If you look carefully at the background of William Hogarth’s 1734 engraving
"Southwark Fair", you can see a tiny figure lying face down on a board sliding
down a rope tied at a forty- five degree angle from the top of a church tower.
This activity, briefly a crazeat the time, was known as "donkey-flying", and led
to the deaths of dozens of (probably drunk) young hooligans until everyone
tired of it and moved on.
A century later, there were respectable streets in the centre of London where
respectable people would be wise to remove their top-
hats before venturing further, as otherwise their hats would be shied off by
loitering gangs of rough oiks, who’d invariably shout something deeply
disrespectful as they lobbed their missiles of rocks or horseshit. 150 years
earlier Henry Purcell, the English Orpheus after whom a respectable concert
hall was named, where respectable people go to listen respectfully to
respectable music, froze to death outside his front door near Seven Dials in
Covent Garden because he was noisily drunk again, and his wife had locked
him out for the night.
Those are just three examples of the durability of public drunkenness and low-
level yahooery that have been a feature of human society, probably forever.
But of course citing historical precedents ignore the fact that things should be
getting better (despite the fact that it might now be wiser to revise Marxism
and conclude that History always has been and always will be a messy
dialectic with no hope of a synthesis). And thus, of course, all this recent talk
about "Respect", from the Prime Minister downwards (or upwards).
Interestingly, Blair raised the subject immediately after an election result
which articulated very clearly how much the nation respects him, and was
talking in general terms about respect for individuals and communities,
specifically detaching "respect" (good) from "deference" (bad). (He didn’t
mention "respectability", as this is presumably insufficiently rock ‘n’ roll for
his tastes). Two of New Labour’s more shameless lackeys, John Lloyd and
Geoff Hoon, haven’t been so circumspect, and have called on us, and the
Media which naturally defines our every conscious and unconscious thought,
to show considerably more respect for governments and MPs. And, if
necessary, we should be legislated into respectfulness, with everything from
ASBOs to roughly hewn bills about religious hatred.
But what exactly do we mean when we say we want "respect"? As far as
Governments are concerned, it’s easily understandable, and should be just as
easy to dismiss. MPs and ministers quite clearly want deference rather than
"respect", but I’ve always maintained that in the equation between the rulers
and the ruled the benefits are stacked so heavily in favour of the rulers (power,
influence, a smoother route to good tables in restaurants and into TV studios)
that a bit of disrespect on our side helps even things out, however slightly, and
tends to make us feel better as well as keeping our democracy healthily
sceptical and therefore vigilant.
The same applies to special interest groups (ie religions), keen to keep the
equation unequal in a one way street of "respect" and stamp out any, or indeed
all, arguments that would expose the nonsense they choose to believe. But
more widely "respect" is probably simply the wrong word for a more general
desire for safety and a quiet life. Further than that, societies have always, if
lamentably, found greater cohesion when confronted with a threatening
"other", and it just makes things so much easier if that "other" consists of rude,
loud children, particularly drunk ones, as they form a pretty feeble threat to
society as a whole.
Which is where I get to my real problem with "respect" as a political rallying-
cry. "Respect" implies a mutuality which is not what Blair and the rest of them
really mean. They want good behaviour, and you get that not through
"respect", but through fear.
However, as that’s only a limited option I suspect that underneath all this talk
is a yearning not for "respect" at all, but for respectability. Both Left and Right
in this country have always either secretly or openly been trying to make us all
middle class. This means we’ll all be more prosperous and therefore, it’s
presumed, happier, but it also makes us quieter. Different strategies have been
used to reach this goal, either through universal university education, the right
to buy or higher wages or, more brutally, by the Thatcher Governments of the
1980s. By torching the manufacturing industries where the lower echelons of
the non-middle classes worked in order to destroy the power of the trades
unions, the Tories also launched a cultural war on an entire stratum of society,
what we might term the "NCO class". They specifically demonised public
sector workers, teachers, shop stewards, nurses and all the rest of those people
who offered aspirant working class respectability, but who also provided a
cohesion to society the disparate ranks of middle classes won’t or can’t.
What was offered to replace all that was unbridled consumerism,
"opportunity", "choice" and an exclusively middle class vision of property
owning, car driving, consuming respectability. It’s more than ironic that the
cheerleaders for this cultural revolution in The Daily Mail and The Sun,
offering in turns prudery, a endless diet of acid drops and low-rent sybaritism
are the very people who now bang on about "respect" when the one thing the
packs of hoodied drunken chavs making a row in your local shopping centre
want is some respect for themselves, although that’s the one thing that, not
being respectable, they will never get.
Then again, the phrase "I respect what you say" is invariably followed by the
qualifying conjunction "but..."