Earlier this year, along with four or five other people, I was queuing patiently for a bus ticket, but the man at the front was trying noisily to break into the machine. Having calculated that this rather scrawny criminal was unlikely to put up much of a fight, I strolled to the head of the queue and sent him on his way. Then I took out a coin, ready to feed it into the machine. The man immediately behind me, who 30 seconds earlier had been passively watching a crime in progress, tapped me on the shoulder and protested: "Oi, I'm next."
The incident, which took place near Piccadilly Circus in London, captured a peculiar coexistence of civic disengagement with unthinking conformism. Conservative commentators, as well as new Labour ministers, make a great deal of declining civility, cataloguing everything from public drunkenness to litter as evidence of social breakdown. I wonder if they have it quite right.
Take urinating in the street. This is usually regarded as an example of people showing complete disregard for their fellow citizens. Indeed, they often relieve themselves just round the corner from open pubs, suggesting deliberate defiance. Yet the generally furtive and apologetic bearing of public urinators suggests a different interpretation. My suspicion is that, for many, their inhibition about peeing in public is outweighed by their fear of braving those signs in pubs which declare that the toilets are for customers' use only. There is less chance of confrontation with unfortunate passers-by in an alley than with a pub landlord jealously guarding his urinals. And confrontation is what people seem to want to avoid.
During this government's early experiments with the politics of antisocial behaviour, the then home secretary Jack Straw challenged what he called a "walk-on-by" culture, and implored the public to intervene when kids were vandalising bus shelters, and so on. …