Gone Missing,Believed Lost? The Concept Of “Respect” In The UK:

Confucius (the 5th century BC Chinese philosopher) declared that young people should be regarded with respect. “How do you know (he asked) that their future will not be equal to (or even better than) our present?”. Many of the teenagers caught on CCTV cameras during  the “August Riots” ( the title of BBC TV’s Panorama documentary on the events)  would  doubtless agree with the sentiment, even if they know absolutely nothing about  Confucius. The right-wing press has tended to attribute the causes of the “four-day mayhem” which took place in London and several other major English cities (though not Scotland or Wales) to “rampaging mobs” and “criminal gangs”. One shop-keeper whose business had been completely trashed furiously categorized them as  “feral rats”. The “progressive media”, though careful not to condone the “looting and vandalism”, has given rather more attention to the background of social deprivation and to the “lapse of standards” by politicians, bankers and journalists who  in the opinion of the Observer’s Henry Porter “have all been guilty of serious abuse, but few of whom have felt the full force of the law in the way rioters are now”. The editorial in the same newspaper on 14th August commented that the events “bore the imprint of a consumer culture that has increasingly determined ideas of status and achievement in Britain” and concluded that most people in the country – despite Chancellor George Osborne’s attempts to persuade us that we are all in “it” (the economic crisis) together – are only “in it” for themselves. Also in the Observer, former war correspondent Peter Beaumont quoted a youth worker’s  explanation that her contemporaries are simply angry at the “hypocrisy of an older generation that lectures about morality without much attachment to it”.

 This is a view prevalent among a large swathe of the UK population – not only those running around the streets of Tottenham, Croydon, Clapham, Manchester and elsewhere earlier this month. Statistics released by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) and published in the “Daily Telegraph” reveal that Members of Parliament “have submitted more than £115,000 worth of illegitimate expenses claims” since the introduction of tough new rules supposedly designed to “clean up the House of Commons”. In June, consumer groups “expressed outrage that Ignacio Galan the Spanish chairman of Scottish Power, had his pay package doubled to £10.5 million just months before the company raised gas bills to record levels for 2.4 million British households”. The Telegraph has asserted that half of the UK’s local authorities pay their chief executives more than Prime Minister David Cameron’s £142.500 annual salary at a time when they are “threatening to make cuts to front-line services”. According to the London Evening Standard on 25th July, Thames Water “has come under fire” for awarding its directors “outrageous” bonuses of almost £2 million, precisely at the moment its customers face having to pay much higher bills.

It would thus be unrealistic to expect “anybody young and unlucky to be trapped in one of our sprawling sink estates” (Will Hutton of “The Work Foundation”) to feel any respect for “those at the top who take as much as they can get away with”. The Observer has queried whether it is “so much of a surprise that the people occupying the bottom rungs of the ladder start behaving badly too?” The problem is clearly not unique to the UK,however. In the blunt assessment of New Zealand journalist Mia Watkins, “Today’s authority figures aren’t respected because they don’t deserve it…an awful lot of them are discovered to be corrupt. Massive global fraud,warmongering lying world leaders or councils largely working against rather than for the communities they were elected to serve”. In Britain, many journalists (especially those writing for the Daily Mail) have for some years been predicting the disorder and violence that occurred from 6th-9th August. Melanie Gill expressed alarm that  “the fabric of our social structure seems to be deteriorating so quickly” and has been dismissive of the “post-Sixties politically-correct doctrine which dictates that any form of discipline or punishment is wrong”. Her equally traditionalist colleague, Melanie Phillips, has lamented “the myriad incivilities of everyday life” ( such as  shouting & swearing in the street and  passengers eating “malodorous hamburgers” on the underground), schools where teachers find it “increasingly impossible to impose their authority on badly-behaved pupils”, the evident contempt for the legal system,the courts and the churches plus (particularly relevant to the current situation) “ the lost, angry and uncontrollable children who have no respect either for themselves or for an adult world which has let them down so badly and taught them above all the socially destructive lessons of instant gratification”. This latter point was reflected in the comments about their schooldays made by Brixton gang members to journalist Harriet Sergeant for her “Sunday Times” column on August 14th. One of them (“Lips”) recalled that not one teacher had  cared about him: “You know when someone cares for you because they are on your case”. Another (“Bulldog”) responded simply that “They didn’t have a lot of respect for us and we didn’t respect them”. This absence of esteem from adults frequently results in teenagers demanding it instead from each other: A “Guardian” newspaper  investigation showed that “disrespect” is in many cases the main motive for gang murder. Within the black community, they discovered, “disrespect” ( for example, making fun of a haircut, taking someone’s parking space,or insulting their mother) accounted for 70% of murders.

During a recent edition of  the BBC Radio 4 programme “Beyond Westminster” on the theme of “What Makes a Good Political Leader?), it was commented that, until 1997 (when Tony Blair took power), British leaders were respected by the public because they’d invariably already had a successful ministerial career. However, “now it is a lot more about their immediate impact on the voters, not about their past record – in fact,it rather helps (as with celebrity culture) if they don’t have one”. Which also means, if things go wrong (as now) “there’s no respect for the people at the helm”. The latest opinion polls seem to indicate that the British electorate is unconvinced by any of the  three “new generation” party political leaders. Though the popularity of David Cameron (Conservative – 45 years old) has fluctuated following criticism of his handling of the riots, this has not significantly boosted the ratings of either Ed Milliband (Labour: age -42) or Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat: age- 44)

 In the global context, there appear to be very few rulers who currently attract  wholehearted admiration. An Economist/YouGov poll in May indicated that “barely half of Americans say that the leaders of other countries have a great deal (18%) or a fair amount (35%) of respect for Barack Obama, while 29% thinks he gets not much and 18% thinks he gets no respect at all from fellow world leaders”. The “GlobalPost Social Media Power Rankings” do, though, confirm that Obama is the Head of State with the most Facebook friends (21,776,236) and Twitter followers (8,800,530). At No.2 on this list is Philippine President Benigno Aguino III (2,077,183 / 523,493). Among Latin American Presidents, Hugo Chavez (Venezuela) has 136.956 Facebook friends and 1,634,460 Twitter followers; Felipe Calderon (Mexico): 198,465  /  734,342;  Juan Manuel Santos (Colombia): 546,417 / 224,186; Dilma Rousseff: (Brazil): 224,186 on Twitter. Meanwhile,the Christian Science Monitor has surmised that the election of Ollanta Humula as Peru’s President in June “highlights the decline of Latin America’s hard-core left” and that the most popular leaders in the region now are those who take a moderate political position – such as Brazil’s ex-President Lula and El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes, who has also been given an 88% approval rating ( 2nd after the 91% for Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli) by the “Andean Currents” website. Ecuador’s Rafael Correa still “enjoys widespread support” (The Guardian) but in Bolivia “Inflation, shortages and scandals have caught up with Evo Morales, hitherto Latin America’s most popular leftist leader” (The Economist). Back in the UK, David Cameron has 130,000 Facebook friends but no Twitter account or followers. He might need to improve on this if he wants to win the next General Election in 2015.








Filed under: Society | Posted on August 24th, 2011 by Colin D Gordon

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