Over the last few days every politician, commentator and campaigner has had their say on the recent riots. It’s prompted a fair degree of national soul searching. Where did this come from? Why do people behave like this? What do we do about it?
Like any crisis, this outbreak of violence is an opportunity to look at where we are and make some choices about what kind of society we want to live in. Generally, we’re not very good at taking those opportunities, as the financial crisis showed all too clearly. In the words of Jack Sparrow, our politicians like to wave at them as they pass by, and the rest of us aren’t paying enough attention to ask for much more.
However, I can’t help feeling that this incident is sufficiently shocking to shake us out of our complacency and have a serious discussion. We’re certainly hearing some things from our leaders that they don’t normally say. Since prime minister David Cameron and leader of the opposition Ed Miliband both made significant speeches yesterday, I thought it was worth looking at them in a bit more detail.
So, here’s David Cameron’s. You can read the whole speech here, and some excerpts below. I’ve posted Miliband’s words in round two.
First of all, how do we explain the riots? Cameron is confident that he knows what’s going on. It’s not about cuts he says, or race, and not about poverty either.
No, this was about behaviour; people showing indifference to right and wrong, people with a twisted moral code, people with a complete absence of self-restraint.
As far as he is concerned, there has been a moral failure, a reluctance to talk about right and wrong for fear of upsetting people. Politicians have been part of this, “shying away from speaking the truth about behaviour”, and “unwilling for too long to talk about what is right and what is wrong.”
In this risk-free ground of moral neutrality there are no bad choices, just different lifestyles. People aren’t the architects of their own problems, they are victims of circumstance. ‘Live and let live’ becomes ‘do what you please.’ Well actually, what last week has shown is that this moral neutrality, this relativism – it’s not going to cut it any more.
“We know what’s gone wrong” says Cameron. In my opinion, he’s being rather hasty here. I absolutely agree that the UK has undergone a serious moral decline, and it’s great to hear him calling for truth. I don’t agree that this, in and of itself, explains last week’s trouble. There have to be more factors in play. Still, Cameron moves on to addressing the symptoms of this “slow motion moral collapse”:
Irresponsibility, selfishness, behaving as if your choices have no consequences. Children without fathers, schools without discipline, reward without effort. Crime without punishment, rights without responsibilities, communities without control. Some of the worst aspects of human nature tolerated, indulged – sometimes even incentivised – by a state and its agencies that in parts have become literally de-moralised.
Causes and evidence dealt with then, what are the solutions?
I can announce today that over the next few weeks, I and ministers from across the coalition government will review every aspect of our work to mend our broken society – on schools, welfare, families, parenting, addiction, communities – on the cultural, legal, bureaucratic problems in our society too: from the twisting and misrepresenting of human rights that has undermined personal responsibility, to the obsession with health and safety that has eroded people’s willingness to act according to common sense.
Cameron’s war on bureaucracy is nothing new, so this isn’t much of an announcement. (See the Red Tape Challenge) However, there are some relevant specifics. Security needs tightening, says Cameron. This is possible despite police budgets cuts, by scrapping police paperwork – this is long overdue. Elected police commissioners gets another airing, new powers for police, and an “all out war on gangs”.
Cameron also addresses families and parenting:
Families matter. I don’t doubt that many of the rioters out last week have no father at home. Perhaps they come from one of the neighbourhoods where it’s standard for children to have a mum and not a dad, where it’s normal for young men to grow up without a male role model, looking to the streets for their father figures, filled up with rage and anger. So if we want to have any hope of mending our broken society, family and parenting is where we’ve got to start…
That means a new policy priority:
So: from here on I want a family test applied to all domestic policy. If it hurts families, if it undermines commitment, if it tramples over the values that keeps people together, or stops families from being together, then we shouldn’t do it.
This is hopeful, and here are some suggestions – flexible working, better paternity allowances, a shorter work week. I suspect that these are on a collision course with the government’s other stated priority, the “relentless focus on growth”.
Cameron also focuses on community:
We need a sense of social responsibility at the heart of every community. Yet the truth is that for too long the big bossy bureaucratic state has drained it away. It’s usurped local leadership with its endless Whitehall diktats. It’s frustrated local organisers with its rules and regulations. And it’s denied local people any real kind of say over what goes on where they live. Is it any wonder that many people don’t feel they have a stake in their community?
In summary, Cameron sees the riots as a moral failure. His response is to reassert moral authority. It’s fighting talk: he calls for war on gangs, a fightback, and talks of “major criminal disease”. I applaud his focus on family and community, and it’s good to see a British politician broach the topic of values and right and wrong, even if it does come across as somewhat patriarchal.
But, there are also some rather bizarre non-sequiturs as far as I’m concerned. Is our lack of community really due to the state? Or is it perhaps because the average person in the UK watches over 4 hours of television a day, spends more time on social networks than with actual friends, drives a car rather than walks down their own street? Perhaps our relentlessly competitive approach to identity has something to do with it, or branding and the pervasive effects of advertising?
Are we sure poverty has nothing to do with it? Presumably if you’ve already got a widescreen TV, you don’t need to break into Curry’s and steal one? What about the vast inequalities between rich and poor, and the fact that the aforementioned TV and advertising suggests that not only can we all be hugely wealthy, but we deserve to be?
If we’re experiencing a moral breakdown across society, let’s look at reckless and selfish behaviour across society too – including the City and the banks, and the politicians too. Rewards without effort isn’t just about benefits, it’s about bonuses and expenses, surely?
I read Cameron’s speech on the train on the way home. Walking back up from the station, I noticed a brand new bit of graffiti. For all I know, it was sprayed in response to his words. It certainly sums up my feelings about it: