Society has long tried to provide or understand the link between rights and responsibilities – and the individuals place within it. Politicians and others with an interest in these matters often refer to them for example, when justifying the latest government legislation or proposing amendments to existing laws, such as doubling prison terms for assaulting emergency workers from one year to two which the Government are currently consulting on.
Rights are predominantly defined as privileges granted to individuals which are generally written into law. This provides a legal framework within which actions can be defended or challenged through the courts as appropriate. Some rights are tangible e.g. right to free speech, right to lawful assembly etc, whereas some rights are intangible e.g. laws on copyright.
Responsibilities on the other hand, can be described as the obligations or duties which emanate from the rights (and protections) granted to us by law. These include our legal responsibility for our own and each other’s wellbeing in the workplace, the responsibility assumed by an individual for any act of wrongdoing on their part such as when attending protest marches or standing on picket lines, or those implied by wider society for their own or their children’s behaviour.
Rights and responsibilities are therefore intertwined: rights are the foundations upon which society as a whole structures itself; responsibilities are the duties and obligations accepted or acted upon in order to participate within that society.
However, balancing rights and responsibilities is becoming an increasingly more difficult task particularly with the current challenges our country faces because of COVID-19 and more recently by the Black Lives Matter protests, some of which as we have seen, has descended into wanton violence and criminal behaviour. With lockdown breaches becoming even more flagrant and the Police being criticised for either being too lax or too forceful in applying the relevant laws, the majority of people seem to be confused to say the least between our rights to live as we want to live within the law, and our responsibilities and duty of care toward each other.
Margaret Thatcher’s now infamous quote, “There is no such thing as society” (at least the bit which has entered into political legend) has often been seen as the catalyst for the start of the ME FIRST generation, which put the rights to personal enrichment and advancement ahead of our collective responsibility toward the needs of wider society. One of the positives over recent weeks however is the response from many people from all walks of life, volunteering their services to assist those unable to look after themselves, whether through self-isolating or through financial pressures of lost incomes caused by the virus. The massive disruption caused to the economy, not to mention our children’s education, will take many months perhaps years to repair. Confusion from government ministers and problems in communicating a coherent strategy covering everything from initial response to schools re-opening to testing and vaccination has left many bewildered, if not angry, at the lack of perceived competence.
Add to this the Whitehall tradition of looking for scapegoats to blame either within the civil service or in this instance, scientific and medical advisers, and we are approaching a situation when our right to know what is actually happening, is being hampered by those in power who are failing to exercise their responsibility to ensure a duty of care to our nation and its people.
From my own experience most people do understand the relationship between rights and responsibilities and will act accordingly. Where the lines become blurred is when politicians seek solutions to today’s problems which invariably rely on input from focus groups, special advisors or the likely reaction of Piers Morgan and the tabloid press.
David Cameron’s concept of The Big Society took something of a hit after he left office. In recent weeks the collective effort of many tens of thousands of people across all backgrounds and social classes, has shown that it’s not abstract labels we need. Most people have shown that they understand the relationship between the rights we enjoy and the responsibilities we have toward each other. What we are missing in my opinion, is a system of governance that actively supports that understanding.