Scrap this anti-social meddling in our lives
Theresa May's souped-up successors to ASBOs will further diminish communities' ability to reprimand their local reprobates.
Britain’s anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) have long been considered a bad joke. Kids boast that having one is a ‘badge of honour’, market stalls sell ASBO t-shirts, and the acronym is used to christen dangerous dogs and even vicious swans. Little wonder few people take them seriously – 57 per cent of ASBOs have been breached, rising to up to 100 per cent in some towns. They should rightly be scrapped. But in announcing a souped-up successor, the UK coalition government is making things worse, exacerbating the inability of communities to deal with anti-social behaviour themselves.
The Lib-Con coalition just can’t help themselves. When announcing the imminent dumping of the ASBO this week, home secretary Theresa May declared: ‘It’s clear the old top-down approach to the problem [of anti-social behaviour] hasn’t worked.’ So far, so good. However, in announcing new criminal-behaviour orders – which have quickly been dubbed ‘Crimbos’ – and crime-prevention injunctions, she demonstrates that no lessons have been learned. These replacements are designed to be more efficient and cut bureaucracy, but they remain as intrusive as the old ASBOs. Indeed, new gimmicks, such as the ‘community trigger’, look to be more insidious. So under this new initiative, if three or more households complain about a neighbour having noisy sex, singing Meatloaf too loudly or whatever, the complaint gets fast-tracked by authorities. It’s meant to encourage civic participation; it’s more likely, however, to cultivate a community of snitches. Encouraging neighbours to collaborate with each other to get the state to step in will weaken, not strengthen, communities – and it won’t tackle anti-social behaviour, either.
Given its ubiquity today, it is often hard to imagine there was a time when the term ‘anti-social behaviour’ did not exist. Yet it only really emerged a couple of decades ago when it was adopted as a pet phrase of Rudolph Giuliani during his ‘zero tolerance’ crackdown while mayor of New York in the mid-1990s. New Labour, then vying for power, was only too happy to jump on the bandwagon in the UK, declaring in its 1997 election manifesto: ‘We will be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime… We will tackle the unacceptable level of anti-social behaviour and crime on our streets. Our “zero tolerance” approach will ensure that petty criminality among young offenders is seriously addressed.’ Shortly after the 1997 election, the ASBO was introduced in England, Scotland and Wales under section 1 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. It was intended to deal with behaviour that did not come under the remit of the criminal-justice system, like vandalism or nasty neighbours.
Between 2000 and 2010, over 20,000 ASBOs were issued. Authorities meddled in an unprecedented and often ludicrous and petty array of social issues, ranging from bans on wearing skimpy nightwear and being sarcastic to drinking alcohol in public, attending protests and, in the case of one 14-year-old boy, using the word ‘grass’ after neighbours complained he was calling them police informers. But that’s not to say that the introduction of ASBOs, and the resulting much-hyped ‘ASBO culture’, was solely a result of opportunistic politicians creating a problem that hitherto did not really exist. Driving politicians’ reactions to ‘anti-social behaviour’ was an instinctive recognition that increasingly alienated people and communities were no longer collectively setting standards of behaviour. In a period of social and communal disarray, communities were not self-correcting each other’s behaviour in the way they once would have done.
There are a number of reasons for this. The perception that there is more ‘anti-social behaviour’ is in part a result of the corrosion of long-standing communities, which historically developed social bonds through shared activities, interests and common places of work. In many areas, this problem has been exacerbated by attempts to put communities which have hit hard times, which previously might have moved on and regenerated elsewhere, on life support through the welfare state.
This corrosion of communities has gone hand-in-hand with a wholesale devaluation of the wisdom of older generations by the modern elite. No longer are parents and elders seen to know best, able to assume authority when it comes to setting community norms and standards. Instead, the idea of adults ‘knowing best’ has been problematised, eroded by a rise of relativism with regards to behaviour and attitudes. Adults are encouraged not to deal with community affairs except through formal channels, lest they make matters worse. Even when it comes to what were previously innocuous social activities, like coaching a kids’ football team, adults have to prove they are not a problem by getting a CRB check as a state-sanctioned stamp of approval. Young people and elders alike are encouraged to accept the idea that ‘the state knows best’, with officials, rather than the community, playing the role of arbiters of ‘social’ and ‘anti-social’ behaviour.
This leads to a situation where it is accepted that communities are unable to sort out anti-social behaviour informally and locally. Logically, initiatives like ASBOs follow, as the state takes on what was once an old important social role of moderating behaviour in a community. The upshot of this is that our social and moral resources for handling certain situations informally are drained. No longer is knocking on the door of a neighbour to tell him to turn his music down seen to be the done thing. Instead, an official intermediary is considered necessary to ensure things don’t get out of hand. No longer can good neighbours assume, as the soap theme goes, that with a ‘little understanding’, they can ‘find the perfect blend’. Understanding can now only be reached with a little help from the state.
So when Theresa May points to ‘three million incidents of anti-social behaviour… still being reported to the police each and every year’, it isn’t that there is more anti-social behaviour than before. Rather it is that our perceived capability for dealing with it ourselves has been diminished, and so we are invited to turn to the state.
Crucially, what has bypassed May, and all the other politicians lining up to talk tough on tackling anti-social behaviour, is that ASBOs and their proposed successors will intensify an already bad situation. By further formalising and juridifying informal areas of life, ASBOs and ‘Crimbos’ encourage people to bow to external authorities, becoming ever more reliant on outside actors to fix local, social problems. That is not to say that these problems do not exist, and that solutions don’t need to be found. But while people are encouraged to ditch their own nous and forgo their authority in favour of saying ‘let’s call the ASBO police’, community divisions will only be exacerbated further. One thing is for certain: only when we sweep away the whole arsenal of ASBOs, Crimbos, community triggers and whatever new initiatives the state concocts to regulate our behaviour will good neighbours stand any chance of becoming good friends.