The great British right to litter

Anyone who happens to drop an item of litter into a bin in London or Liverpool in the near future maybe in for a surprise. The voice of Michael Palin is likely to issue from its interior, exclaiming, “Nobody expects the Spanish binquisition!” Alternatively, the Britain’s Got Talent judge Amanda Holden might hail them with the message, “This is Amanda and this city’s got talent!” In some places, Phil Tufnell will contribute “Howzat!”

The impulse behind the campaign is commendable enough. The British are world leaders when it comes to leaving behind them a trail of rubbish, and every year the littering habit becomes more grubbily ingrained. Schoolchildren, nagged in class about polar bears and rainforests, cheerfully blight their own environment. Adults do it, so why shouldn’t they? The right to litter seems part of British culture, without the slightest sense of guilt attached. In 2010, the cost to councils of cleaning the streets hit a new record, £858 million.

Yet there is something depressing about the talking rubbish bins. It is as if, like a child in early toilet training, we need a little treat when we go in the right place. Our reward for being very, very good is a special message from a famous person. It goes without saying that there is a big idea behind all this. The nudge theory, currently being examined by the “behavioural insights team” at the Cabinet Office, suggests that we require little prompts and prizes to encourage us to behave responsibly.

Infantilising people, though, is hardly likely to make them more adult. Rewarding an activity which should be automatic merely makes it seem unusual. There may even be an instinctive awareness that the whole thing is faintly bogus: a campaign against litter is itself littering open spaces with the chirpy voices of TV personalities.

The problem is a familiar one: there is no real sense of belonging. The idea that dropping stuff, or behaving badly in other ways, makes life less pleasant for everyone, including the dropper, is not part of the way many people think. There is a great “they” out there. “They” might disapprove of litter but “they”, also, will be around to clear it up.

Conservative thinking may support the general idea of personal responsibility but almost always the same solutions, based on profit and rewards, are offered. At the very time that small litterers are being encouraged to use bins, those trying to get rid of large rubbish responsibly at municipal tips are required to pay for the privilege.

Beyond litter and waste, this question of personal responsibility, of learning not to busk through life expecting binmen – or politicians – to clear up the mess, is becoming difficult to ignore. It is reported, for example, that the Government has realised that other environmental matters need to be addressed by individuals rather than much-hyped public policy. It is soon likely to be encouraging householders to plant trees, dig ponds and adapt their houses in order to counteract future changes in climate. The grand international initiatives designed to cut emissions are not going to be enough.

It will take more than a nudge, or witty words from a celebrity in a rubbish bin, to change behaviour. If the next generation is to do any better than their parents and grandparents are doing, a campaign of education and public information is needed. It would convey a simple, important message: in spite of the greedy, consumerist messages sent out by the advertisers and retailers of the throwaway society, waste matters.

Chris Langham should be forgiven

The next few weeks will reveal whether that awkward process, the professional rehabilitation of Chris Langham, is going to work or not. The actor, who was jailed in 2007 for downloading 15 videos of child pornography, is to star in a low-budget British film Black Pond. His performance, according to the Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead, is “like the best of Alan Rickman and Steve Coogan fused into one”.

At his trial, Langham was adjudged not to be a sexual predator, but the wider world has been pitiless since his release. In spite of the usual warm words, there has been no work. The BBC were so embarrassed by its association with him that the first two series of The Thick of It, in which he starred, rarely if ever appear in compilation programmes or repeats.

The British film and TV business now faces a test. The fear that even commissioning work from Langham somehow excuses paedophilia is essentially a tabloid smear. It is time for the industry, and for audiences, to show that they are more forgiving and adult than the worst of our press would have us believe.

Our native talent for bad parenting

Coming bottom in international surveys, particularly those of happiness and sexual competence, is part of being British.

All the same, there are moments when the consistent level of our badness at everything becomes difficult to accept.

According to a new book, Too Much, Too Soon?, parenting skills in the United Kingdom are among the worst in the developed world. Up to half of the five-year-olds in one study were not yet ready for school because of their “sedentary lifestyles”.

A widespread inability to sit still caused particular concern. British parents now “live in an age of almost seemingly ever-mounting anxiety”, a concerned academic has explained. I wonder where that anxiety comes from.

Independent, 27 September 2011