Panic-based politics gave us the demons of antisocial behaviour. Now it has served up a saint in a chef's hat, says Stuart Waiton
With the election approaching and the clear indication from the Government that antisocial behaviour will once again become a major issue, I and an associate decided to write a pamphlet to help explain the "politics of antisocial behaviour".
One of the main points was to explain how antisocial behaviour has arisen as an issue, not simply because of the problem behaviour of young people, but because of a growing sense of alienation that exists today between the generations and also between the public and politicians.
For many voters, as one of my friends argues, the choice of who to vote for will be based on the "least worst option". There does indeed appear to be a sense among the electorate that they are living in an alien nation - a nation ruled by politicians who will be chosen not because they represent the positive needs and desires of those voting, but because they are seen as the least destructive.
Initially, I had planned to write an article about the Jamie Oliver phenomenon and, as it happens, many of the problems with panic-based politics were expressed here. Even the issue of antisocial behaviour reared its ugly head with talk of how junk food is one of the causes of bad behaviour among children. The panic about what schools are feeding children was also illustrative of how sensitive society is today about "what's happening to the kids".
Young people are today increasingly understood to be separated from and separate to society. Michael Rutter, a major author on antisocial behaviour among young people, has remarked that they "have become a separate class".
Perhaps he should have simply argued that they have become a separate species - that they are in fact aliens.
This exaggerated sense that something extraordinary is happening to young people today was again given credibility by Jamie Oliver - or should it be Sir Jamie, as a union official suggested. His repeated and ludicrous assertion that if "something isn't done" this will be the first generation of children to die before their parents expressed his pessimism about society and its impact on young people today.
When I was growing up, some of the more apocalyptic panics that gripped the imagination featured UFO sightings and films about alien invasion - often thinly disguised as anti-communist warnings. Today, fears of UFOs and communists have been replaced by a sense of panic about alien people, from paedophiles who literally "body snatch" to invading multinational corporations that take over our children's bodies through the consumption of Turkey Twizzlers.
(Perhaps this sense of paranoia about invading multinational corporations brainwashing the next generation, with their devious advertising for fizzy drinks, helps to explain why my son and all his school friends are walking round all day with bottles of water provided by the school?) Finally on Saint Jamie, as one columnist further elevated him, the school dinners panic is instructive about how politics - with a very small "p" - works today. That a "celebrity chef" can so quickly gain public adoration and, more significantly, change social policy and lead to millions of pounds being spent on some fruit and veg in schools within the space of a couple of days indicates how reactive policy-making has become.
The "politics of antisocial behaviour" has emerged within this reactive climate, where politicians lacking a sense of where to take the next generation have engaged us all through our fears and anxieties.
Before young people put a step out of place, we already have a foreboding sense that they are a "separate class", a class being destroyed by UFOs in the form of Big Macs and a class of people taking their revenge on us in the demonic form of antisocial yobs.
Stuart Waiton is director of GenerationYouthIssues.org and co-author of Who's Antisocial: New Labour and the Politics of Antisocial Behaviour, published by the Institute of Ideas.