And so, after the confused and impotent response to last month’s riots, came the supposedly more considered policy statements from the party leaders.
Prime minister David Cameron – rather forgetting the ‘yes we can’ rhetoric of the big society – returned to his pre-election theme of mending Broken Britain. There were a number of proposals, or rather re-statements, on welfare, policing, human rights, and the national citizens service. But the real headline grabber was his promise to intervene in those ‘troubled families’ (120,000 of them to be precise) apparently tearing their communities apart. Like opposition leader Ed Miliband, he cited the three-headed monster of ‘greed, irresponsibility and entitlement’, otherwise known as bankers, MPs and journalists (though not necessarily in that order), as somehow implicated.
While the notion that the ‘slow-motion moral collapse’ of those inner-city communities had anything to do with these least-esteemed of professions is just daft, Cameron at least gave the impression that he understands the gravity of the problem. Which is more than can be said for the newly complacent former prime minister Tony Blair, who characterised such talk of moral crisis as ‘high falutin wail’. Commentators have reminded us of Blair’s own proclivity for hijacking rare tragedies and turning them into moral panics for political gain. Most infamously, Jamie Bulger’s juvenile killers were turned into the anti-icons of youthful amorality, and shamelessly hijacked as an opportunity to remove the legal presumption of doli incapax. That Blair now regards such stuff as ‘good politics but bad policy’ only confirms the wilful cynicism of the man.
But all of this misses something important, Blair’s comments were otherwise entirely in keeping with Cameron’s. His government’s policy of intervening ‘literally family by family and at an early stage, even before any criminality had occurred’ is being followed slavishly by the coalition. The same wrong-headed assumptions about the failures of parents, and the legitimacy of state-meddling in families, just in case the kids become criminals, goes on unchallenged. Blaming the parents – especially the estate-dwelling tracksuit-wearing ones with their ‘multiple problems’ – has cross-party backing. But this is precisely the dependency-inviting, autonomy-grabbing approach that has so eroded the sense of responsibility that Cameron claims he wants to restore to communities.
Iain Duncan Smith, another early intervention crusader, thinks the riots are but a glimpse of a bleak future. We’re in the ‘last-chance saloon’, he says. But he is wrong to seek a showdown, alongside fellow gunslinger Theresa May, with the gangs that he claims coordinated those nights of nihilism. The gangs are more a property of the fevered imaginations of officialdom than they are the steets of London, Birmingham or Manchester. The problem is bigger than that. Which is why deputy prime minister Nick Clegg‘s community ‘payback’ scheme for convicted rioters, and communities and victims panel, will have little impact. Listening to ‘victims’ to find out what the hell happened in those frenzied few days in August 2011 is not just a pointless gesture. It underlines the cluelessness and rioter-like detachment of the ‘authorities’ from the society the rest of us live in.