shameless — is the cultural victory of proletarian Britain , which substitutes for economic and political defeat. Social and cultural control thus becomes paramount; hence the ‘respect’ campaign, and the raft of coercive measures to back it up.
The New Labour apparatchiks see themselves — with some justice — as being given the task of resocialising the UK after seventeen years of government by a Tory party that fantasised about introducing a ruthless free market without damaging community values. Measures such as ASBOs are widely popular, yet they are also the death by a thousand cuts — to habaeas corpus, to natural justice, to the presumption of innocence — of the liberal political order that is now pretty essential to defend.
What has occurred in the UK , however, especially with David Cameron’s recent remodelling of the Tories, is a genuine and total convergence of British politics. It is literally impossible to find any significant point of difference between the substantial institutional policies and beliefs of New Labour and the Conservatives. (Which is one reason why the latter remain lacklustre — in their heart of hearts they know they would not be able to do a better job than the current government.) Much anticipated, convergence is finally here, and it is strange spectacle, since vast numbers of people feel disenfranchised: the left, the poor, rural England , and genuine free-marketeers.
If the UK had any sort of proportional voting system, both major parties would split in two almost immediately; as it is they cling desperately together, hoping to fluke government. It looks like stability, but, compared to the ‘cool Britannia’ years of the mid-90s, it feels like stagnation, starting at the head and spreading downward. No wonder the government is trying to reintroduce respect, like fluoride into a water supply.
Guy Rundle is an Arena Publications Editor.