Together we can reclaim the streets
Never mind Spiderman. Forget Harry Potter and his struggle against Voldemort. I’ll tell you my hero of the hour.
He’s a 68-year-old Liberal Democrat peer called Lord Phillips of Sudbury in the County of Suffolk, and last week he struck such a blow for freedom and common sense that, if there were any justice, the people of Sudbury would now be organising a subscription to erect his statue in the market place. Because it was in that very market place that Lord Phillips of Sudbury faced a moral dilemma, of a kind that many of us face – without acknowledging it – every day.
In an instant, he decided to defy modern correct thinking. He set an example for us all. He did the right thing. He found three 10-year-old boys cycling on the pavement, and realised their behaviour was dangerous and anti-social, since the precinct was then thronged with young mothers and their push-chairs.
He showed the first signs of heroism by having the guts to tick them off. “I just stopped and told these lads, ‘Look you can’t cycle here. You must dismount.’ ” Alas, he was met for his pains with a salvo of abuse. The 10-year-olds shrieked at the noble lord, who has been married since 1968 and who has three children. They called him a “pervert, a poofter and a paedo”.
In the old days, there would have been some sort of instant penalty for children who were vilely abusive, in public, to a distinguished figure such as Lord Phillips. When some boys were rude to the Prophet Elisha, saying, “Go down, thou bald head”, God sent some bears to eat them up.
But these days, children know there is very little to stop them behaving foully, and so Lord Phillips decided to bite his tongue, and went into Boots to continue his shopping, propping up his own bicycle on the way in.
At which point one of the children – still scandalised at being reprimanded by an adult – kicked the bike over; and it was then, as he emerged from the shop to see his bike clattering to the ground, and the children scarpering, that Lord Phillips faced his dilemma.
All the street wisdom of modern Britain says that you avoid meeting their eyes, pick up your bike, pretend not to care, and cycle off in the opposite direction. You don’t know what those kids have got in the pockets of those hoodies. It might be a knife to yerk you beneath the breastbone.
It might even be a gun. Most of us would decide in a flash that it was not worth finding out, and to leave the brutishness uncorrected. Lord Phillips is made of sterner stuff. He gave chase; he caught the child; he grabbed his sweater; and of course he didn’t cuff him or clip him round the ear, or administer any form of early-20th-century chastisement, since he is a humane sort of fellow.
He asked a passer-by to call the police, saying to the child: “If you think you can behave like this, you are dead wrong.” To which, the boy replied, with a chilling grasp of the changed relationship between children and adults: “I am going to have you for holding me.”
And when the police arrived, whose side do you think they were on? They didn’t even tick off the boys, but warned Lord Phillips that he was wrong to try to exercise any authority himself. As a police spokeswoman said: “Members of the public should always have a regard for their own personal safety and our advice is to call the police immediately.” And that makes my blood boil.
It seems that, if any adult wants to dispute the right of young thugs to misbehave, then not only does he or she do so at considerable personal risk, but with the express disapproval of the forces of law and order.
The implication is that there can only be two figures of authority on the streets – the thugs and the cops. Everyone else must creep around, averting their eyes, hoping that someone will call the police: which might be all right if we could really hope that the police will come, and if there were really enough police to deal with all the forms of anti-social behaviour.
Look at the list of acts deemed to be anti-social, and you will see a dizzying range, including many things that you and I would classify as crimes – straightforward crimes. Joy-riding, raiding cars, taking drugs, smashing phone boxes: why are these lumped in with playing loud music or failing to curb the dog or playing games of football in inappropriate areas?
Why do we need to call the police every time we see someone swearing loudly or scratching graffiti? The answer is simple. We call the police, because disapproval no longer works, and for very good reasons we have mainly lost the confidence to intervene ourselves.
We won’t restore civility to our streets until we realise that we all – collectively – need to recover our nerve and reassert our adult prerogatives.
Yes, we need more policemen on the beat, and not filling out forms, and yes, we need to make sure that these thugs are properly punished. But we can flood the streets with police and fill our jails to American levels without addressing the fundamental issue: that children have lost respect for adults, and they know that adults will take no steps to win it back.
We can’t do this individually. It’s no use if only a few people are willing to remonstrate: as so many recent killings have taught us, the have-a-go hero is speedily transformed into the have-a-go martyr.
We need to work collectively to make use of the fact that the good, peaceful, law-abiding majority vastly outnumber the thugs. We need to restore that majority rule to the streets, to the top decks of buses, and when someone like Lord Phillips is brave enough to show a lead, he should be congratulated by the police, not ticked off.
As he said himself: “You can’t just leave everything to the police, because they are not always around. You can’t just pass on by and hope things will get better.” He’s right, but his insight is useless if he’s on his own.