Not Saussure

June 2, 2007

Louise Casey, the Respect tsar

Filed under: Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 3:03 pm

Gosh, I hadn’t realised until I read today’s Telegraph quite how much Louise Casey, Mr Blair’s ‘Respect tsar’ (tzarina, I would have thought, though more properly Tsaritsa, цари́ца,) resembles Jade Goodey; she could be her older sister. And not just in looks; here’s Ms Casey’s account of her reaction to a development in popular culture that seems to have given her some pleasure:

“Did I punch the air when the word Asbo was used on EastEnders?” she says. “Yes. I jumped off my sofa and shouted my head off.”

I suppose her family must be used to that sort of thing by now, but it seems a tad eccentric to me.

Mind you, Ms Casey seems to watch rather too much television for her own, and others’ good; what else is one to make of a remark like,

The Government is right to interfere in family life, she insists. “Look at the viewing figures for Supernanny. There’s no shortage of people who want to be bossed around a bit,” she says. “The taxes I pay are partly to try to make the country a better place and parents are the most important thing we have in the fight against every social evil.”

I’ve said enough lately about people who want to mobilise the power of government to try to make the world (or even the country) a better place, so I’ll content myself with the observation that I suspect the viewing figures for Supernanny reflect, rather, some people’s epicaricacy, their pleasure at watching other people’s horrible sprogs misbehaving, rather than any serious basis for policy-making.

Reading through the article, one realises that she really does seem to derive many of her ideas from the telly;

She wishes soap operas would paint a more positive picture of the country. “I hate the fact that everything is gloomy, everybody is sleeping with each other, everybody is killing each other, everybody is committing anti-social behaviour all the time when Britain doesn’t look so awful in real life.”There’s a public service responsibility to try to uphold certain standards of decency.”

Well, most of us do, in fact, realise that soap operas are a made-up story rather than documentaries; what’s she so bothered about?

Anyway, the article offers a couple of rather more significant insights into Ms Casey’s manner of thought. First, apparently

After eight years in Government, the leader of the Respect task force says: “I am still an outsider.”She finds Whitehall jargon “bizarre”. “Each department has its own word for the same thing – boundaries is social work, rules is school, law is the Home Office and regeneration, well what is regeneration?”

Apart from the fact that, after 8 years in a senior role, most people would be rather ashamed to admit they still didn’t really understand the terminology their colleagues were using, it seems to me her confusion typifies the way this government thinks. Most people can understand the difference between the boundaries of socially acceptable behaviour, the rules of a school and the law of the land — related and sometimes overlapping concepts, but each of them distinct — but it’s something with which this government clearly has problems. That’s why, to my mind, every time something’s identified as ‘a problem’ — that is, a problem in the sense that focus groups and newspaper editors express concern about it (teenagers being teenagers, for example) — the government’s response is, ‘There ought to be a law… I know, we’ll pass one’.

Ms Casey goes on to explain,

She wants a new spirit of politeness. “I’d love London buses to have announcements telling passengers to give up their seats to pregnant women.”

Personally, I find it rather depressing that there is a need for such notices (if, in fact, there is such a need — my impression is that many people using public transport in London and elsewhere normally will offer their seats to pregnant women anyway), but I started to wonder why she hadn’t asked Transport for London to put up such notices. They have them on buses around where I live, after all, and there are similar notices on most trains I’ve used recently. Then I realised what the problem must be; a notice politely asking you to offer your seat, not only to pregnant women but also to anyone else who looks as if they might need it, would be no use to Ms Casey. She almost certainly wants to tell you you’ve got to, or face a fine. That’s the only way she, and the government, can be seen to be doing something.

She also observes,

we’re a nation that wants to keep our heads down and be polite, we don’t have a culture of being over-confrontational in shops, we need to queue at the bus stop.”With our reticence comes our need for some structures that mean we can fit in.”

There’s a couple of half-truths in that, at least insofar as any statement that starts with the generalisation, ‘we’re a nation that …’ means very much. People certainly want, in general, to be polite and to have a sense of structure because experience has taught most of us that, in a large and complex society of free individuals pursuing their own ends, some general rules of social interaction make life far more pleasant for everyone. It’s the ‘wanting to keep our heads down’ bit of her analysis that irritates me, with its implication that everyone’s somehow cowed or frightened. ‘Having better things to do with our time than fight over trivialities,’ might be a better way of putting it; I’d certainly rather be gracious and let someone through the door ahead of me, or onto the bus first, rather than get into a row with him about it, not because I’m scared to stick up for myself but because life’s too short to get vexed about such things, at least most of the time.

It’s this idea that we need the state, complete with a Tsaritsa, to enforce codes of behaviour that’s worrying, and perhaps takes us back to Ms Casey’s confusion between boundaries, rules and laws. Yes, social boundaries are very important, and we start learning at a very early age how to play nicely together, take turns and not push and shove. So are rules, much of the time; some of the ones I’ve internalised are maybe rather archaic — almost by Pavlovian response, I stand up when a lady enters the room, at least in social circumstances — but others — giving up your seat on the tube to a pregnant woman — are quite important. It really just comes down to a combination of showing consideration and of finding a modus vivendi that allows all these total strangers to live close to each other and pursue their own ends without coming blows or tripping over each other too frequently. The law, to my mind, only needs to get involved when there’s a conflict we can’t sort out by mutual negotiation or that the nuisance someone’s causing is insufferable.

The two problems with this government (not that I’m convinced the alternative is much better) are that they seem to think we can have a trouble-free life and that it can be achieved by legislation and enforcement — the only sort of rules and boundaries it seems to recognise.

I wonder if Ms Casey and her respect unit will long survive Mr Blair. It might well be a significant indication of the way Mr Brown intends to proceed.



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