With everyone talking about the need for 'respect' Martin Rowson reckons it's time to come clean about what they really mean
In the background of William Hogarth's 1734 engraving Southwark Fair is a tiny figure lying face down on a board sliding down a rope tied at a 45 degree angle from the top of a church tower. This activity, briefly a craze at the time, was known as 'donkey-flying', and led to the deaths of dozens of (probably drunk) young hooligans until everyone tired of it and moved on.
A century later, there were respectable streets in the centre of London where respectable people would be wise to remove their top-hats before venturing further, as otherwise their hats would be shied off by loitering gangs of rough oiks, who'd invariably shout something deeply disrespectful as they lobbed their missiles of rocks or horseshit. One hundred and fifty years earlier Henry Purcell, the English Orpheus after whom a respectable concert hall was named, where respectable people go to listen respectfully to respectable music, froze to death outside his front door near Seven Dials in Covent Garden because he was noisily drunk again, and his wife had locked him out for the night.
Those are just three examples of the durability of public drunkenness and low-level yahooery that have been a feature of human society, probably forever. So the current obsession with 'respect', from the Prime Minister downwards (or upwards), is really nothing new, though of course the context has changed. Interestingly, for example, Blair raised the subject immediately after an election result which articulated very clearly how much the nation respects him.
Blair was careful to couch his definition in general terms – vague references to respect for individuals and communities. Two of New Labour's more shameless lackeys, John Lloyd and Geoff Hoon, haven't been so circumspect. They have called on us - especially the media, which naturally defines our every conscious and unconscious thought - to show considerably more respect for governments and MPs. And, if necessary, we should be legislated into respectfulness, with everything from ASBOs to roughly-hewn bills about religious hatred.
Clearly, it's not respect that MPs and ministers want: it's deference. And we shouldn't confuse the two. In the equation between the rulers and the ruled the benefits are stacked so heavily in favour of the rulers (power, influence, a smoother route to good tables in restaurants and into TV studios) that a bit of disrespect on our side helps even things out, however slightly, and tends to make us feel better as well as keeping our democracy healthily sceptical and therefore vigilant.
The same applies to special interest groups like religions. It's in their interest to keep the equation unequal. Their one-way street version of respect conveniently stamps out any, or indeed all, arguments that would expose the nonsense they choose to believe.
More generally, the word respect tends to be bandied around imprecisely when what people really mean is a general desire for safety and a quiet life. Societies have always, lamentably, found greater cohesion when confronted with a threatening 'other', and right now that other consists of rude, loud children, particularly drunk ones, despite the fact that they form a pretty feeble threat to society as a whole.
Which is where I get to my real problem with respect as a political rallying-cry. Respect implies a mutuality which is not what Blair and the rest of them really mean. They want good behaviour, and you get that not through respect, but through fear.
And what's motivating this desire for a more obedient and polite society is a yearning not for respect at all, but for respectability. Both left and right in this country have always either secretly or openly been trying to make us all middle class. Deep down there's this utterly British belief that being more bourgeois will not only make us more prosperous and therefore happier; it will also makes us quieter.
Different strategies have been used to reach this goal. The more benevolent ones have been the drive to universal university education, and to higher wages. The Thatcher Governments of the 1980s imposed a more brutal route. By torching the manufacturing industries, where the lower echelons of the non-middle classes worked, the Tories also launched a cultural war on an entire stratum of society, what we might term the 'NCO class'. They specifically demonised public sector workers, teachers, shop stewards, nurses and all the rest of those people who offered aspirant working-class respectability, but who also provided a cohesion to society the disparate ranks of middle classes won't or can't.
What was offered to replace all that was unbridled consumerism: 'opportunity', 'choice' and an exclusively middle-class vision of property owning, car driving - respectability as consumption. It's more than ironic that the cheerleaders for this cultural revolution in the Daily Mail and the Sun - offering in turns prudery, an endless diet of acid drops and low-rent sybaritism - are the very people who now bang on about respect.
What they fail to acknowledge is that the one thing the packs of hoodied drunken chavs terrorising the local shopping centre want is some respect for themselves. But as they're not 'respectable', that's the one thing they're never going to get.