The state we're in

Talk to the Hand: the utter bloody rudeness of everyday life

Lynne Truss <em>Profile Books, 214pp,

Lynne Truss has written a personal manifesto for our times. Talk to the Hand is about the rudeness that increasingly dominates our age. It is both a lament and a plea for action, and it confirms what many years of experience as an MP have taught me - that the collapse of decent behaviour is part of a much more fundamental change sweeping British society.

One way of interpreting the history of the labour movement is to see it as a 200-year march towards respectability - a respectability engendered by working-class institutions. The result was that Britain became a self-governing society in which the law played little part in controlling behaviour. It is the passing of this world that Truss laments. For those who would argue that she is harking back to a mythical golden age, let me cite two striking examples.

The government may claim that it has put a lid on what appeared to be an inexorable rise in crime, but every year as many as a million incidents of violent crime are reported. A century ago, such crimes had virtually died out, with fewer than 2,000 being reported in the whole of England and Wales. Now there are more violent crimes each year in Birkenhead - and in practically every other constituency - than occurred in the entire country a hundred years ago.

Because overall crime levels were so low in Edwardian Britain, and yobbish behaviour so exceptional, the penal system had the resources to counter behaviour that today would seem commonplace. A quarter of those serving time before the First World War were inside for such misdemeanours as riding a bicycle without lights, playing games in the street, gambling or making lewd comments. If Edwardian criteria for imprisonment were applied in today's Britain, there would be no young people on our streets.

Just as Truss claimed in her previous book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, that the decline of punctuation signalled the advent of widespread illiteracy, so she suggests here that the collapse of manners is the tip of what she calls a "social immorality iceberg". Her book is the first serious study of the demise of the many small yet crucially important common courtesies that once made Britain such a joy to live in.

Because so little data is available on long-term trends, Truss doesn't bother with statistics, and instead devotes six short chapters to examples of how behaviour that was unthinkable a generation ago has become normal. She points out that to question a practitioner of the new norms, even in the mildest of ways, is to risk a verbal and, all too often, violent response. Some of her best examples come courtesy of Theodore Dalrymple, whose work as a hospital and prison psychiatrist gave him a unique insight into the culture of non-responsibility that would have horrified the founders of the labour movement.

Near the end of her book, Truss attempts to set out a manifesto for individual action. Her approach fits well with labour movement tradition. Establishing respectable behaviour came about as a result of individuals rising above the squalor of the industrial revolution and imposing a new moral order on their lives. They did not wait for the distant dream of socialism to be realised before they put their own house in order. Through this approach, the labour movement built an ethical commonwealth that, as well as ennobling the human spirit, gave Britain a common culture that other countries lacked.

It is to the re-establishment of such excellence that the latter part of this book is geared. And just as the pioneers of the labour movement realised that change in the ethical sphere can come about only through personal effort, so Truss argues that manners are connected to the common good, and that acts of kindness ennoble the world in which we live.

She ends by citing Evelyn Waugh, who argued that ceremony and etiquette are signs of an advancing civilisation, and provide strong defences behind which the delicate and the vulnerable are preserved when civilisations decline. The half of the population who belong in this category must hope that the other half will read Talk to the Hand and take its lessons to heart.

Frank Field is MP for Birkenhead and author of Neighbours From Hell: the politics of behaviour (Politico's)