Walk down any high street around dawn and you will see a graphic illustration of how our society operates. Empty food cartons, plastic bags, unwanted free newspapers and promotional leaflets drift in the wind; birds scavenge for scraps of discarded food; broken bottles lie in the gutter; a few pools of vomit and spilled tomato sauce adorn the pavements. Picking their way through this detritus, working-class men in luminous yellow jackets do their best to restore cleanliness and order. The public purse thus foots the bill for unrestrained private consumption. Meantime, people grumble about high taxation.
It occurs to almost nobody that, just possibly, there is a case for requiring, say, fast-food shops to clear up some of their own muck or even for limiting the number of outlets that sell food and drink for mobile consumption on the street and on public transport. The Antisocial Behaviour Bill, which Tony Blair and David Blunkett intend to get through parliament by the new year, is directed against individuals, most of them young, many of them poor. When Mr Blair talks of "enforcement, enforcement, enforcement", he has teenagers from council estates in mind, not corporate giants such as McDonald's. When he talks about beggars, he means scruffy people asking for cash, not market researchers with clipboards asking impertinent questions and demanding details of your bank account. When he talks about graffiti, he means laddish scrawlings, not the corporate advertising that increasingly intrudes on public space. When he talks about abandoned cars, he means old, often burnt-out bangers, not the illegally parked SUVs that block pavements. When he talks about neighbours from hell, he means tenants in council flats, not Grand Metropolitan pubs playing karaoke.
None of this is to deny the need to control yobbish behaviour. As Mr Blair rightly points out, poor but law-abiding people are often the biggest victims. But the instinct to regulate corporate rather than individual behaviour, and to restrict the thoughtlessness of the rich as much as that of the poor, ought to be one of the things that distinguish the left from the right. So ought the instinct to see individual behaviour as at least partly the product of the wider environment.
Antisocial behaviour, as Mr Blair and Mr Blunkett define it, is the preserve of the under-25s, and has always existed to some extent. If a minority of that age group now seems out of control, it is partly because of what Richard Reeves in our cover story (page 18) calls "the privatisation of parenting". Adults no longer accept a collective responsibility to intervene, even with mild remonstration, when the young misbehave in public. Because we now take so little pride in public institutions, we have lost a sense of public space and of how to behave in it. Few people now passing their local primary school, and seeing it attacked by vandals, would think they ought to take steps, as they might once have done, to protect "our" school. Equally, we accept no responsibility to try to protect the young from the corporate sector - as Mr Reeves observes: "We simply allow the market to dictate the messages absorbed by our children."
Those messages suggest that nobody should be denied gratification - indeed, that there is something wrong with you if you are not aspiring to a new pair of shoes or an instant thrill of some kind. If you lack urgent desires, the role of corporate advertising is to supply them, even if they cannot easily be satisfied. Politicians of all parties now encourage this culture by harping on about the importance of "choice", which is just another word for the gratification of individual wants, usually without regard for anybody else's needs. Youth in the 21st century do not grow up in a climate of restraint. To suggest any limits on advertising or on sales of fast food is to lay yourself open to charges of censorship, illiberalism and (mortal sin) of wishing to deny the individual's right to choose. These are, it is true, important considerations: we need always to strike a balance between liberty and social order. But to pretend that social order requires only a "crackdown" on the more marginal members of society is not good enough for a left-of-centre government, even if it makes a satisfactory headline in the Sun or Daily Mail.
There is much sense in the "zero tolerance" doctrine. An environment where petty crime and vandalism flourish is one that breeds more serious crime, not least because it causes older, more law-abiding folk to abandon the streets to the young and less law-abiding. The public environment, however, is now dominated most of all by business and commerce. Perhaps we should tolerate them just a little less.
The shame of IDS
In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, argues that women who stay at home to look after children have been undervalued. We have to make it clear, she says, that "we value and will reward time spent with families". Imagine, then, her anger at the conduct of Iain Duncan Smith. When he became Tory leader, he and his wife, Betsy, had four children under the age of 16. She spent time in the family home exactly as Ms Hewitt recommends. Whether the children actually lived at home or attended boarding school is none of our business. The principle of the thing is what matters. A forward-looking, feminist and compassionate man would have paid his wife a modest sum for following Ms Hewitt's advice - say, £18,000. But no, this mean-spirited reactionary insisted that the poor woman neglect her children to carry out dreary office duties. As he has explained. Shame on him!