I was debating Changing our Behaviour: What is the role of government? recently with Peter John, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University College London and an adviser to the Behavioural Insights Team at the Cabinet Office.

As far as I’m concerned when it comes to our behaviour government doesn’t have a role. But, more to the point, why all the talk about ‘changing our behaviour’ in the first place? The very language is degrading. As I told the audience, you and I are not laboratory rats that exhibit this or that behaviour. We are citizens; we make up a civil society. We live in what is generally understood to be a liberal democracy. The role of government is to represent us. To come up with a set of ideas. To help to shape society for the better. To lead us out of economic crisis or maybe tackle the crippling problem of welfare dependency. Of course it has fallen short of such expectations. But that doesn’t mean it should tell us how to behave instead.

And yet the policing of people’s behaviour has come to fill a hole where politics used to be. The politics of left and right has given way to endless lectures about our right and wrong behaviours. Whether its public services creating better citizens, public health zealots telling us we need to change our lifestyles or no-less zealous environmental campaigners claiming that putting the right bit of rubbish in the right colour wheelie bin will save the planet …  we are forever being told to behave ourselves.

Even the shocking scenes of unruly youth setting fire to their own communities in last summer’s riots are understood through the prism of behaviour. Barely before the smoke had cleared these unprecedented events were being used as a pretext for intervening in the poor parenting and anti-social behaviour of an improbable sounding 120,000 ‘problem’ families. But surely this summer’s celebration of the seemingly superhuman sporting achievements we call the Olympics is immune to the demeaning interventions of the behaviour-changers? As my next blog for the Huffington Post will explain … far from it!

Why We Should Revisit the Riots

First published in Huffington Post

Ok, I’ll admit when I first read a headline not so long ago that Riots may be controlled with chemicals, I got the wrong end of the stick. Or should I say baton? I thought that given their humiliation on the streets of London, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool last summer, the police had decided in future to spray rioters into a drug-induced stupor. In fact the article referred to a riots-fuelled frenzy of research and spending as they go on a shopping spree for new weaponry with which to project CS gas, pepper spray and something called ‘skunk oil’ at the nation’s unruly youth.

What they and their colleagues in the political class have singularly failed to do, however, is to project their authority. Hence the stockpiling of ammunition in a vain attempt to shore it up. Ken Clarke admitted in the wake of the riots that ‘the system was briefly caught unawares’. As were we all. The riots were, he said, ‘part of an outburst of outrageous behaviour by the criminal classes’. Clarke argued that reforming the criminal justice system would not be enough. The ‘social deficit’ needed to be addressed by changes in ‘education, welfare and family policy too’ – by implication the latter bringing into question not only the authority of state institutions but of teachers, communities and families. While I don’t agree with his solutions the justice secretary at least understands the gravity of the problem. Which is why, a year on, we need to revisit the riots.

And we can start by questioning the stale old assumptions used to explain them away at the time. Doing some projecting of their own were the left-liberal commentariat supported by no end of hastily hashed together reports finding – surprise, surprise – what they were hoping to find all along. Eagerly taking the reins of their favourite hobby horse, the first to echo the excuses of the rioters were the authors of a Guardian-LSE study.

In their initial conclusions they acknowledged that many looters admitted to being opportunists. But hostility toward the police and ‘a range of political grievances’ vaguely to do with economic disadvantage were also to blame, they concluded. As did the other reports. But what’s new? Why did the riots happen when they did, why did they spread so quickly only to die down again? Why the need to write so many reports to discern the ‘political grievances’ of what looked so randomly destructive to the rest of us?

No more insightful was Brian Paddick, former deputy assistant in the Metropolitan Police and recurrently hopeless London Mayoral candidate, who claimed that the failure to hold an inquest into the death of Mark Duggan – whose shooting is said to have ‘triggered’ the riots – will somehow lead to ‘another riot’. Similarly one of the police officers interviewed as part of the Guardian-LSE study was in little doubt that all it will take is ‘bad economic times, hot weather, some sort of an event that sets it off’. What … like the Olympics?!

I am no fan of the revolting rioters who trashed their communities only to be indulged as poor victims by ventriloquist apologists. But surely even their actions are not so easily determined by the official response to an incident that, in the end, had as much to do with the riots as the assasination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand had to do with the outbreak of the First World War. Never mind the bloody weather!

Everybody concerned needs to grow a backbone. From the police and the politicians, to the young people, families and communities that they, not to mention the academics and commentators more interested in confirming their own prejudices, are so busy patronising. In fact we should all be getting to grips with what were extraordinary, disturbing and quite unprecedented events but may well come back to haunt us if we don’t.

Crime in the community?

You’d think last summer’s riots would harden the attitude of the political elite on youthful criminality. For all the tough and therapeutic talk, far from it.

Ian Birrell, a former speechwriter for David Cameron, has defended the notion that we should hug a hoodie. This softly-softly approach is far preferable to the legislative diarrhoea of a New Labour administration that was ‘so contemptuous of civil liberties’, he says. Similarly we should welcome the approach of the rather likeable if gaff-prone Kenneth Clarke after the ‘prison works’ – er, no it doesn’t – line pursued by former home secretary and Tory leader Michael Howard. Regardless of how hard line successive governments have claimed to be the prison population, says Birrell, has nearly doubled over the past 20 years, and re-offending rates are as high as ever.

But is the opening of the prison gates much of an alternative? It seems obvious that to do so can’t help but ‘work’ in as far as it reduces prison numbers. But is it really the case that ‘community punishments, restorative justice and rehabilitation’ are any more just than incarceration as Birrell claims? It seems to me that this question will remain unanswered for as long as the in/out debate is more concerned with reducing public spending than the rights and wrongs of the criminal justice system.

Either way, his concern that Cameron is now reverting to Old Tory type is misplaced. According to The Guardian the prime minister proposes ‘giving courts the power to confiscate offenders’ credit cards, passports and driving licences … [and] to electronically tag offenders and prevent them from leaving home for most of the day’. But far from being a throwback to less cuddly times this only confirms the illiberalism of the supposedly liberal non-custodial alternative to locking criminals up.

The reality is that the government and its supposedly ‘progressive’ opponents are turning society into an open prison. This not only blurs the line between the inside and the outside, but implies that none of us are properly free. It would be a far more just and liberal approach to insist that criminals ‘do their time’. 

Why I Won’t Be Cooperating

First published in Huffington Post

I was pleased to hear recently that I am not alone in arguing that the charity sector needs to reclaim its independence.

According to Matt Scott of the National Coalition for Independent Action, it has ‘become predatory rather than collaborative’ as the big beasts of the sector compete for, and win, contracts. That’s life, you might say. And yet, a recent report suggests, we are generally more giving of ourselves than we think.

We are too often portrayed as a conflictual, competitive bunch. So says Charles Leadbeater, author of a report published by the Institute for Public Policy Research. From the Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’ to Adam Smith’s faith not in the ‘benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker’ but in ‘their regard to their own interest’. From Richard Dawkins’ selfish gene to ‘its intellectual twin’ of neoclassical laissez-faire economics. The ‘assumption of selfishness’ needs to be replaced with a new assumption, he says. ‘We are, first and foremost, reciprocators and cooperators’.

We are social and moral beings predisposed to act according to a commonly held sense of fairness. He cites social dilemma studies that repeatedly demonstrate this, and developmental psychologists who show that even infants not yet able to speak are capable of empathy. The history of civilisation is one of the spoils not of war and conquest, but of our capacity for cooperation and its ‘generative’ potential. Which all sounds very good but, says Leadbeater, in a society ‘unequal and riven by divides’ this apparently commonly-held facility to get on with each other is under threat.

‘For decades we have been used to addressing problems through the lens of selfishness and the market’, he claims. Last year’s riots in London, Birmingham and Manchester were in keeping with a ‘moral tone set by bankers who pocket massive bonuses, politicians who fiddle their expenses, and journalists who think nothing of hacking into others’ phones’. An ‘orgy of opportunistic, selfish materialism, is lurking just beneath the surface’ and ‘ready to erupt at any moment’. Which is simultaneously true and wide of the mark.

Blaming ‘selfish materialism’ for the unseemly behaviour of people in hoodies and pinstripes alike has been the Left’s all-purpose excuse for its own political bankruptcy since the days of Thatcher. Likewise its disgust with the Murdochs betrays a distaste for those that abandoned it all those years ago. But this wider sense of unease briefly but violently brought to the surface during the riots is really worth getting to grips with. Leadbeater is right to be disturbed not by a liking for expensive sportswear and electrical goods, but that the rioters ‘revelled in their disdain for the norms of civil society’. It did appear for a moment that society was indeed broken.

Bizarrely he thinks the famously pointless (and I’d presumed departed) Occupy movement might be able to put it back together again by ‘reasserting norms of decency, cooperation and reciprocity’. Alternatively he hopes that a ‘relatively small group of super-altruists’, by which he must mean those apparently predatory charities, will come to the rescue. But in the end he settles for people like him (and me, to be fair) – policy wonks – to make the ‘cooperative correction’ and promote ‘everyday civility’. For Leadbeater, we don’t cooperate at the drop of the methaphorical hat. We are merely ‘conditional cooperators’. The only trouble is that those conditions are, apparently, missing. The role of policy is to ‘restore those conditions’ and ‘build on intrinsic motivations towards cooperation’.

So, despite cooperation being ‘intrinsic’ and, therefore, built into our very being, things have got so very bad that the wonks must intervene. There are five conditions but I’ll leave you with just one. Number two says: ‘Reliance on formal rules can drive out the day-to-day give-and-take of people adjusting to one another and learning to get on’. In other words, its not just charities who need their independence, and the likes of Leadbeater (and me) should but out.

Ganging up on ‘Yoof’

First published in Huffington Post

While they are, if claims coming out of last week’s summit are to be believed, to blame for the rise of al-Shabab in Somalia, the role of gangs in last summer’s riots was, at the very least, negligible. That much is acknowledged by pretty much everybody. It has even been reported that gang leaders called a truceduring hostilities. Bless ’em. But still the government’s anti-gangs taskforce has work to do apparently, and will not be diverted by the reality on the ground. There is too much at stake for that.

According to the children’s commissioner, as many as 10,000 young girls are being exploited by these no-show gangs. Admittedly, he said this ahead of atwo-year inquiry presumably charged with finding out whether such dubious claims have any basis in fact. But there is clearly an appetite for this sort of thing in government. Lynne Featherstone, minister for equality, for instance, has already made her mind up. She recently claimed that “people would be shocked if they could see the level of violence and abuse against girls in gangs”. She didn’t elaborate.

But an absence of evidence that we have a gang problem in the UK, or that they are engaged in systematic abuse of young girls, is not about to hinder those on a an anti-gangs/anti-abuse mission. Local bodies – from health and social care to housing authorities and schools – will put together their own multi-agency, ‘early intervention’ strategies to deal with whatever it is they have convinced themselves is happening. Whether its ‘working with toddlers’ as Theresa May puts it, youth workers stationed in A&E departments waiting for victims of gang violence to turn up, or GPs reporting those hoping to get some medical attention for their gun and knife wounds to the authorities.

It is hard to know where to start with the wholly objectionable extended state apparatus being put in place for a problem that has yet to even be established. The official obsession with gangs – and a particularly unhealthy obsession with ‘girls and gangs’ – threatens to make things worse. Where are the opposition you might ask? Are they up in arms – if you’ll excuse the pun – about these unwarranted intrusions into the lives of young people ‘at risk’ of getting involved with gangs. At the very least, at a time when public services are under threat, you might expect this to be singled out as a waste of public money? Not a bit of it. They complain, for fear of looking soft on crime and to show their concern for the ‘vulnerable’, that yet more resources need to be pumped into community safety and policing.

Which reminds me. In an inspired piece of casting sure to endear young people still further, it turns out that Trident (the Metropolitan Police’s black/gun crime unit) is to head-up the joint gangs taskforce. This is the same Trident that was behind the operation that led to the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham last August. You know? The incident that didn’t cause but certainly triggered – there I go again – those self-same riots that gangs are being framed for.