It is perhaps a familiar scene by now: in the Houses of Parliament, a well-known public figure – not really a politician; somewhat eccentrically dressed, though everyone’s used to the extravagant robes and headgear – addresses the assembled throng of politicians, and the nation at large, on the all-important subject of respect. ‘My government,’ the queen said on 17 May, ‘is committed to creating safe and secure communities, and fostering a culture of respect.’ But Ali G got there first.
In the otherwise execrable movie Ali G Indahouse (2002), which was shown on ITV as part of its general election coverage, the newly elected MP for Staines – his meteoric rise orchestrated by the deputy prime minister (Charles Dance) as part of a repeatedly thwarted scheme to depose the PM (Michael Gambon) – is so outraged by the abuse directed at the government by the leader of the opposition, at the disrespect being shown to his posse, that he rises from his seat and crosses the chamber, in heroic slow motion, through a forest of arms raised in anger, past faces contorted with aggression, to face down the man at the dispatch box on the other side. He then makes a stirring speech from the floor of the House of Commons, asking MPs how they can expect people out there on the street to respect one another if they don’t respect each other in here. The speaker orders his removal. As he’s dragged away, he comes out with one of his catchphrases: ‘Is it because I is black?’
The joke on Ali G is that he’s misunderstood the rules, applying the conventions of the street – or rather, his idiosyncratic understanding of the conventions of the street – to the House of Commons. The politicians he attacks are not disrespecting each other at all: they’re merely playing by the rules that govern behaviour in the Commons. It’s not Tony Blair’s wish to transfer the conventions of the House to the outside world. The rousing climax of his speech on 17 May was: ‘It’s time to reclaim the streets for the decent majority.’ You don’t have to be especially paranoid to worry about the implications of this for disrespectful, unrespectable, unrespected minorities. The claim that’s always made in defence of the murderous Kray twins is that they made the streets safe, at least for people who respected them; and Salazar’s Portugal had famously clean streets.
I don’t suppose the queen has ever been to the Bluewater shopping centre, or encountered a thug in a hooded top, unless you count her grandsons; though considering her taste for Rolf Harris’s pictures, you never know. That said, I’ve never been there either, so I don’t have first-hand experience of the menacing groups of teenagers in hoodies, though I rather suspect that the shopowners’ biggest concern is about being unable to identify shoplifters from CCTV footage. I also suspect that a large part of the threat posed by hooded gangs of disaffected youth exists only in the minds of the decent majority. Which isn’t to say they’re not threatening, and sometimes dangerous, but the fear is disproportionate to the threat. This is partly because the only stories that get widely circulated are those along the lines of the overexcited article on the front page of a recent edition of the Camden New Journal, about teenagers in hooded tops going on the rampage with cans of spray paint.
Cycling home from work one evening a few months ago, I stopped at a red light. A group of teenagers, some wearing hoodies, some with bikes, were hanging around on the corner. One of them turned, and looked me up and down. I nervously prepared to flee through the red light, even if it meant sacrificing myself to the traffic hurtling past. He looked me in the eye, and said, his voice rich with amused contempt: ‘The police say you have to have a red light at the back, and a white light at the front. And that light’ – he pointed to the front of my bike – ‘is green.’ His bike had no lights on it at all. Then he turned back to his friends, and they ignored me until the traffic lights changed and off I went. One of the many subtexts of his remarks, it seemed to me, was: ‘Look at you, you middle-class tit, with your helmet and your fluorescent jacket. You’re trying so hard to be safe and follow all the rules, and you still can’t get it right.’
Not long afterwards, I had an encounter with a much ruder but no less witty 14-year-old outside the local off-licence. He proffered me a fiver, and asked me to go in and buy him some beer. I refused. He asked me again. ‘Why don’t you buy it yourself,’ I said, with slight irritation, and dim facetiousness. ‘If I could get served,’ he replied, as if explaining the situation to an especially thick younger brother, his despair and disbelief at my smug response growing with every word, ‘I wouldn’t have to be asking you, would I, you stupid, lanky FUCK.’ He gave up on me after that, and went looking for someone more amenable.
Far more disturbing than the disaffected wastrels loitering on our streets, who probably wouldn’t spend their time trying to cadge booze off strangers if they were given the opportunity of something better to do, is the fact that Tony Blair’s decent majority in the House of Commons looks set to consist of a bizarre coalition between the right wing of the Labour Party and the Tories. If Blair ‘takes a stand on the things that matter and sends a clear message to his backbenches, we will support him’, Michael Howard said. Whatever happened to political parties?
Adopting ‘respect’ as a watchword may also be an attempt to take the wind out of the sails of one of Blair’s loudest enemies on the left, George Galloway, the newly elected MP for Bethnal Green and Bow and leader of the Respect Coalition. For all the unsavouriness of his campaign against Oona King, the Labour MP he ousted, it’s hard not to admire Galloway’s performance before the American Senate, which showed a disregard for authority that far surpasses anything Ali G has ever done. Perhaps the highlight was Galloway’s observation that he met Saddam Hussein exactly the same number of times that Donald Rumsfeld did; ‘the difference is Donald Rumsfeld met him to sell him guns and maps.’ As Ali G might say, ‘Respect.’