10 Aug 2011

Is our ruling class clueless on the riots?

Listening to politicians trying to explain the riots has begged a question that doesn’t usually spring to mind : do they have the faintest idea what is going on?

I am not cynical about politicians. I think they are largely a hard working bunch of earnest people who genuinely want to make the country a better place. I do not begrudge them holidays. Or expenses. Some get carried away by the hint of power, and its trappings. Many treat the media with contempt. But I understand this. I am also well used to politicians being powerless over big issues. This is not because they don’t understand the problem – but because they are up against more powerful forces, world opinion, market behaviour, lack of resources and much more. However listening to politicians trying to explain the riots has begged a question that doesn’t usually spring to mind : do they have the faintest idea what is going on?  All week I have acknowledged that the rarity of British rioting naturally makes it hard to understand. And I claim no unique insight of my own. But many politicians are trying to have it both ways : ask them why it is happening and they say this is “sheer criminality”.  Ask them again and they say “there will be plenty of time to consider the wider issues but right now we need to stop the criminal behaviour”. What they seem to mean is “I have no idea why it is happening but I really need it to stop”.

David Cameron has now attempted his analysis within twenty four hours of returning from Tuscany – parts of Britain are “sick”. By “sick” we assume this is not an attempt at getting down with da kidz, but a genuine diagnosis. The Prime Minister blamed a “complete lack of responsibility, a lack of proper parenting, a lack of proper upbringing, a lack of proper ethics, a lack of proper morals.” He went on to say it is about “discipline in schools” and “making sure we have a welfare system that doesn’t reward idleness”.

This was a message that would go down very well with the kinds of people who do not riot. The trouble is that the people David Cameron really needs to connect with are the sorts of people who do. Addressing them like an angry headmaster is a risk – especially when the school he went to is already a political stick to beat him with. And it begs many questions. Is there any consensus around what “proper” parenting, upbringing, ethics and morals are? And does he have any ideas of how to support parents, schools and people working in communities against a very pessimistic economic backdrop? Putting flesh on the bones is vital – otherwise isn’t he really just saying that people should grown up as law abiding citizens?

At the moment nobody can raise deprivation and unemployment let alone the gap between rich and poor, the consumer society we live in or the massive inequalities of opportunity without being accused of excusing criminality or (even worse) being a bleeding heart liberal. The electoral politics is getting in the way of understanding and the discussion is impoverished for being so polarised.

Those who argue this is all about equality and alienation seem guilty of just as much intellectual laziness. If people riot because they can’t afford the same consumer items as the rest of us logic dictates that once they have got the trainers and televisions they crave the crime would stop.

The irony is that those looting youths probably have little idea how much power they hold right now – political movements and anarchists have only dreamed of such continued unrest and embarrassment of the police. A long term breakdown of law and order would bring down any government. That is what politicians of all parties should be really worried about.