Online at LabourUncut here.
In a 2002 Observer article Tony Blair set out the theme of “rights and responsibilities”. He sought to expose the inadequacies of what he termed the left’s “1945 ‘big state’ that wrongly believed it could solve every social problem” and the right’s “narrow, selfish individualism of the 1980s”. For Blair, responsibilities were concomitant with rights. Admirable people and organisations, from MPs to QCs, Amnesty to Liberty, the CAB to the EU, have ensured that rights are now well-defined and defended. We must remain vigilant about rights, but now it’s time to foster a “responsibilities culture.”
The culture of rights, fought for by philosophers, politicians and ordinary people throughout history has advanced human happiness, security and economic prosperity. It achieved this by imbuing individuals with rights by virtue of being human, not as gifts of God or the state.
Responsibilities should be given this irreducible, non-negotiable status. “I know my rights” is the unacceptable face of rightsism. The responsibilities agenda has historically been directed at the poor rather than the better-off, when in fact it is a universal imperative. In the future, it would be good to hear more of, “I know my responsibilities”, from citizens, companies and organisations throughout society and the economy.
Here are a few areas where the responsibilities revolution could take effect:
We are required to by the law to obey its strictures. However, we each have a moral responsibility to avoid illegal behaviour. Our criminal justice system would be much less necessary if people accepted the not unreasonable responsibility to desist from harming others. We should spend less time trying to understand the “causes” of crime and more on instilling a sense of respect for others and ensuring that violators fear the law and wider community. The challenge is huge: despite crime apparently falling, the Met reported last week that violent crime in London is up 25 per on last year.
This week, several hospitals declared major incidents due to A&E over-crowding. NHS England’s Professor Keith Willett has previously said that between 15 and 30 per cent of people presenting at A&E do not need actually need to be there. Andy Burnham is right to blame cuts to social care, problems with the 111 system, and insufficient GP capacity, but individuals share a responsibility to help the NHS work effectively. While the NHS must treat all ailments compassionately, we must overcome our British reticence about the “nanny state” and more actively encourage people to change their lifestyles in order to prevent medical conditions. Gastric band surgery may be cost-effective compared to treating the long-term conditions caused by obesity, but not becoming obese in the first place would be better for individuals, the NHS and economy. Labour’s public health agenda can, in government, do more to assist individuals to lead healthier lives.
Governments must cease holding teachers entirely responsible for tackling deep-set societal problems. Parents should be made far more aware that it is their responsibility to send children to school with respect for staff, a thirst for learning and with good behaviour. A national Parental Responsibility Code could be brought in.
We need more school governors, more parents able to run sports or music clubs, more Special Constables, more philanthropy, more social activism. Citizens taking on these responsibilities shouldn’t be regarded as the exception, but the norm. Empowered, active citizens of all social classes and backgrounds should feel that they are community leaders, that they are responsible for maintaining high standards within their communities. They shouldn’t require permission from sometimes moribund councils or “the authorities”. Employers could be required to allow employees time off to volunteer, just as with armed forces reservists.
False idols like Russell Brand and other prophets of apathy and cynicism fill a vacuum created by mainstream politicians. Yet the blame isn’t politicians’ alone and must be shared with the media and public. People often say that politicians are (delete as appropriate) “all the same/corrupt/don’t listen/are lining their pockets”. These are false statements. We each have a responsibility to use the political system to change our country for the better, including, if necessary, the constitution. People can vote, join a political party or even create their own –nobody stopped Mr Farage.
Unlike our Tory and Lib Dem opponents, we in the Labour Party believe in the power and responsibility of the state to do this. Take the Tories’ Big Society agenda which focused exclusively individual and charitable action because of their ideological antipathy to an active state. It is no good proclaiming the virtues of active citizenship if you’re slashing local and national government spending. People can only volunteer in their communities if their jobs don’t require them to work all hours and if communities, through local councils, have the buildings, the playing fields in which clubs can flourish.
Only Labour can usher in a responsibilities revolution, because we can set out how the state’s responsibilities can nurture those of individuals and vice versa. Unlike our opponents, we see an enabling state working in partnership with individuals and communities to help create a fairer, more prosperous Britain.
As J. F. Kennedy didn’t quite say:
“Ask not which rights your country can protect for you, but ask instead what responsibilities you have to yourself, your community and your country”.