2003-10-15 13:59:16 UTC
The Government has at last recognised what has long been stark staring
obvious to everyone with his head below the clouds: that anti-social
behaviour is one of the most serious problems facing Britain. Indeed,
anti-social behaviour is almost the only field in which Britain leads
the world, and is what the British are now principally known (and
despised) for, everywhere they go. Hooliganism is to Britain what
fraud is to Nigeria.
It would be comforting to think that anti-social behaviour is the
province of a small if prominent minority, but this is not so. It is
true that, on many estates, a mere handful of families make the lives
of the other residents hell by means of their violence, intimidation
and every variety of psychopathic conduct.
But the plain fact is that a large proportion of British people do not
socialise when they get together; they anti-socialise. They cannot
enjoy themselves without making a nuisance of themselves, without
screaming, drinking to excess and creating an atmosphere of menace.
Our football crowds are notorious for the vileness of their behaviour,
British holidaymakers en masse make everyone else seem refined by
comparison and, on Saturday night, Britain is Gin Lane with machetes
and mobile phones.
The Government's proposals to deal with the problem are, as one would
expect, weak and feeble. Of course, one must extend a certain
understanding to any government trying to deal with this problem: so
many of the voters, particularly the young, are anti-social that it
would be electoral suicide to be too hard upon, or even about, them.
Yet an "action line" (one of the proposed measures) to advise local
agencies on what to do about anti-social behaviour represents a new
nadir in moral cowardice, or alternatively a new apogee of
pusillanimity. On the other hand, it will provide an employment
opportunity for otherwise surplus bureaucrats, which is the principal
purpose of the Government.
It is most unfortunate that repression is now the only means by which
anti-social behaviour can be reduced in Britain. The law is a blunt
instrument, and it would be much better if people were socialised into
behaving with reasonable consideration for others in the first place,
rather than coerced into it by an already over-mighty state. But our
culture of self-control and restraint has been so thoroughly destroyed
by the social changes since the 1950s that there is no hope of
appealing to people's better nature: they have none. (I speak in
generalities, of course, in case anyone should object that there are
still many decent people around, as there are.)
I realised how irretrievably far things had gone when I was discussing
self-restraint with a group of students a couple of years ago. The
students were intelligent and decent young people, not more than one
or two of whom had assumed the thuggish fashion of the time. I
mentioned that it was once regarded in this country as rather degraded
to eat on the street: that people were expected, and expected others,
to control themselves until they reached a more suitable place to eat.
My students regarded this refusal to eat on the street as a weird
inhibition, an utterly alien and quite unnecessary custom, bizarre and
even offensive to human rights. If one is hungry, why not eat there
and then, when one feels so inclined? I'm hungry, therefore I eat; I
want, therefore I have; I'm inclined, therefore I do: this is the
Of course, if you examine the litter on our streets, you will find
that the great majority of it derives from people eating on the
streets - indeed, people often seem unable to progress more than a few
yards without such refreshment. Our streets are filthy - the worst in
Europe, if not most of the world - because people eat on them.
If you consider this matter - which at first sight seems trivial -
more deeply, you will soon discover that a large proportion of young
Britons never eat in the company of others, except possibly in feral
packs. Many of my patients, for example, have never, in their entire
lives, eaten round a table at home with other members of the family,
but have eaten only when and where they felt like it, on their own,
In other words, they have never learnt to curb their appetite for the
sake of the convenience or conviviality of others. Such radically
asocial people easily behave in an anti-social way because they see
nothing wrong with it. The truth is that others have ceased truly to
exist for them.
Why has this happened? The reason, of course, is to be found in that
other great manifestation of radical and unbridled self-expression,
the destruction of the family. People come together, have children,
and fly apart, not according to any understanding of what is good for
their children (let alone good for society), but according to what
they want for themselves at any given moment. Whim is all.
And this has happened for two reasons: first because self-expression
is regarded ideologically as an unqualified good in itself, no matter
what is being expressed, and second because the state has made it a
financially viable or even, in some cases, an advantageous, way to
behave. The state dishonestly pretends to be agnostic with regard to
the best home arrangements for children.
So now the state finds itself in the position of having to repress on
the one hand the very behaviour that it has assiduously promoted on
the other. As Edmund Burke so presciently remarked: "Men are qualified
for freedom in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral
chains upon their own appetites. Society cannot exist unless a
controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the
less of it there is within, the more there is without. It is ordained
in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds
cannot be free."
That is precisely what we are now rediscovering. Having long been
granted the freedom to be intemperate, we now find that the people who
granted us the freedom now want to repress us because of the horrible
way in which we have used it. Our loss of self-regulation has led
directly to a need for repression. Such repression might work for a
time, and I am not totally against it in the absence of anything
better: but the real problem is how we return to self-regulation.
Alas, the evil genie of self-expression will not willingly return to
Theodore Dalrymple is a practising GP
He is a great writer.