In round one of this post, I looked at David Cameron’s response to the recent rioting in Britain. His speech this week calls for a new focus on family and community, in an effort to halt a decades-long moral slide.
Leader of the opposition Ed Miliband also gave a speech yesterday, and it’s also worth reading. Here it is in full, and here are some excerpts:
Miliband’s speech begins, like Cameron’s, with his experiences of visiting the affected areas, before asking the questions about why and how this violence came about. He rejects “knee-jerk” reactions and calls for a national conversation, including an enquiry. He is adamant that there are multiple causes and points out that this is a cultural problem:
Yes, people are responsible for their actions. But we all bear a share of responsibility for the society we create.
Both talked about values. “Let’s start by asking the question of what values we saw from the looters and rioters” says Miliband, “Greed, selfishness, immorality. Above all, gross irresponsibility.” I’m not sure that I’d call immorality or irresponsibility values, but there you go – they’re certainly traits that describe the rioters. Here Miliband makes a leap however. Rather than focusing on ‘them’, the criminals, the gangs, he throws the net wider and opens up a broader question.
We can’t honestly say the greed, selfishness and gross irresponsibility that shocked us all so deeply is confined to the looters or even to their parents. It’s not the first time we’ve seen this kind of me-first, take what you can culture. The bankers who took millions while destroying people’s savings: greedy, selfish, and immoral. The MPs who fiddled their expenses: greedy, selfish, and immoral. The people who hacked phones to get stories to make money for themselves: greedy, selfish and immoral. People who talk about the sick behaviour of those without power, should talk equally about the sick behaviour of those with power.
Miliband is in many ways pointing out the same moral decline that Cameron sees, framed a little differently. He also spots the problem with families and parenting, but takes one step further back.
We need to understand the link between the problems in our society and the way our economy works. We need to ask what we can do about an economy where children don’t see enough of their parents because they are working 50, 60, even 70 hours a week.
Rather than ‘moral decline’, Miliband talks about a ‘values crisis’:
Too often we have sent a message from the top to the bottom of Britain’s society that says: anything goes, you are in it for yourself. As long as you can get away with it, who cares? We hear lots of talk now about role models for communities, but what role model has been provided by the elites of our society? So, no, the values crisis is not confined to a so-called underclass. Our whole country is held back by irresponsibility, wherever it is found. It can only be solved by addressing the issues right across our society: from bonuses to benefits.
At this point, I’m waiting for someone to start talking about consumer culture. We’re exposed to thousands of messages a day telling us we should own things, that we should aspire to more possessions, more experiences, more money. Surely this selfishness is the result of a competitive, individualistic society? Miliband gets close:
It isn’t simply that young people find it hard to get on. It is about the gap between what they can expect and what seems available to others. They see a society glorifying those who make millions while they struggle to keep up. They see the cult of celebrity replacing the ethic of hard work. The se are the parallel lives of those who have so much, and those who feel they have no stake in society at all. We all want the chance to get on. But what if the chance to do that seems small and the rewards for success seem distant. If the rungs on the ladder are so far apart that you feel you can’t possibly aspire to climb up. If we give the impression that we value, we exalt things that are well out of the reach of so many people, it leads to frustration.
I say close, because Miliband pulls his punches here by saying the problem is with the ladder, rather than with the aspirations. I disagree. I think exalting celebrities and billionaires is a problem in itself, not just the lack of opportunity for us all to be rich and famous. Still, kudos for bringing it up.
I also applaud Miliband’s conclusions, because he resists the urge to jump to any. He calls instead for a conversation, for an enquiry, and for that enquiry to take place in communities rather than in Whitehall. Let’s dig a little deeper, he suggests:
Let’s not be scared of seeking an explanation and hearing answers. Let’s be brave enough to find the truth.
In conclusion, there’s a fair degree of agreement between Cameron and Miliband. Both see a moral crisis and the need to address profound cultural problems. The biggest difference is that Cameron proposes some immediate solutions, and Miliband thinks we need a broader conversation. Cameron’s solutions are highly predictable, including smaller government, less bureaucracy, tighter security and more support for families – in essence, a restatement of Conservative values and his Big Society vision in particular. That’s to be expected and much of it makes sense, but it’s not an adequate response without the balancing factors of inequality and exclusion that Miliband highlights.
Both of them fail to address consumerism in the head-on manner that it deserves. Let’s not forget that these riots were not about ideology, but about free trainers and mobile phones. Cameron seems to see the criminal theft of these items as the main problem. Miliband recognises that the unaffordability of these items to unemployed young people may also be part of the problem. Neither of them mentions that behind both of those things is a culture that values people by their trainers and mobile phones.
As usual, each of our two main parties have part of the answer each, and some common blindspots. Unfortunately, our political system is based on them taking turns rather than ever working together, so I suspect we shall only see half a solution.