Like James Naughtie broadcasting on Radio 5Live on a Sunday morning when Princess Diana died, it takes something apparently monumental to shake the routines of the British Establishment. Today Parliament was recalled from its 6-week summer recess to debate the recent rioting that started in London but was soon repeated in other English cities. Given the initial reactions to the riots, I wasn’t feeling very hopeful this morning, so I penned a short note which I posted on my Facebook profile. It was largely unedited, stream-of-consciousness stuff, but it summed up how I felt this morning.
An open letter to our elected representatives
You’ve cut short your precious holidays that many of us can’t afford. At least have the courtesy to have a grown-up debate, considering broader social and economic issues rather than just ‘restoring order’ and ‘rooting out criminality’. It appears that the police and the courts are making pretty good progress on much of that already.
Thinking beyond next week… the Police can’t keep working 16 hour shifts. Charities & Community Groups can’t support your Big Society with no funding.
Pause for a moment to reflect on how banking bonuses & corporate tax avoidance, MPs’ expenses fraud and Media amorality might have affected those people who struggle to feed their families. How might they feel about what you have to say if all you do is condemn and talk tough, or merely score party-political points? Will that make things better?
Take a moment to review the reaction to the riots: most of the outrage has come from people who don’t live anywhere near those communities. Please note the dignity and bravery of the people affected cleaning up their own streets, the calm vigil for the murdered men in Birmingham.
We condemn Syria, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain for using force on their own people. So please make today’s discussions go beyond the use of water cannons and rubber bullets.
Certainly punish the convicted criminals, but try to reconnect them with their communities by making them contribute. Use them to rebuild, not simply punish, isolate and alienate further.
The events of the last week have demonstrated something much more important than a small number of people willing to wager their future (or perceived lack of) against the chance for a free TV. The relationships between state and some parts of our country have broken; perhaps not irreparably, but definitely seriously. This needs serious, considered leadership. The citizens of this country deserve your serious, considered leadership.
Honestly, I wasn’t very hopeful. Literally minutes after posting that note, I read a tirade from Melanie Phillips in The Daily Mail. I know I shouldn’t read that stuff, but it was so poisonous, so utterly insane today that I couldn’t keep away. Over several long paragraphs she rails at what she regards as 3 decades of failed liberal intelligentsia policies that have wrecked the moral backbone of this country. She seems to blame everything about this week’s disturbances (and a whole lot more besides) on Tony Blair and New Labour, despite the fact that the Tory Party under Margaret Thatcher and John Major were in power for 17 of the past 30 years. And even when Blair came to power, he hardly swept away the Thatcherite legacy… The very excellent liberal thicko (his words not mine) Robert Llewellyn wrote an entertaining and absolutely right-on-the-money piece about Ms Phillips this afternoon.
Now that I’ve watched some highlights (sic) and read about the parliamentary debate, it seems I was right to be concerned. Rather than serious leadership that acknowledges the short-term but also looks further ahead, and deeper into the problems, we got a lot of soundbites about the riots themselves – “sheer criminality …the only cause of crime is a criminal”, and ‘bold’ statements about the use of water cannons, enabling police to remove hoods, about blocking social media if it’s being used to coordinate criminal activity.
Where was the recognition or even a tentative acknowledgement that there might be something deeper beyond this than just a ‘feral underclass’? David Cameron referred to pockets of society that are “not just broken but sick”, but it seemed his only diagnosis was to hunt them down and amputate them. Not so much a doctor looking to heal a wound as putting the patient out of their misery.
The rioters have rightly been condemned as criminals, who should be identified, charged and punished. In the scenes of recent days I’ve watched people whose only allegiance is to themselves and others like them, who were out for whatever they could get for themselves, who lacked any kind of empathy or understanding of the consequences of their actions on other people, and who often seemed oblivious to the shock, outrage or distress felt by the rest of us in what we might describe as ‘normal society’.
Well, if they are the feral underclass, we have a feral elite: Corporate bankers who continue to award themselves massive bonuses even after they’ve wrecked the real economy, politicians whose only remorse after being caught using our money to pay for their televisions seemed to be that they got caught, and media moguls who illegally tapped phones of innocent victims in order to sell more newspapers. These groups who rule over us have been just as oblivious to ‘normal’ codes of conduct, just as amorally self-centred and opportunistic. Peter Oborne has written similarly in his blog for The Daily Telegraph.
Franklin Roosevelt was the speaker of this post’s title. He managed to draw his divided nation together, inspire them to a better future. Today our leaders had a chance to make even a small step towards that, by rising to the occasion and taking a chance that they could actually inspire us. I reckon they failed us, because they failed to see this nation as one people, but a country still divided into ‘us’ and ‘them’. They talked almost entirely about protecting and insulating ‘us’ from ‘them’. By focusing on punishment, they will continue to alienate ‘them’ from ‘us’. If they don’t get their act together and start behaving like leaders, we will all go down as one people.