Greasy Pole: The Respect That Makes Calamity
When was it that Tony Blair decided that Respect would be an attractive, vote-catching election theme? Was it a long time ago, before he had felt the first stirrings of political ambition and was merely a rebellious, disrespectful schoolboy? Or later, when he was safely ensconced in Downing Street and his son was collected from a West End gutter after disrespectfully celebrating the end of his exams? Whatever the truth of this, the theme now looks about to become another New Labour obsession. Here is Blair, speaking on the steps of Number Ten after his victory in the 2005 election, vowing to bring back “A proper sense of respect in our schools, in our communities, in our towns and villages”. And here is Charles Clarke, a Labour Home Secretary doing his best to forget his past as a stroppy left winger: “Tackling disrespect in our society is an absolute priority for the government”.
Blair has made it clear where he thinks the blame lies for any shortcomings in this matter: “it is in the family that we have to come to terms with the idea of give and take and respect for other people”. And what if the family does not come up to these expectations? Well, “People need to understand that if their kids are out of control and they are causing a nuisance to the local community, there is something that is going to happen”. And that “something” is to apply Parenting Orders, now to be extended and strengthened, which force parents to be instructed in how to bring up their children – teaching them to respect others, give up their bus seat to an old lady, stand up when the national anthem is played, always wear their full school uniform and obey the general laws and orders of capitalist society. If the parents succeed in this and their kids behave in an orderly, respectful way, Blair will be a happier man and, the argument runs, New Labour will win yet another election.
This is all very well, but as a spokesperson for the children’s charity Barnado’s pointed out, it is not only children who are the cause of nuisance behaviour and it is not only in family homes and schools that the problem reveals itself. There was the recent example of Labour Party member Walter Wolfgang, who was so lacking in respect for figures of power and authority that he recklessly called out, slumped in his seat at Labour’s conference, that Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was a liar. At the time Straw was only doing his job, giving the conference (which was very sparsely attended at the time) the Labour Party line, perhaps flavoured by a Foreign Office brief, that Iraq was attacked in order to get rid of Saddam Hussein and establish a modern democracy there, whatever the Iraqi people thought about it. Now, the Foreign Secretary holds one of the great offices of state, is a person of considerable influence and standing in society (although in the unusual case of Jack Straw his standing, for reasons connected with the ruthless game of politics, is rather lower than is the custom) who should command respectful silence when he is telling lies. It is no excuse for Wolfgang to argue that he was carried away by the contrast between Straw’s original doubts about the invasion of Iraq and his passionate support of it now. It is an essential of being respectful to keep extremes of emotion – like outrage at a blatant, cynical betrayal – strictly under control.
It was especially unwise of Wolfgang to interrupt Jack Straw who, when he was Home Secretary, was liable to become excited in discussing the symptoms of social disturbance. It was Straw who first publicly condemned the “squeegee bandits” – people who, without the driver asking, cleaned the windscreens of cars which were halted at traffic lights. We never did hear what happened to all those dangerous criminals who went about their nefarious business with wet sponges in their hands – and Straw forgot about them as well. Then he complained about his evening drive home from the office being marred by the spectacle of young people out on the streets later than a respectable Home Secretary thought they should be. That particular neurosis lingers on, in the ASBOs and the campaign about respect. And it was Straw who had to take his son to a police station after he had been exposed by a tabloid newspaper for offering controlled drugs for sale. Not, in other words, someone for Wolfgang to tangle with. It is just as well that Straw was so effectively protected from him.
Unfortunately, when Wolfgang embarked on his one-man campaign to wreck Labour’s conference there was not enough time to refer him to his local branch of the new anti-social behaviour units (of which more later), with a view to cracking down on his parents who, as Blair has told us, must be held responsible for raising so disruptive a character. This was clearly considered an unrealistic option when Labour’s spin doctors were told about Wolfgang’s age. So it was entirely appropriate – indeed there was no other way – for a couple of impressively beefy, enthusiastically respectful, Labour Party members who had volunteered to police the conference, to eject him from the hall. Along with another member who was disrespectful enough to protest at an 82-year-old man having his collar felt in that way. Perhaps now Wolfgang, like other offenders against the law, will be taught to keep his place by being deprived of his state benefits under the rules dreamed up by David Blunkett, who used to be Home Secretary but is now in charge of the Department of Work and Pensions.
Meanwhile the new task force with the job of teaching respect to people who heckle government ministers is getting down to its vital work. At its head is Louise Casey, who was already in charge of the Anti-Social Behaviour Unit. Her new job requires her to “focus” (a word much loved by New Labour hopefuls) on “working together on the neighbourhood renewal and anti-social behaviour agendas, highlighting respect for others and respect for the community.” Whatever talents Casey can bring to this task, sensitive public relations is not among them. A few weeks before her new appointment, when she was merely the ASBO tsarina, she informed an audience of Home Office staff and senior police officers that
“Doing things sober is no way to get things done…I suppose you can’t binge drink any more. I don’t know who bloody made that up. It’s nonsense…There is an obsession with evidence-based policy. If Number Ten says bloody
evidence-based policy to me one more time I’ll deck them and probably get
All over the country breath will be bated while we learn what kind of “respect” Casey will introduce us to. Wolfgang will probably be particularly apprehensive. Meanwhile Labour has been most generous in its response to his deplorable lack of respect for one of their senior politicians. One minister after another queued up to offer their humblest apology to him. Party chairman Ian McCartney went so far as to promise to take him out for a meal – a traditionally pacifying treat for stroppy pensioners – although whether eating in company with the myopically loyal Labourite McCartney would be nutritious and mollifying, or further punishment, was not clear. As the dust settled it had to be asked whether the apologies and the threatened dinner with McCartney were motivated by the fact that the Labour stewards had so clumsily committed their assault on Wolfgang in full view of the TV cameras. For some viewers it was reminiscent of Mosley’s infamous fascist rally at Olympia in 1934. If there had not been the same damning TV exposure, would all those ministers have been so eager to grovel?
There are other questions which need to be asked in the whole matter of “respect”. What kind of “respect” was shown by Jack Straw when he changed his mind over something as important as the war in Iraq? What sort of “respect” is shown by the Blair government’s drive to undermine the established legal rights of people who are arrested by the police? And on the other side, what degree of “respect” do we find in the attitude of someone like the heckling Wolfgang, who undisturbedly keeps his membership of both CND and the Labour Party, although he must know that there is no prospect of this government, or any future Labour government, agreeing to throw away their nuclear weapons? Let it be clear. Having respect for people and our environment – acknowledging and caring for each other’s strengths, needs, weaknesses, ambitions – is not compatible with capitalism’s essentially competitive, repressive nature. Capitalism makes heroes of those who rise to the top, no matter how ruthlessly they achieve that. Tony Blair, for example, did not get where he is by allowing himself to be diverted through any respect for truth and human interests. And then what about the people – the working class – who in their millions support capitalism’s political parties through thick and thin, disaster and triumph, contempt and respect? They need to understand that in the mouth of a politician “respect” is a fine but meaningless word. Unhappy and disillusioned people like Wolfgang should know this because they have experienced “respect” at the sharp end.