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Blair goes broader, deeper, further

Respect to the British government, who last week issued a remarkable document called the Respect Action Plan. The Prime Minister’s foreword ably illustrates the essential futility of the scheme:

It is not in my gift, or that of anyone in central Government, to guarantee good behaviour or to impose a set of common values about acceptable behaviour. But we will set out a framework of powers and approaches to promote respect positively…

Let us set aside the idea of the government as a benevolent year-round Santa Claus, dispensing “gifts” to a grateful public. The crucial word in the sentence is that little “but”, which is doing an awful lot of work. What Mr Blair is saying is that it is of course impossible for a government to instil “respect” in the people. But, they are going to try to do it anyway. What heroic fortitude in the face of inevitable failure. One is reminded of the Adidas advert: “Impossible is nothing”. Later on, the document states clearly that the programme’s aim is to “create a culture of respect”. How exactly to accomplish such a task?

It turns out that the “Action Plan”, or alternatively “the Respect drive” – notice the pseudomilitary turn of phrase that saturates the government’s language – aims to instil respect through an increase in the use of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, Parenting Orders, and other authoritarian devices. The effect of such instruments, which are discussed in detail in Chapter 2 of Unspeak?, is to criminalize an ever-wider range of behaviour. “We must ensure,” says the “Action Plan”, “that the justice system will be swift and proportionate in its responses and sanctions to anti-social behaviour.” An example of such proportionality is the British man who, in 2004, was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison for breaking the terms of an Asbo that forbade him from begging in Birmingham city centre. No doubt he now has much greater respect for the law.

It is also a piquant irony that, having borrowed youth culture’s use of the term “respect”, the government is using it as a stick with which to beat young people in general, whether or not they wear hooded sweatshirts. “We are clear,” protests the “Action Plan”, “that tackling disrespect is not a ‘youth issue’ any more than anti-social behaviour is. Over half of ASBOs are issued to adults.” Er, right. Put this another way, and you see that nearly half of ASBOs are issued to children. A couple of years ago, the government even created a special category of “youth nuisance”, to cover those human beings who ought to be unseen as well as unheard. The fact that the idiomatic use of “respect” began among predominantly poor youth, moreover, is reflected nicely in the fact that ASBOs are issued mainly to the poor. What might be called the “anti-social behaviour” of dossier-drafting communications officials, or of Nazi-costumed princes, is in this respect clearly above the law.

The entire document, as is now usual for official communications, is written in an empty corporate-values style. Chapter headings range from the illiterate – THE FOUNDATION OF OUR FUTURE IS OUR YOUNG – or the utterly meaningless – RESPECT BROADER DEEPER FURTHER – to the bizarrely mystical – EVERYONE IS PART OF EVERYONE ELSE. Your correspondent wishes to make it clear, on the contrary, that he is not part of Tony Blair.

Most telling is the climactic slogan:


If true, this rather torpedoes the whole idea of the government’s “Action Plan” or “drive” to beat “respect” into the population through fear of fines or imprisonment.

It also, perhaps ill-advisedly, brings up the essential reciprocity in the idea of “respect”, which after all derives from the Latin for “to look back”: to look back at someone who is, in turn, looking at you. This notion may be troubling to the government if taken seriously. How much respect does it show to its citizens by infantilizing them with a model of “respect” – “Show me respect, or else” – taken from the stereotype of the strict parent?

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