At a Conservative Home event earlier this year, journalist Iain Martin claimed that David Cameron’s cabinet wasn’t really interested in economics. “Following his leadership victory in 2005,” Martin said, “Cameron saw a sort of economic consensus. He was determined to fight the 2010 election on social issues, arguing that there was a broken society and that the Big Society project was the solution.”
Given that this was a Growth event, packed with a room of business leaders, the reaction was predictable. There was shock that economic issues had not been pre-eminent in the 2010 campaign and derision for the ‘BS’ project. I have to admit, I had much sympathy with the viewpoint. But given the harrowing events in London yesterday, and the benefit of hindsight, Cameron should be given credit for foreseeing the dreadful social problems he was set to inherit. Last night showed that Britain is broken, both economically and socially. The two are, of course, interlinked. As our recent factsheet showed, average real household incomes have increased by just £2 over the past five years – a lack of growth that is bound to put strain on living standards of those up and down the country. On top of this, the difficult decisions being made by the coalition government with regard to public spending will inevitably lead to less state entitlements than before.
But even these two factors are no excuse for the mindless violence experienced on the streets yesterday. Looting, theft, thuggery, and criminality are of course symptoms of a social malaise. It is important, however, not to fall into the trap of blaming ‘society’ for these pathetic actions. Margaret Thatcher was right when she said that there was no such thing as society. Not, of course, in a literal sense - but because there is no great social beast that can be used as an excuse for lack of individual responsibility. The formal ties which create a society are forged by individuals and families, businesses and tradesmen, councillors and community groups. Each individual who rioted last night has only themselves to blame for their actions.
Nor should government spending cuts be blamed. Leaving aside that government spending this month is actually up on last year, the decisions made to EMA, tuition fees and welfare are being made to ensure long-term sustainability to the public finances and to enhance a fairness agenda where those who really need help receive it. The nature of the debate will no doubt not have helped matters. Perhaps in future politicians will be more nuanced than to suggest that capping housing benefit to a mere £24,000 per year will ‘cleanse London of the poor.’ But overall, the actions last night are the result of problems which have been long-identified by the CPS and others. You only have to look at the some key characteristics of the riots: the complete disregard for private property, the lack of respect for authority and the nature of many of the individuals involved.
The disregard for private property has been long coming. Accentuated along the way by the politics of envy, it started with the erosion of the ability to defend one’s home. It accelerated to the allowing of ‘occupation’ by groups like UK Uncut during the student riots last year as a police policy of containment – much to the shock of businesses throughout Oxford Street. And now we have seen the inevitable conclusion, with full-scale smashing up and setting light to both businesses and homes, with thieving and looting for good measure. The police, for whatever reason, seemingly unwilling or unable to act for fear of escalating violence against the person. Individuals value their property because they have worked hard to achieve it. Whilst not wishing to second-guess the background of all of the rioters yesterday evening, I suspect that this was not a concept familiar to many of them.
The second problem, the lack of respect for authority, is more clear-cut. The erosion of teachers’ powers to discipline within the class-room, coupled with the decline of the family and lack of appropriate role models – as Shaun Bailey has noted – means that this sort of behaviour will always be more likely. Milton Friedman’s wise words about state education still stand. Many of our poorest schools are failing students in areas such as London – reducing life prospects substantially. More important, however, is the role of parents in both educating and instilling morality to their children. It shows how far we’ve come when the first question on everyone’s lips last night was ‘why aren’t the police doing more?’ rather than ‘what the hell are their parents doing?’ Traditional family networks are eroding, and we must be prepared for the consequences.
Perhaps the biggest myth of last night was that ‘this was a rising of the dispossessed’. Do dispossessed people really use blackberrys and wield golf clubs? Again, there were undoubtedly individuals from across the wealth spectrum rioting, but part of the extension of the ‘society owes you something’ attitude has been a result of the huge growth of benefits and tax credits, coupled with the targeting of a meaningless ‘relative’ poverty line which shifts attention from those really in need. This has helped to create a client state, diminishing individual responsibility and enhancing dependency on government. But for all the transfer of wealth that has been attempted, the simple lesson which libertarians and most conservatives understand is that the government can’t love you.
Unbelievably, despite all of the negative consequences of previous government policies in contributing to our social decline, some commentators have declared today that what we need is more good old social democracy. Yes, that’s right. A few more diversity officers here, and another benefit there – all our social problems will be solved. This would be funny were it not so dangerous. The lesson of the last twenty years is that the state can’t run society. The role of the state needs to be limited to allowing individuals to flourish. Incentives work. State programmes don’t.
In the short term, the symptoms of the current social crisis must be dealt with through robust policing and use of any necessary force to protect the public and private property. But as conservatives, we need to look further ahead.
The ideas that we advocate – encouraging pro-family policies, robust action against crime, greater economic and individual liberty and strong national defences – are needed now more than ever. And there is hope. Many of the government’s welfare and education policies are pushing in the right direction. Today we see the Big Society in action during the London riot clean up. Furthermore, the reaction to last night’s events will lead to a national debate about what we want our country to look like. We should be unashamedly forthright in our views. We need to win the argument on the importance of the nuclear family. We need to win the argument on property ownership (and not just housing) to enhance respect for it. We need to ruthlessly challenge and expose the failings of the current education system. We need to highlight the myth that governments spend money better than individuals. We must encourage targeted tax rate cuts and deregulation to stimulate growth.
Whilst in America recently, during the debt crisis, someone said to me: “chaos represents an opportunity to reshape a country according to your values.” Clement Atlee did it post-war and Thatcher in 1979. Given the financial and social crisis, it seems it could be a key turning point again. It’s time to make our voices heard.