LONDON — A widow's passionate call for good citizenship is sparking a grass-roots national debate about ways of ridding British society of violence.
A crusade launched Oct. 21 by Frances Lawrence, whose husband, Philip, was killed by a gang member last December, has already persuaded Home Secretary Michael Howard to create an annual good citizenship award for young people.
Leaders of all main political parties are backing Mrs. Lawrence's initiative as violence spreads in Britain's major cities. They want ethical values to become a central issue in the coming general election.
The Frances Lawrence campaign is also boosting a government plan to have a moral code adopted by all schools.
Tony Blair, leader of the opposition Labour Party, says that if elected, he will fulfill Lawrence's wish that lessons on good citizenship be part of the national school curriculum. Prime Minister John Major has offered his support "for a movement to tackle the problem of violence in our society."
Lawrence also has the backing of Liberal Democrat Party leader Paddy Ashdown and leaders of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. Bishop Nigel McCulloch, chairman of the Church of England's communications committee, says, "If we continue to move away from the Judeo-Christian roots which have enabled us in the past to understand the difference between right and wrong and to care for our neighbors, then we will become a very selfish and violent society."
Cardinal Basil Hume, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, says Lawrence speaks for many people "who believe that our society needs to rediscover moral and spiritual values."
By a quirk of timing, the Catholic Church on Oct. 21 released a 13,000-word manifesto, titled "The Common Good," aimed at reminding people of the church's teaching on social issues.
The document, which is attracting criticism from some Conservative government supporters for being "left wing," stresses family values, denies that individuals can thrive except in a morally oriented social setting, and attacks unbridled free-market capitalism.
The particularly tragic circumstances of the murder of Philip Lawrence have helped to trigger the current wave of support for a return to moral values and the banishment of violence. A widely admired headmaster, Mr. Lawrence was stabbed by a teenager who was attacking one of his pupils outside a school in London. He tried to come to the pupil's aid but received a knife wound in the scuffle.
The youth was sentenced last week to an open-ended prison term.
Mrs. Lawrence says she bears no malice toward her husband's murderer, whose father is currently serving a lengthy prison term in Italy for crimes of violence.
It seems likely that the murder would not have shocked Britons so profoundly had it not been one in a series of high-profile acts of violence.
Three years ago, Jamie Bulger, a toddler, was kidnapped and killed by two teenagers who had been watching violent videos. Last April, 16 children and their teacher were killed in Dunblane, Scotland, by a gunman, a tragedy similar to one in Hungerford in 1987 in which a gunman killed 16 people in a town street.
LAWRENCE'S campaign opened with a personal manifesto recently published in the London Times. In it she says that before her husband's death they had discussed together how "the slow deterioration of our civil society might be reversed."
She says that since the murder she has received thousands of letters from people "yearning for action to restore a moral code to the center of our national life."
The manifesto calls for a nationwide grass-roots movement, led by teachers, police, and parents, aimed at "healing our fractured society and banishing violence."
It demands good citizenship lessons from an early age, a ban on the sale of combat knives, a reduction in the amount of violence on television, raised status for teachers and police, support for the family unit as a focus of social life, and an emphasis in teaching on "the three E's": effort, earnestness, and excellence.
In a key passage, the manifesto calls on parents to encourage their children to "think creatively" rather than "exile" them to their bedrooms with videos and computer games.
Her call to action concludes: "My hope is that out of the terrible violence that pierced the heart of my family and generated such headlines, a new ethos may be constructed in which neglected virtues are reinstated and cherished and sustained."
Home Secretary Howard says that the annual good citizenship award he is planning would "recognize outstanding contributions to the community."
It was only one of several measures currently being worked on, he says.