Everyone is talking about manners in Britain. Naturally there should be a queue. And I want to talk about manners. But after you, of course. Nice, warm cuddly things they are. Everyone wants them. There’s even a National Day of Courtesy on…… (??). But everyone is too scared to enforce them. And they need enforcing; they don’t just come about through natural grace. They work because there is a social sanction, even if it’s not spoken. Despite the evident benefit to our general sense of well being, and the self-interest in simply getting what you want a great deal more easily if you are polite, we do not seem to behave in a graceful and generous way to each other freely. But we have a crisis of authority. We have outsourced it to asbos, the police, teachers, the council. Anybody but us. We have become scared of enforcing rules. The left has gone all wibbly woo about cultural relativism and how you can’t impose out values on others? And the right is still trying to enforce rules that no one agrees with any more.
The trouble is that those we have outsourced it to sacrificed our admiration. A long time ago the Police took refuge in bombast and authoritarian ways compounded by corruption. And teachers went the other way and became feeble negotiators rather than guides. In their different ways they lost our respect. Bobbies became bullies and racists. And then refused to deal with their reputation and their behaviour until even the Lords Scarman and McPherson had to point out to them that they had to change or sacrifice their effectiveness forever. Teachers, on the other hand, began to fear the children in their care and, instead of exercising firmness, they started to bargain. Fearful of retribution from parents they backed off. But it is to parents we have to look most of all to give children the senses that there are rules, that there is a framework for life. That there are manners. And I know your liberal heart is huffing and puffing now about what an old fart I have become. But many parents refuse to draw boundaries.
They seem to have enormous difficulty in putting themselves in a position where they are unpopular with their children. We feel strongly that democracy matters and that tyranny is bad. We want to be seen as kind, negotiating, sensitive people. So the way people parent is more about how they want to feel about themselves, and be seen, than it is about the good of the child. Parents are negotiating with three year olds. They ask them what they want for supper. If parents start abrogating responsibility when their children are that young, what chance do kids have later on when they are teenagers and need to rebel to find their, and your boundaries?
There is a mistaken belief that manners are the natural attribute of the gracefully born. They’re not. They stem from a value system that has within it the idea that there are right and wrong ways to behave. This is not about how you hold your knife and fork. That’s etiquette and was designed as a trip wire for the working class. Manners are the respect you pay to other people by treating them with thoughtfulness. Manners are a form of mutual obligation. Without the sense that there are rules justifiably enforced by our own authority, how can there be an agreement about decent behaviour? Without our preparedness to take responsibility for other people’s behaviour and our own, how will courtesy even become national? Even for a day?