Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Universal respect?

The middle classes can be antisocial too

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Showing respect to others is something that most of us are taught from an early age. As kids we are reminded to say please and thank you, we are told to answer people when they ask us questions and we are encouraged to wait our turn when playing with others. My parents repeated these a thousand times and I now find myself doing the same thing with my children.

So why is it that as adults so many of us show little respect for others and for our environment? On a daily basis I see middle class adults acting in a manner that if they were working class teenagers would have many tutting, shaking their heads and muttering, “Its all the parents’ fault you know”.

My observations do not come from experiences on inner city estates, or late nights in town centres, but from the everyday mundane activities of a middle class middle-aged rural southern commuter.

On a trip to Paris on the Eurostar an expensively educated young woman knocked her croissants into the aisle of the carriage. No big deal in itself, however she then proceeded to ignore what she had done, waiting for a steward to tidy up after her. I asked myself what was going through her mind as she sat there surrounded by mess of her own making but refusing to do anything about it. The only conclusion I could draw was she just didn’t give a damn.

In my sleepy village a middle aged lady regularly fly tips. Every so often she takes her grass and conifer clippings, places them in a sack, walks into the woods that adjoin her property and dumps the waste by the side of the woodland path. She clearly feels she is doing no wrong she would never consider what she does as being antisocial or disrespectful, or even illegal and would be appalled to think she was. But it is, the waste piles up, it doesn’t rot well so forms a stinking mess – it is fly tipping.

Finally, a trip to Pizza Express on Upper Street, Islington. Here a man knocks over a bottle of wine, it spills on the floor and across my wife’s shoes. The man quickly rescues the bottle but takes no action to remedy the mess the spillage has made. He doesn’t call for the waiter or attempt to clean it up himself, at no time did he acknowledge that my wife’s fine pair of shoes were now covered in white wine.

The consequences of each of the above are tiny compared to vandalism, drug pushing intimidation and other issues covered by the respect agenda and undoubtedly worthy of action. But my point is that they demonstrate a total lack of respect and if it had been a teenager in a hoodie behaving in a similar way as the woman on the Eurostar, or a working class man dumping his waste by the side of the road we would be demanding action – issuing parenting orders and pressing charges.

The responsibility to show respect to society and to the law is not something the middle classes are exempt from, it is not something we tell others to do, but can ignore ourselves. Yes there are times when we all make mistakes and do things that annoy others. But it doesn’t mean we are right in doing so. Just by the fact that I am a member of the middle-aged middle classes doesn’t give me the right to lecture others about their lack of respect without also addressing my own behaviour.

The drive to generate a society that has respect for others and for the law at its heart cannot be limited to working class families, errant teenagers, or troubled estates. It is just as much about how each of us relates to others on a daily basis in Islington or sleepy Quidhampton.

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Dave Roberts

Dave Roberts is a member of the National Policy Forum and consultant to Jo's Trust

1 comment

  • As somebody who lived in a certain part of North-East Surrey for 7 years, my response to this is simple – give Dave Roberts a medal. The reason? telling the truth!

    The anti-social, loud, agressive, patronising, selfish, childish behaviour I witnessed in this part of Surrey was astounding. And a lot of it was from middle-class people, too.

    I’ve seen ordinary supermarket staff humiliated by people speaking as if the check-out assistant was not there.

    However, the real test was the ‘ambulance test’ as I call it. How many times have you seen somebody pull out in front of an ambulance (with siren and flashing lights)- or seen them demanding someone else does? I saw it 3 times in my 7 years in Surrey – but only once in my 34 years in other parts of the UK. Signficant? You bet!

    Well done Dave for introducing realism into the debate on class.

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