Sunday, 14 August 2011

Only building a consensus on how to heal our society can save it from descending into chaos.

This week the eyes of the world were on Britain because this was the week when our city centres went up in flames.

Before we go any further some important cards have to be put on the table. The riots that started in Tottenham and spread to other areas of London and then to cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool were wrong, despite shrill claims to the contrary they had nothing to do with either the troubled relationship between the Metropolitan Police and young black males or the government spending cuts. They were the vicious and inexcusable actions of a mob who seemed to be enraged with the world for not obliging by providing them with the objects they desired, designer trainers and flat screen televisions for the most part, without having to put in any effort of their own.

Legitimate questions remain to be asked about the shooting by the Met of Mark Duggan; taking to the streets in protest against spending cuts or any other government policy is a fundamental democratic right; both of these things have been seriously compromised by the actions of the mob. The moment you throw a brick through a window then however just your cause may have been beforehand you instantly remove yourself from the political argument.

In a statement to the House of Commons Prime Minister David Cameron said ‘What we have seen on the streets of London and other cities is completely unacceptable,’ he described the actions of the rioters as ‘criminality pure and simple;’ and pledged that his government would not ‘allow a culture of fear to exist on our streets.’ All of which was very much par for the political course, even though the debate that followed was heavy on posturing and light on forensic analysis of the situation.

I am less convinced though by some of the things he has said outside of parliament, earlier in the week he described pockets of British society as being ‘sick’ and has expressed support for taking draconian measures such as removing benefits from convicted rioters and evicting them from council housing against people who ‘loot an pillage their own community.’ Perhaps he imagines that by making people who live chaotic lives characterized in many cased by addiction and extreme violence destitute and homeless too will cause them to renounce their evil ways and become church wardens. His response when challenged on this by a reporter on the BBC’s Northwest Tonight programme: ‘Obviously that will mean they’ve got to be housed somewhere- they’ll have to find housing in the private sector- and that will be tougher for them, but they should have thought of that beforehand,’ suggest that his mouth was accelerating rapidly through the gears whilst his brain still had the handbrake on.

Labour leader Ed Milliband’s response to the situation was little better and seemed to consist of a hand wringing admission that he regretted that ‘inequality wasn’t reduced under the last Labour government,’ and that under the premierships of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown Labour ‘did better at building up the fabric of our country than the ethic of our country.’ His analysis of why the riots happened extended no further than blaming it on a ‘me first culture’ and his prescribed solution is for a public inquiry to be held. Quite what this would produce other than another volume to add to the commons library is unclear. Aides pointed out that unlike Deputy PM Nick Clegg Mr Milliband got a favourable reception when he toured the riot torn streets of the capital; mostly you suspect because hardly anyone recognized him.

The response of the right to the riots seems to be a sort of crisis of wounded machismo, the Prime Minister and other senior government figures dropped the ball dramatically by not returning to the UK soon enough so now they jerking their knees frantically to prove how tough they really are. The left seem to be hamstrung by an unwillingness to make judgements and a characteristic obsession with process. None of this sets us on a path towards finding a solution to the underlying cause of the unrest.

To do that politicians would need to face up to something they fear more than an angry mob armed with Molotov cocktails; the need to build a cross party consensus on how to heal our broken society. That would involve the left having to admit the value of responsibility and self restraint and that liberal ideals are meaningless if they are not allied to a willingness to differentiate between good and bad behaviour and how both should be responded to; the right having to admit that the market can’t solve every problem, sometimes government has to be big enough to step in and take a hand and that it isn’t just the kids on the local council estate who behave in a ‘feral’ and selfish manner much of the city is culpable of that sort of thing too.

Consensus is not, of course the same as unthinking conformity, that is partly what got us into this mess, there is still a role for a robust exchange between the government and opposition and within both political parties on matters of policy, but the overall framework would be a shared desire to work towards the common good.

Instead we have been presented so far with a massive and massively ineffectual displacement activity that may well exacerbate the problems of our atomised society. A really tough response would be to punish criminal behaviour whilst understanding its underlying causes; working for the long term to build a society that includes everyone and a popular culture that offers the young a more positive aspiration that a futile chase after fame.

None of that could be achieved quickly or without difficulty, but what is the alternative? More riots and more panic stricken thrashing around disguised as making a tough response to disorder on the part of our disconnected political leaders whilst the chaos on the streets gets a little worse each time. I doubt very much that that is what the vast majority of people living in poor areas who daily face up to the difficulties of their lives without rioting in the streets want; and it is certainly not what they or the rest of us deserve.

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