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James Millar: Our society is going backwards thanks to rule-breaking at the top

The vandalism of a community library box got James Millar thinking about society as a whole (Photo: Erin Deleon/Shutterstock)
The vandalism of a community library box got James Millar thinking about society as a whole (Photo: Erin Deleon/Shutterstock)

Recently some yobbos ripped the doors off the book box that stands outside my house.

After the initial fury, it got me pondering whether what goes on in politics – not so much the policies, but the mood, the tone, the behaviour of the leading figures – trickles down to everyday life.

Having a lawbreaker in Downing Street is, self-evidently, an affront to democracy, decency, the constitution and the nation. But does it impact day to day life?

New research from the University of Cologne points to my theory being correct. The German academics found the electorate’s moral compass spins according to the result of elections, the direction set by those in power.

If the government is grubby then the tone is telegraphed throughout the land and picked up by the antennae of the anti-social. And that truth arrived recently at my front door.

The book box has stood outside my house for a number of years. We received it courtesy of the Siobhan Dowd Trust.

A sign that things are unravelling societally

Siobhan Dowd was a writer of books for young adults, best known for A Monster Calls. But, while the story of a young boy struggling to deal with his mother’s terminal diagnosis was her idea, her friend Patrick Ness authored the book. Siobhan died of cancer before she could get the story written down.

The royalties from her work now fund a little charity that installs boxes full of books in deprived areas. Folk can take the books away and return them when they’re done, or replace them with books they’ve finished with.

It’s heartwarming. And important, because reading can provide a route out of poverty or just an escape from reality for so many, from children through to pensioners.

Mainly, I’m fond of the book box because installing it on our garden wall is literally the single successful piece of DIY I have ever performed.

After England lost the final of the Euros last year, racist comments plastered social media and burst into the real world

And, a few months ago, some hoodlums ripped one of the doors off it. A kindly master carpenter who lives in the next street restored the door. The yobs took both doors off next time, leaving it looking ragged and tatty and meaning the books inside, so valuable to the young and the old in particular, are exposed to the elements.

Something that used to be tidy, purposeful, generous and intelligent is now dishevelled, not quite fit for purpose, scarred by petty crime, and it stands as a sign that life in the neighbourhood is degrading.

And it is.

Did Brexit unleash bigotry?

A local councillor standing for reelection told me they’d seen a rise in graffiti in the area. And not just more of it, but the tone and content had taken a turn for the worse. The sort of racist slogans all right-thinking people assumed had been left in the 1980s were recurring.

That’s disappointing. But it shouldn’t be surprising.

After England lost the final of the Euros last year, racist comments plastered social media and burst into the real world, most notably with the defacing of a mural of Marcus Rashford.

People place messages of support on top of bin liners that were taped over offensive wording on the mural of Manchester United striker and England player Marcus Rashford. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.
People place messages of support on top of bin liners taped over offensive wording on the mural of Manchester United striker and England football player, Marcus Rashford. Photo by Martin Rickett/PA Wire

That reaction, in turn, shouldn’t have surprised anyone who saw the mob outside Wembley for that match. Political commentators pontificated on what Gareth Southgate’s team said about modern England when the answer was to be found in the so-called fans, whacked up on booze and cocaine, re-enacting 1980s hooliganism.

The University of Cologne researchers zeroed in on the Brexit referendum as an electoral event that shifted social norms. They claim it unleashed increased bigotry and racism after a campaign that stretched the boundaries of what was acceptable.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Photo: Peter MacDiarmid/Shutterstock)

But, election campaigns since will have undone standards further. In 2019, a man with a long history of language aimed at minorities that is loose at best and racist at worst, and who illegally prorogued parliament, was elected prime minister. And, since he’s had a ticket from the Met Police, we now know he broke his own laws during lockdown.

If the PM can decide which laws to abide by, then why should anyone else behave differently? Disrespect, for the law and for other people, is catching.

Petty lawbreakers take their lead from Downing Street

Our public life is in decline. And public life means everything from the goings-on in Number 10 to behaviour in the streets and the state of the services we rely on to function as a society and to make our lives better as individuals.

Economics no doubt has a part to play – it’s a universal truth that, when living standards go down due to economic wobbles such as the current cost of living crisis, crime rates go up.

Hopefully the next time a young yob bowls past late on a Friday night, they’ll open the door, pull a book out and start reading

But, consciously or not, petty lawbreakers take their lead from Downing Street, where the national conversation is led and the standards set.

We’ll patch up our book box again, but the damage will be visible and the disappointment will remain.

Hopefully the next time a young yob bowls past late on a Friday night, they’ll open the door and, instead of pulling it off, they’ll pull out a book from inside, take it home, start reading and take a step toward a better life and a better world for us all.


James Millar is a political commentator, author and a former Westminster correspondent for The Sunday Post

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