Speeches recovered from the Conservative party’s online archive More…

The Retreat from Civilisation

I've entitled this lecture The Retreat From Civilisation. Some of my critics may look no further than that and write off what I have to say as exaggeration. Yes, there is something grandiloquent about those words - as if they'd been lifted from a Cecil B. De Mille epic. And yet those words signify a true story that needs to be told, and for far too many people in Britain today it is the story of their lives.

It is, for instance, the story of Phil and Mandy Brooking. I have changed their names and other details because their story is yet to end. It began when the Brookings helped a friend escape from a cruel and abusive partner. For this they were rewarded with a sustained campaign of hate and intimidation. Over a period of months they were subjected first to threats and then to acts of vandalism against their property. Then one night, as Mandy, Phil and their two children were sat down to dinner, shards of glass exploded into their front room, under the impact of a brick thrown through the window. Once more the police came. Once more the police were told who was responsible. Once more the police said they knew full well who was responsible. Once more the nobody did anything about it.

Later that night the Brooking family fled their home. They drove fifty miles to relatives in a car that had no windscreen because that too has been smashed some days before. While they were away their tormentors returned, breaking into the boarded-up house, systematically smashing up anything that could be smashed up. When the Housing Association that owned the property assessed the damage, their response was to send a bill of several thousand pounds… to the Brookings.

The family were not without friends and received a lot of support from the community - though when a local clergyman approached the police over the matter he was told it was none of his business. There was another sense in which the Brookings were not alone, because they weren't the only victims. The same thugs had been terrorising another family for over two years. Eventually a court order was obtained against one of the thugs, exiling him from the locality. It made the front page of the local paper and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. But then somebody somewhere decided to reduce the punishment. The thug stayed where he was, and instead it was his victims that left town. This wasn't Northern Ireland. Nor some inner-city estate. But a prosperous market town in the Home Counties.

Yet while the rule of thuggery respects few boundaries, its heartland consists of our most disadvantaged neighbourhoods. This is not for lack of self-respect amongst the residents. That was brought home to me when I visited the Clarence Way Estate in Camden, where I was shown round by a remarkable woman called Silla Caron. Silla gives meaning to the often meaningless term, 'community leader'. She stands up for her neighbours and stands in the way of all those who would acquiesce to the colonisation of her neighbourhood by junkies, dealers and prostitutes. As we toured the tower blocks she spoke with pride: "I love this place, it's got an air of peace about it". It was true, contrary to stereotype I heard no booming ghettoblasters, screaming children or revving motorbikes. But that air of peace has been violated, repeatedly, by outsiders, by drug abusers who view the estate's stairwells and balconies as ideal places 'to jack up', the resident's doorsteps to relieve themselves. On sunny days the junkies take over the green, while parents keep their kids inside. And between hits, the users amuse themselves by persecuting elderly tenants. There is no safe time of day. Residents can open their door at any hour to be confronted with the enemy - as was Cilla's own granddaughter, by a user with his trousers round his ankles, injecting himself in the groin, at twenty to nine in the morning.

Though drug abuse is nothing new, the users' blatant disregard for all decency is. It is the twenty-first century that brought fear to the Clarence Way Estate. Though not to the junkies and dealers, who conduct their affairs without worry of police intervention. Indeed, while we were there, Cilla pointed out a couple of addicts using a telephone box to arrange a delivery. The pair seemed utterly unconcerned that they might be seen by the police. And though incidents are logged with the police, their presence on the estate is minimal. Of more use are the private dog patrols which at least keep the junkies on the move. But the residents of Clarence Way are still afraid and have every reason to be.

I wonder how many more millions like them are afraid tonight?

Different stories. Different people. Different places. But a common thread.

First of all, the devastating effect on the victims' lives. Occasionally, a life is lost. We remember the faces of the dead because they stare at us from beneath the headlines. But for each of these there are the unseen faces of those who at times wish they were dead. Mental torture is not too strong a term for what they suffer day in, day out, for months, for years.

Secondly, there is the weakness of authority. The police that don't protect. The courts that don't punish. The prisons that don't reform.

Thirdly, there is blame for the victim, excuses for the perpetrator.

Fourthly, there is the decay, the descent to new depths. The things that happened yesterday that didn't happen last year. The things that happened last year that didn't happen ten years ago. First fists, then knives, then guns. First pot, then smack, then crack. First cities, then towns, then villages. First men, then women, then children.

So lastly, there is the retreat from civilisation. Boundaries are pushed and they don't push back. Instead people are pushed out. Those that can get out of the worst neighbourhoods do so, perhaps into gated communities where for a time at least they will be safe. And as for the poorer, the older, the weaker, they retreat as best they can. From parks and playgrounds, from streets and shopping areas, to behind locked doors.

It is said that civilisation is not the natural state of things, that the natural condition of mankind is Hobbes's "war of every man against every man". In at least one sense this crude interpretation of Hobbes is wrong. Because, before the second brick was laid upon the first, there must have been some civilising spirit at work amongst humanity. Because, if that spur to build, to trade, to live in peace with one's fellow man had not existed, then neither would the outward signs of civilisation.

And yet the crude interpretation of Hobbes isn't all wrong. There is that countervailing force in humanity to steal what you did not earn, to destroy what you did not make, to kill what you did not give life too. And we know that even if only expressed in a tiny minority, that force is immensely destructive. We guard against it in two ways. First of all there are the outward defences of civilisation. The police, the courts, the prison system. Then there are the inward defences of civilisation: family, community, education, religion, and all the means that civilisation has to transmit its values from one generation to the next. These outward and inward aspects come together in the law, which is manifested in our daily lives as order.

Last year I delivered a speech to the Centre for Policy Studies, entitled Beyond the Causes of Crime. This made what I considered to be the entirely uncontroversial point that we must strengthen both the outward and inward defences of civilisation. That without effective police, court and prison systems we cannot create a safe space for the transmission of civilised values. And that, equally, without an ambition to reclaim young offenders for the civilised world, police, courts and prisons become little more than cogs in a conveyor belt of crime. To put it crudely, I was arguing the complementarity of carrots and sticks; or, less crudely, that the hard and soft power concepts of international policy are just as relevant to law and order policy.

But, of course, the speech, and everything I have based upon it, was, and is, the cause of considerable controversy. First there are those that see only the need for hard power, for the stick wielding institutions of the criminal justice system - especially where the sticks are far from metaphorical. Then there are those for whom a diet of carrots is sufficient. This may also be less than metaphorical given recent research linking better behaviour in offenders to vitamin intake. Finally there are those who reject both carrot and stick, who perceive outward defences of civilisation as oppressive, and the inward defences as repressive.

These rejectionists have many friends in the Labour Government. But David Blunkett isn't one of them. He knows what the retreat from civilisation means for the people he grew up with. That's one reason why I won't pretend there are differences between us where no differences exist. But in one vital respect there is a difference. We both want to rebuild the outward and inward defences of civilisation, but where I want to build them from the bottom-up, he wants to build them from the top-down. To put it another way, there is something very social about my conservatism, and something very conservative about his socialism, but he is a socialist nonetheless.

The socialist mindset is one that always seeks a central solution to a local problem. And, yes, the retreat from civilisation is always and everywhere a local problem. It can be measured only in the real lives, of real people, in real places. And thus it is not measured at all, because fear cannot be measured, despair cannot be measured, misery cannot be measured.

This is a Government that thinks that mobile phone theft matters because you can count mobile phones. But it doesn't send clear signals to first time burglars because the violation of the home cannot be expressed in statistical terms. This is a Government that values theory above experience. Hence the concern with institutional racism, but the lack of action to tackle the everyday racism of excrement pushed through letterboxes on rundown estates. This is a government that values the big above the small, that launches initiatives twice a week, but has not created the means to let our people obtain that neighbourhood policing that has reclaimed the streets of New York and other American cities.

This is a government that doesn't understand why its policies don't work. If crime is uncontrollable, they say, it's because Whitehall doesn't have enough control. So they chip away at the checks on executive power. Trial by jury, the double jeopardy rule, the independence of the police. All of these are under threat. To their credit, many of the left don't like this, but they are placated in discreditable fashion. They are bought off with measures that diminish authority, not at the centre where there is too much of it, but at the bleeding edges of society where there is not enough.

The result is a sense of helplessness felt by parents in the face of drugs, by teachers in the face of indiscipline, by good neighbours in the face of thuggery. This is the final irony of Labour's smash and grab raid on our ancient liberties. They arrogate power to the state, but do so uselessly. They are not the ones that hold the line against chaos. The burglars will not come for Lord Irvine's wallpaper. At least not until they have smashed their way through the homes of the vulnerable.

It is time to make a stand at the doors of the defenceless. That is what the next Conservative Government will do. Of course, it won't be me on the beat. Which is why I won't be taking power for myself, but giving power to those who do hold the line - to the police, to teachers, to parents and to neighbours. It is through them that we will first contain the attack on civilisation and then rebuild what has been destroyed.

We will give people the ability to get police back onto their streets, visible, active, proactive, gathering local intelligence, responding fast to crime, recapturing the streets for the honest citizen. We will introduce compulsory rehabilitation of school age crack cocaine and heroin addicts. We will establish coherent long-term programmes to get young people off the conveyor belt of crime. We will help parents to provide difficult children with the framework of affection and discipline the child needs if she or he is to grow up into an honest citizen. We will provide long-term rehabilitative sentencing for persistent young offenders to reform characters and change lives and make a profound impact on recidivism.

There are no quick fixes. But we can stop the retreat of civilisation. We can stand our ground against the vandals, thugs and drug dealers. We can restate the boundaries and start pushing back.

The Task is made more urgent by the fact that we are threatened, today, by a second retreat from civilisation - a retreat into fascism.

Faced with this threat, the present Government's combination of rhetorical power and ineffective, centralised control is not merely useless, it is dangerous. There is a danger in talking tough and achieving little. Faked action is more dangerous than inaction. Ultimately it's not the Tabloids the Government's talking to - they are talking to the people back home, to those left behind by the retreat of civilisation. Political spin elicits mostly cynicism in people like us, but what does it do to those in despair? How much crueller is the illusion of hope to the hopeless? False security to those in fear?

This is no time to auction off our liberties. In a bidding war of empty gestures, the extremist will always outbid the democrat, with five such bids already accepted in towns across the North. Hasn't this government seen the evidence? Hasn't Philip Gould made his presentation? In places like Oldham, Burnley and Halifax the alienation of the electorate is unprecedented in its depth. This is not about asylum seekers. It is about people who have every reason to be afraid, and no reason to trust the authorities on anything they say. A crisis of order is a crisis of democracy. And the BNP are ready, willing and able to exploit the situation.

The fascists don't have to take over to do terrible damage. If, heaven forfend, they did only half as well as the National Front in France it would poison our politics for decades to come.

It doesn't need to be this way. While we can look abroad and at home to see what could go wrong, we are able also to see what could go right. From drug prevention in Sweden to neighbourhood policing in America to grassroots action in our own country, the solutions are within our grasp.

These might not make for good headlines, but they would make a difference to the lives of people like Phil and Amanda Brooking or Silla Caron and her neighbours.

Only by making that difference can we hold back the forces of irrationality and barbarism. We have to prove to our electorate that we can fulfil the most basic responsibilities of government to the governed. We must show that democracy is both the true guarantor of freedom, and the true guarantor of security. We must rekindle a faith in the ability of a civilised state to defend a civilised society.

Keyboard shortcuts

j previous speech k next speech