The ‘politics of behaviour’ with a Tory twist

David Cameron has called for a ‘revolution’ against state interventionism into our lives. It’s a good idea, until you read the small print.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

After a decade of the New Labour government’s ever-increasing interventions into our private lives – where our behaviour has been policed and regulated through everything from healthy eating schemes to anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) – an open debate on such policies would be more than welcome. So at first glance, Conservative leader David Cameron’s call to reduce state intervention into the private sphere and put more trust in individuals’ and communities’ ability to shape their own lives comes across as a good idea.

Cameron has criticised New Labour’s knee-jerk responses to every social problem, where the Blairites’ instinct always seems to be to create new offences and regulations to deal with ‘unacceptable’ behaviour. In a speech to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) in London on Monday, Cameron outlined his plans for ‘putting “civil” back in society’ (1). Setting out his ‘manifesto for a responsible society’, he accused New Labour of creating an ‘irresponsible society’ by making people more dependent on the state. Cameron said that measures such as ASBOs encourage people to abdicate responsibility for their actions, and to defer to the authorities to sort out interpersonal relations and set the standards for civility.

So far, it sounds like a sensible critique. As we have argued on spiked, the authorities’ obsession with anti-social behaviour is not only motivated by overblown concerns about out-of-control communities – it also contributes to a sense of fear and atomisation in parts of Britain. Yet, if it strikes you that Cameron’s call for a ‘revolution in responsibility’ (a contradiction in terms, surely?) sounds like more New Labour-speak, then maybe that’s because it is. The most striking thing about Cameron’s intervention is how much he is echoing the New Labour focus – only where the New Labour government says we must tackle anti-social behaviour, Cameron says we should encourage pro-social behaviour. Like the Blairites, Cameron’s ‘vision’ is firmly rooted in the narrow and authoritarian terrain of the politics of behaviour.

Indeed, a former Blairite figure devised the ‘pro-social’ tag two months before Cameron’s speech to the RSA. Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA and former chief adviser of political strategy to prime minister Tony Blair, first outlined a ‘pro-social’ strategy to community affairs in February (3). Then, Taylor spoke of a ‘framework of agreed norms about how strangers behave with each other’. He said that perceptions shape norms, which in term shape behaviour and over time the behaviour ‘comes to make reality more like the myth’. Drawing on research by Robert Cialdini, professor of psychology at Arizona State University, Taylor argued that the influence of social norms should not be underestimated and that research such as Cialdini’s suggests ‘it is possible to change behaviours significantly through the right forms of information, engagement and persuasion’. Parts of the UK government, Taylor continued, are ‘drawing on this kind of evidence and giving serious attention to how to persuade citizens to act in their own best interests’. Indeed.

In an interview on BBC TV’s Politics Show on Sunday, Cameron said that people should take more responsibility for tackling anti-social behaviour and that Britain is suffering from ‘incredible incivility’. In Cameron’s eyes, those who ‘blight our neighbourhoods’ are children wearing hoodies, people driving ‘gas guzzlers’, and house-owners who refuse to install solar panels on their rooftops – precisely the same demons fingered in New Labour’s war on anti-social antics and its green budgets to punish car-use and reward green good behaviour.

In talking up the ‘social’, Cameron is yet again attempting to distance himself from the old cob-webbed, purple-haired Thatcherite wing of the Conservative Party. Thatcher was famously reported to have said ‘there is no such thing as society’; the title of Cameron’s RSA speech was ‘There is such a thing as society: encouraging pro-social behaviour’. He is also trying to beat New Labour at its own game. Indeed, Cameron’s approach would potentially be just as interventionist and insidious, if not more so, than New Labour’s petty authoritarianism. He may be advocating less state intervention into our private lives, but he is still calling for citizens to adopt the right kind of (pro-social) behaviour. With his proposed ‘framework of incentives that encourages civility and pro-social behaviour’, it is clear that Cameron believes every bit as much as Blair does that it is government’s role to tell us how we should behave and relate to one another. In fact, at least New Labour’s focus on ‘anti’ social behaviour is about saying what we shouldn’t do; the new focus on ‘pro’ social behaviour is about telling us what we should do.

If Cameron has his way, we would still be stuck with the narrow politics of behaviour. He is not challenging this political outlook; he is reformulating it. Analysing how social norms are developed and how people behave, and then coming up with new ways of influencing people to change and to adopt the behaviour the authorities identify as socially good, is not about letting people decide for themselves how to shape their communities. It certainly is not a ‘revolution’. It is yet more petty and patronising sermonising on how we should conduct ourselves.

Writing about how to meet exacting carbon reduction targets, Matthew Taylor states that ‘citizens themselves will need voluntarily to change aspects of behaviour and patterns of consumption. Indeed the most effective instruments may be those that combine the right incentives from government with an ability and willingness among the public to support and act upon these incentives’. Rather than coercion we have blackmail: certain forms of behaviour and consumption will be dis-incentivised, and other forms will be supported, both culturally and presumably financially. When New Labour chancellor Gordon Brown increased the Vehicle Excise Duty for the 225,000 least fuel-efficient cars bought in Britain since last April (4), he didn’t force people to stop driving 4x4s; but he did make opting for such cars a less viable and attractive choice for people. We could probably expect more such blackmail under Cameron’s ‘framework of incentivies’, where our behaviour will be modified not by force but by cultural and economic pressure.

The politics of behaviour is bad for politics and for communities. It makes the political sphere all about controlling and directing the minutiae of our daily lives rather than about tackling big social and economic problems; and it only fosters suspicion and illiberal attitudes in communities that are encouraged to be fearful of the local kids or uncaring car-drivers or ultimately each other. Cameron argues that the state doesn’t have a monopoly over social progress; that parents, neighbours, teachers and businesspeople all should take responsibility for bringing up children to behave properly and keeping their communities in order. He has a point; strong communities that support and look out for one another are a good thing. Yet so long as politicians from Blair to Cameron claim to know what is ‘in our best interests’, and so long as they re-jig the politics of behaviour rather than scrapping it, strong and free communities will remain the stuff of dreams.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi wanted us to be saved from the politics of behaviour. Stuart Waiton explained what anti-social behaviour means to New Labour and argued that its tyranny of ‘respect’ is making society more fragmented. Mick Hume questioned the New Conformism. Or read more at spiked issue Anti-social behaviour.

(1) See the RSA websiteCameron civic responsibility push, BBC News, 23 April 2007

(3) See Pro-Social Behaviour: the Future – it’s up to us

(4) See Who’s afraid of…4x4s by Brendan O’Neill

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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