For the past 10 days or so, David Cameron has looked lost. Both he and his cabinet colleagues have struggled to respond coherently to last week’s riots across England. Their public statements have been muddled and unconvincing; their defiant rhetoric has sounded hollow.
At first the Prime Minister, along with Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, tried to blame the unrest on “criminality, pure and simple”, suggesting that to seek any further explanation would be to excuse or even to condone the terrible violence. Desperate, draconian measures were suggested – curfews, the blocking of social networks, removing rioters’ benefits – but the important questions seemed not to be asked. Why did this happen? What caused this criminality to erupt? It was left to others to begin filling these enormous blanks.
This week, however, the blame had focused. The Tories had decided that perhaps things weren’t quite so “pure and simple” after all. Gang culture and a “slow motion moral collapse” were now identified as the culprits, as well as “irresponsibility”, “selfishness” and “behaving as if your choices have no consequences”. David Cameron even tentatively followed Ed Miliband’s lead by admitting that poor people were not the only ones guilty of these sins: “In the banking crisis, with MPs’ expenses, in the phone-hacking scandal, we have seen some of the worst cases of greed, irresponsibility and entitlement. The restoration of responsibility has to cut right across our society.”
In some ways this was an extraordinary admission from a Conservative Prime Minister, but still it felt unpersuasive. The government was by now suffering criticism not just from the opposition, but from their coalition partners. Cameron didn’t just look lost, he was lost.
One of the few re-assuring things about the awful events of last week though (along with the “broom armies” that emerged to clean up the streets, brought together by the same social media that had enabled the rioters to co-ordinate their attacks) was that outside of the Conservative Party a great deal of mature and intelligent things were being said about the riots. From community leaders to columnists, from Ed Miliband to the Archbishop of Canterbury: a serious, thoughtful debate was underway almost immediately.
There are differences, of course, among commentators. No one person can claim to know the answer to that troubling question: Why? But perhaps the most crucial point here is exactly that. The cause of these riots – the root of this violence and greed – is not simple, it is enormously complex. But if we wish for such violence to be put behind us (and not merely contained by the police) then we must ask and keep on asking: Why?
What is certain is that these riots are not solely an issue of “law and order”. The underlying problem will not go away by putting more police on the streets. Nor can it be tackled with water cannon, rubber bullets or tear gas. And it certainly won’t be solved if, as one Shetlink contributor suggested, we “send in the army with machine guns”.
What we have in Britain (and Scotland is certainly no different in this, despite the absence of riots) is a significant portion of society who do not recognise themselves as being a part of that society. They feel excluded. The reasons for this are many and varied.
Some people are failed by their parents. Some are failed by social services. Many are failed by an education system that prepares youngsters not for life, or for the real world they see around them, but for exams that lead nowhere and for jobs they cannot get. It prepares them, in Rowan Williams’ words, to be “consumers” and “cogs in an economic system”.
But societies cannot be held together by economy alone. Nor can they be held together merely by the fear of authority. Morality – “knowing the difference between right and wrong” – is, too, only part of the picture. Societies, like communities, rely on the recognition of membership for their cohesion. When that fails, society fails. Today we are witnessing that failure.
We should not be too surprised by this, though. For decades now ours has been a country of strange priorities. Economy has been valued over community; profits have been valued over people. We have allowed inequalities to grow unchecked; we have let poverty and hopelessness fester at one end of the social spectrum, while celebrating greed and mindless acquisition at the other. We have dangled the carrots of consumerism in front of people’s noses – “You must have this”; “Your life would be better if you owned this” – but we have not stopped to consider the consequences of these lies.
It is natural, desirable even, for young people to challenge authority. They will challenge their parents’ authority at home; they will challenge their teachers’ authority at school; some may challenge every boundary they come across as they explore their place in the world. The problem only really arises when that authority is found to be undeserved – when those that hold it are found to be ignorant, hypocritical, dishonest. Ours is a society that now seems unable to earn the respect of its young people, and we are being forced instead to demand it.
I am not sure that those who hold authority in this country truly deserve the respect they seek.
The government believes that “tackling the debt crisis” is the great challenge of our times. But it is wrong. And this error is key, perhaps, to the trouble that we’re in. There is a gaping hole in the heart of our society, and that hole cannot be filled by “robust policing” or by a return to more forceful discipline in schools or by more rigorous moral education. The hole we see before us now, exposed by these riots, is one of our own creation. We are teetering precariously on its edge, and finding a way back from that edge is the true great challenge that we face.
Perhaps David Cameron will begin to ask the right questions now that the debate has begun without him. Perhaps he will even listen as that debate continues. I suspect that he may not like the answers that he hears, but the consequences of ignoring them are very serious indeed.