AFTER the riots, the recriminations; after the recriminations, the rhetoric. The Prime Minister’s speech on Monday on repairing “the broken society” left few Conservative touchstones unturned: human rights, health and safety, a stronger police force, scrapping paperwork, stamping out gangs, absentee fathers, problem families, red tape, school uniforms, planning rules, welfare reform. . . There was even a reference to “bringing back National Service”, which he said he was doing in the form of “National Citizen Service”, an initiative for 16-year-olds which has passed most of them by, perhaps because it is voluntary and does not involve haircutting or being shouted at.
In terms of what might actually be done, this week’s priority was the imprisoning of the culprits. After the recriminations, the criminations. The instructions to the magistrates seemed clear: those caught looting were to be punished with exceptional severity. There was no hint of compassion for those who, caught up in the excitement of the times, followed the example of those around them. This was a frightened society reacting against those who had, for a few brief hours, challenged its laws.
Coupled with the Home Secretary’s “I will never damn you” pledge to the police, these are worryingly narrow responses to the riots. There is no doubt that Mr Cameron was right to describe much of the behaviour as “just pure criminality”; but after the condemnation, what comes next must include a better understanding of how that criminality rises to the surface. Mr Cameron touched on various social ills in his speech, yet he appears not to see these as mitigating factors. At the risk of his sounding patronising, it would have been more comforting to hear him talk about broken people rather than broken society.
We wrote last week about the triumph of materialism and individualism. Any attempt to tackle the consequences of these in what Mr Cameron calls the “poorest parts of our society” must acknowledge that the poor do not have a monopoly on moral drift. In the 289 sentences of his speech, just four, right at the end, touched on examples of moral decline found elsewhere in society: “the banking crisis, with MPs’ expenses, in the phone-hacking scandal”. His conclusion? “We need to think about the example we are setting.” Yet white-collar criminals have none of the excuses of desperation, inadequacy, and hopelessness found among the poor. If the Prime Minister wants to reverse the “slow-motion moral collapse” in the nation, he needs to look far wider than he does at present.