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6 March, 2007

Someone else's problem

Jeremy Paxman, once the nation's most incisive and dogged political interviewer (he still has his moments), attempts to explain the squalor of litter-strewn Britain, (by which I'm pretty sure he means London and its immediate surroundings).

One section of his article is particularly interesting, and states my own view of the underlying cause better than I could: basically, people don't respect communal areas.

The reason people throw their trash out of the window of their car is, obviously, that they do not want it inside. They do not want it there because that is space for which they feel personally responsible. 'Outside' belongs to someone else. Or, more likely, to no one. So the litter issue is about more than the uglification of Britain. It tells us something about the sort of nation we have become. People, like animals, do not generally foul their own nests. But they feel free to throw rubbish around for much the same reason morons feel entitled to vandalise bus shelters, smash park benches or use telephone boxes as urinals: they do not feel the public realm is theirs.

On the left the common coin is to see this sort of antisocial behaviour as the natural consequence of the 'no such thing as society' individualism that underpinned Thatcherism. I guard my things. Indeed, I demand respect from others for them, because they signify my achievement (even if, as often as not, the credit bills on which they were bought will long outlive their shiny consumerist showiness).

But it is too easy to blame it all on Margaret Thatcher. Whatever Blairism may be, it has done nothing to dim the obsession with the signifiers of success. The ludicrous 'respect' culture, that sees knife-fights start because someone fails to accord due deference to another person's trainers, is just the most extreme expression of a cast of mind that now seems universal.

The flipside is not merely increasingly frenetic attempts to persuade us to spend money on things we don't need to buy. It also encourages a belief that that which is not obviously personal property has no value. I might respect your trainers - but I couldn't give a toss about the park or the bus shelter that belongs to all of us.



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