The moment I realised politics had changed for the worse is indelibly etched on my memory. I hold my surgeries at Birkenhead Town Hall and, nine years ago, into the small office I occupy came a group of constituents well into their seventies. Nothing had prepared me for what these very respectable, working-class pensioners described.
Young lads ran across their bungalow roofs, peed through their letter boxes, jumped out of the shadows as they returned home at night and, while the old people were watching television, tried to break their sitting-room windows.
These people never knew when they would be attacked. Their strained faces and eyes bore witness to this tragedy. They had expected to live out their lives in peace and dignity. They had always worked hard, adding more to society than they took from it. As younger people, they had behaved respectfully to their elders and, now they were old, had expected similar respect. Their basic sense of justice was affronted.
The police confirmed the pensioners' story. They could do nothing. The young people knew their rights. They could not be touched. Now other examples of foul behaviour that had been reported to me fell into a pattern.
So began for me a new political age: over the past nine years, behaviour has come to dominate the issues my constituents raise with me (see panels over the page), usurping the traditional class issues - wages, working conditions, social security claims and housing - that had been the bread and butter of my constituency work since I was elected in 1979. Why? What has gone wrong?
By the 1950s, Britain was perhaps a more peaceful country than it had ever been. A march to respectability of two centuries or more had transformed the country's behaviour. A set of common decencies, which were taught in families and civil society alike, gave people the social skills to negotiate the outside world. This reign of decent behaviour was the product of two great forces. Noel Annan, in his magisterial life of Leslie Stephen, explains how the evangelical revival touched practically every part of English life. The British character, as we now recognise it, was in large part moulded by a belief that individuals were responsible for how their lives turned out, and that they were finally accountable before God for how they used their talents. The simple goodness of the farm labourers described in Lark Rise, Flora Thompson's autobiographical account of life in late 19th-century rural England, bears testimony to the power of such belief in shaping people's lives.
As religious doubt took root, that wish to reach paradise was replaced by a more immediate political philosophy that helped to give rise to the neo-Marxist labour movement in Britain. Labour's pre-1945 mutually owned welfare state - run by trade unions and friendly societies and based on the contributory principles of insurance - reinforced the guidelines of evangelical religion. Both taught, above all else, that self-respect was inextricably bound up with respect for other people - that these were, indeed, two sides of the same coin. The near-universal acceptance of this principle created what was, in effect, a largely self-governing community. Law and its enforcement played a part, but they were only a check, rather than a main defence against disorder.
The explanation for the disintegration of this peaceful commonwealth is as crucial as it is little studied. The roots of our present discontent, I believe, lie buried in the mid-19th century. As Christianity reached its zenith as the popular arbiter of morals and behaviour, the seeds of its disintegration were already bearing fruit. Doubt assumed a capital D. But those members of the elite who were plunged into doubt hoped Judaeo-Christian morality would continue to exercise influence even if it was not underpinned by dogma and faith. Rules of behaviour were taught at almost every turn, all centring on respect for other people and for the office some of those people held. Those who had the task of seeing that common decencies ruled - police, voluntary social workers, teachers - knew they acted with widespread approval.
Slowly, this inherited code of acceptable behaviour came under attack. Without the underpinning of belief, it was vulnerable to the central assertion of the Enlightenment: that one person's view or judgement was as good as anyone else's.
Moral codes survive only if they are constantly taught and practised. Rules are kept by convention, habit and self-interest, and, to a large extent, because other people keep them. Self- interest works for the common good. Operating a code of behaviour is like a pyramid sales operation. As long as it continues, its working guarantees its future. Once a significant number of people start to breach the code with any frequency, self-interest becomes self-centredness and the whole system falters. People behave badly; other people then behave badly because they have lost trust. They do not have the confidence to follow what their consciences often prompt them to do. Disorder becomes its own recruiting sergeant.
William Golding showed in Lord of the Flies how fragile civilised behaviour can be. Away from parents, schools and police, the boys at first change their established patterns of behaviour only in small and almost imperceptible ways, but then descend at alarming speed into mayhem and finally murder. Early in the novel, Ralph, the boys' natural leader, shouts at Jack, his rival, that he is breaking the rules. "Who cares?" Jack replies nonchalantly. Ralph then delivers a great truth for our age. Rules are crucial, he says, because they are "the only things we have got".
Given that we cannot recreate the religious faith of the past, how can we re-establish a belief that rules will be kept? What could be the basis of a new social highway code?
The first step is to prevent the yob culture from spreading still further. Here, the problem is that ministers and officials still tend to see it simply as a matter of law enforcement. But antisocial behaviour is not low-level crime by another name. Crime should be dealt with by criminal and civil law. Antisocial behaviour is something quite different - though if it stays unchecked, with the perpetrators seeking ever greater excitement from their actions, it can turn into a pathway to criminal activities.
Much antisocial behaviour, as long as it remains occasional, is acceptable and has always been so. It is the repetition of antisocial acts, at unpredictable times and over long periods, that is new and which damages the social fabric. The odd game of football against the wall of someone else's house is just about bearable for the occupants. For it to continue hour upon hour, and for the occupants never to know when it might begin or end, transforms a street game into a public nuisance.
Yet much of the government's response to antisocial behaviour is modelled on the criminal justice system of long adversarial procedures. Countering antisocial behaviour needs to be swift and effective, not only to bring respite to the victims, but to prevent offenders sliding into worse behaviour and possibly crime. Speed is of the essence. Compiling evidence and corroborating it across police, schools and social services misses the point.
Antisocial behaviour arises because the people who should naturally stop it - parents - cannot or will not act. So someone else needs to exercise parental power. I have suggested making the police surrogate parents and allowing them to act like football referees. They would have power to warn against antisocial behaviour and then, if need be, to sanction immediately either an antisocial behaviour contract or an order. The offender would have the right to appeal to the courts, which would check police officers who abused their powers. The aim is, if at all possible, to prevent young people being criminalised.
The government has begun to move in this direction: it has introduced a system whereby the police can apply for interim antisocial behaviour orders. But it can take months before they come into operation - on top of the time during which local people have endured bad behaviour before begging for police help.
Getting enough police on the beat is another major issue. Again, the problem is the confusion between crime and antisocial behaviour. The police have argued that putting officers on the beat is not the most efficient way of preventing and detecting crime. This may be true, but a police presence can stop antisocial behaviour. The paradox for the government is that although official crime rates are falling, voters believe that they are rising very rapidly. This is because people equate disorder with crime. Deal with the disorder and the voters' perception that crime is rising will change. Led by Denis O'Connor, the chief constable of Surrey, the police are becoming more appreciative of this point.
Get this right and we can at least stop behaviour deteriorating further. But how can we restore the principle of self-governing communities? How can we make Britain respectable again? As we have seen, the long trend towards respectability was the result of an increasing number of families teaching their offspring a set of common decencies. This trend is now in reverse, with more and more families failing to instil such virtues in their children. The focus is almost exclusively on self, with no broader concept of mutuality. But the great transforming agents in British family culture - evangelical religion and the mutually owned welfare state - are spent forces. We need other institutions to take on the role they used to fulfil.
Welfare offers one such opportunity. The gateway to each benefit should be the signing of a contract between the claimant and society. This would spell out what society wished to achieve for the claimant and, in return, the claimant would know and accept what was expected of him or her - in getting well as soon as possible and in actively seeking work, as well as in other aspects of good behaviour. Welfare contracts would become one of the great new teaching forces for a more civilised society.
A logical place to begin this reform would be with the registration of births, which is now a private and inconsequential event. Most children are now not baptised; there is no ceremony to welcome them into the wider society. The registration of their birth should become such an event, the element of religion removed but the symbolism of the moment retained.
At the naming ceremony, the registrar would remind parents how they can contribute to the best interests of their child. A range of help financed by taxpayers would then become available, such as a Child Trust Fund (already started by Gordon Brown), and access to education and the National Health Service. In return, parents would commit to bringing up their child within agreed social guidelines.
Schools offer the other great opportunity to begin teaching proper behaviour. I found a big demand among young people to know more about how best to be parents when I discussed these ideas at a secondary school in Birkenhead. They also wished to have a say in drawing up their school contract, and for this to cease being a mere formal activity dispensed with as quickly as possible. If they had a say, they would demand parenting classes in the curriculum, covering the teaching, nurturing and development of children. They also wanted to be involved in formulating school rules and applying sanctions against those disrupting their studies.
These pupils were only too aware that in most other areas of life, contracts rule. They knew that when they went to work, for example, there would be formal and informal contracts guiding their behaviour. School contracts, welfare contracts, parental contracts held no fears for them, though they insisted that they wanted an input into what should constitute the contract. That would involve politicians surrendering some of their powers. But that is the very nature of the politics of behaviour.
Frank Field, Labour MP for Birkenhead, is the author of Neighbours From Hell: the politics of behaviour (Politico's)
"Children constantly harrass me"
Dear Mr Field
I am a teacher at a local secondary school [in Crewe] and live near the school. Some of the children I teach live nearby. They include a gang of 15/16-year-old children who have for some months now constantly and relentlessly harassed me. When I take my dog for a walk, they will follow me, shouting comments and throwing small things at me such as chewing gum, tightly rolled-up bits of paper, etc. When I go to the shops with my young daughter or other family members, the same things happen.
I have contacted the police, who tell me there is nothing they can do. I have spoken to a solicitor who says there is nothing I can do. My union is also helpless. Yet if a child lied through its teeth and accused me of any of these acts, I bet within the hour I'd be in a police cell, jobless and considered a threat to society and to my community.
Teachers are now being given the job of teaching citizenship in school. How the hell do I teach citizenship to youngsters who are allowed to go out of the school gate and do as they please? They are fully aware that they can get away with almost anything, and never have to face the consequences.
A teacher from Crewe
"The empty pub was set on fire"
Dear Mr Field
I am writing to see if you could find out what is happening to a public house that I work very close to. When the resident landlord left last year, a temporary manager was appointed. She stayed a couple of weeks and left. The pub was left empty and then set on fire. It has been left for the vandals and local drug addicts to destroy. It has been flooded out and set alight again. Youths climb on the flat part of the roof, drinking alcohol, then throw the empty bottles to the ground regardless of who may be passing below. They also throw tiles taken from the roof.
Since the pub closed, local businesses have suffered greatly. The Post Office has closed, the chemist is closing shortly, as is the local convenience store.
The company that owns the pub has done little or nothing to keep the building in a good state of repair, or get it up and running as a going public house, as it was 12 months ago. Its reluctance to sell the property and its lack of security for the building have brought about a general decline in the area.
I have the names of four people who have put in genuine offers for the pub who would repair it and get it up and running again. But the owners have declined their offers. Should they not be forced to sell, or repair and make safe the building?
A constituent from Birkenhead
"Nobody is safe to walk in the street"
Dear Mr Field
This road consists of 100 families. All but three are decent, working-class people. Three maladjusted boys from these families are currently attacking a house that is being renovated. They had previously whacked the occupant across the head with a board. After living in the road for 50 years, he left. This is the house being renovated and the brick wall that had been rebuilt was pushed over by this little gang. A wooden defence wall has had to be built around the house.
Nobody is safe to walk in the street. They are liable to be verbally attacked, and children are not allowed out by themselves as they are likely to get smacked in the face. The language shouted at passers-by is as foul as it is violently expressed. There are no father figures in these three families. Complaints to the authorities bring no respite, partly because the families are in private accommodation and the landlords simply do not care how the tenants behave, providing their bank account registers the right amount of housing benefit on the right day. One landlord had been traced to London. His response was simple. He had put people in power who should sort out such families.
The counter-stand has been led by a father and son who show huge courage. Other families have been cowed into silence. Yet this bravery is not inexhaustible. Terry told me: "I am losing it. I have never been so often to one place as I have been to Manor Road [the local police station]. But nothing happens. Officials don't give a toss how we live. These families have turned a decent place into a shit hole. I have been here 35 years. I have never seen anything like it. If we vote again, it will be to vote out the councillors."
A Wirral resident