The riots, the ‘sick society’ and modern conservatism

A great deal of skilled and thoughtful analysis of the causes of the recent English riots has already emerged, and I don’t wish to dwell too much on that subject. Instead, I’d like to examine the government’s response. The prognoses and prescriptions of David Cameron are particularly interesting, delivered as he gazes upon a society he describes as “frankly sick”.

What Cameron has said on the riots and looting, and what he proposes to do to stop such events happening again underlines the prevailing characteristics of this government’s policy-making: disturbing intellectual dishonesty and incuriosity; conceptual and practical incoherence; a predilection for thinly-disguised machismo masquerading as fair-minded liberalism, and a base and cynical attachment to some frankly eccentric Tory tropes.

Let’s begin with Cameron’s set-piece “fightback” speech. It’s largely nonsense, but interesting nonsense nonetheless. The opening paragraphs are telling:

“Of course we mustn’t simplify…what we know for sure is that in large parts of the country this was pure criminality.”

It’s difficult to know how Cameron, May or the various other Tories spewing this line could offer a more banal description. Of course these were acts of criminality, though as far as I’m aware, theft, burglary, arson, assault and criminal damage were illegal, and punishable, before the killing of Mark Duggan. I assume this remains the case.

“…this was about behaviour. People showing indifference to right and wrong. People with a twisted moral code. People with a complete absence of self-restraint.”

Again, pretty banal rhetoric. The question remains; why, in the prime minister’s opinion has this point of moral collapse arrived? Why did the arsonists, robbers and looters act as if they stand apart from society? Why now?

“…from the twisting and misrepresenting of human rights that has undermined personal responsibility……to the obsession with health and safety that has eroded people’s willingness to act according to common sense.”

Let’s not forget big government:

“It’s usurped local leadership with endless Whitehall diktats.”

This is patently idiotic.

I wonder just how many rioters had the horrors of the nanny state in mind when they found a Foot Locker window at the other end of their shoe. Perhaps I missed the rogue civil servants’ riot?

More seriously, Cameron’s planned policy response also tells us much about the shallow incoherence of the government’s approach to policy, blighted as it is by modern conservatism’s muddled blend of pseudo-libertarian economic thinking and openly authoritarian ideas on law and order.

On the one hand, in economic and social matters, the state can’t do anything right and must remove itself from the fray immediately. On the other, in criminal justice, it must be visible, ‘robust’, and virile in its use of physical power, unencumbered by an apparently soft-headed commitment to human rights.

The perpetual incoherence bred by these competing strands is obvious on any close reading of Cameron’s “fightback” speech:

“Government cannot legislate to change behaviour…people’s behaviour does not happen in a vacuum: it is affected by the rules government sets and how they are enforced.”

“Now that the riots have happened I will make sure that we clear away the red tape and the bureaucratic wrangling, and put rocket boosters under this programme… with a clear ambition that within the lifetime of this Parliament we will turn around the lives of the 120,000 most troubled families in the country.”

This is obviously going to be a large, expensive, program of government intervention. As its scope is set to be national, there will be a considerable bureaucratic element, whatever Cameron says.

Deciding to take such action serves as a quiet admission of the utility of the state in achieving desirable social outcomes. This admission of utility in turn makes a mockery of the government’s wholesale retreat from social works under the guise of promotion of the ever-elusive ‘Big Society’.

In almost every social and economic field, Cameron has sought to portray the state as a blundering obstacle to moral action and enterprise. His convictions, like Blair’s before him, seem immune to evidence or sustained dissent. They can, however, be overridden handily by short-term political calculation.

Now, he seems to think that a sprawling, intrusive new state program will reverse what he sees as a quasi-dystopian moral decline in certain unspecified swathes of society. This combined with nakedly political sentencing and calls for more aggressive policing (regardless of what the police say) shows a deeply hypocritical rush towards the refuge of state power by a man long-intent on weakening its reach and efficacy.

This is helpful in illustrating the conceptual and ethical bankruptcy of contemporary, neoliberal conservatism. Unfortunately, its adherents in the UK extend deep into the Labour and Liberal parties, and its ideas sprawl like a great, choking hand across the democracies of Europe and North America.

Amongst its adherents, there is no consistent, principled view of institutions, policy-making or statecraft. In its place stands unreasonable machismo, moral hypocrisy, an obsession with short-term profit, ambivalence towards enduring social, environmental or institutional value and a fundamental inability to embrace sound state management or empathy in policy.

Public services are only seen as quasi-enemies to be endlessly, wastefully recast according to the whims of advisers, favoured think tanks and special interest groups. Meanwhile, a vapid press cheers on anything that can be smuggled in under the banner of ‘reform’.

Benefits exist only to be bemoaned or removed, while nothing remotely serious is done to remedy structurally high unemployment.

The fetishising of short-termist, self-interested profiteering as the primary driver of prosperity leads to an unstable, crisis-prone system where deliberately incurious leaderships are unable to foresee major crises. This leads to the sort of absurd blundering we’re seeing on a daily basis among US and Eurozone leaders.

At a less dramatic level, modern conservatism’s vices can be seen through the actions of Wandsworth council in London.

Wandsworth’s Tory leadership has reached the national headlines twice this year. Once, when it began charging for children to access play parks, thereby effectively excluding poor children, and again when it moved to evict a blameless mother from her home after her son was charged with riot-related activity. Charged, remember, not convicted. Both actions seem characteristic of the moral malaise behind the massively destructive politics described above.

I’ll finish by telling the story of two young, privileged men from times past.

One young man received a community sentence for arson, burning down two greenhouses of rare cacti on a school trip as part of a ‘prank’. The other young man spent his university days in a social group where recreational vandalism was habitual, and the punishments non-existent. Group members boasted of paying in cash for the damage they caused.

The first man is Nick Clegg, the second David Cameron. Boris Johnson and George Osborne were also members of the Bullingdon Club described above. The colossal hypocrisy of their blanket condemnations of “mindless” youth is enraging, and the rise of their like to power at a time of great global challenges seems more symptomatic of a “frankly sick” society than a mere few hundred smashed shop windows.


  • Alanbrooke

    Shit Lorcan you must really want that job at the Guardian.

    Try writing a thought provoking article instead of stale Agitprop – it could get readers interested.

  • Lorcan Mullen

    Awk Field Marshal. You make that sound like a bad thing. What sort of stuff are you into? I’m open to suggestions.

  • Alanbrooke

    Well Lorcan, if I want to slag the Tories i can go to any one of a number of sites.

    SoT is unique in that it normally has an Irish angle,

    If you want to talk about riots then why not compare and contrast those in Britain with those in Ireland.

    What brings people on to the street ? Why is there no wholesale looting in Belfast but just violence? Why do people in Belfast riot when in fact they are economically better off than those in Britain ? What’s the role of the various Godfathers in rioting ? How are social media used and is it the coppers’s best friend ( easy to trace all those involved ) or his worst enemy ?

    Give us an angle. 🙂

  • Lorcan Mullen

    Grand, I will do. One horribly trite piece on the economy to come first though 🙂

  • Alanbrooke

    I look forward to the inevitable assassination 😆

  • Crikey, youse two, is that the best that Loughside can offer. Where’s the novel intelligence that changes the game and delivers leading reins and reign in what you are offering?

  • It’s a bit rich for some MPs and all members of the bullingdon club to be preaching to anyone about low level criminality.

  • Reader

    lorcan Mullan: Group members boasted of paying in cash for the damage they caused.
    That does set them somewhat apart from the people who have set out to profit from the damage they have caused. Though I don’t think it should or would buy legal immunity, it does seem to have bought off the victims.
    Do you think that anyone with a criminal conviction or a suspicion of criminal behaviour in their past should be permanently excluded from political office? (This could be the Northern Ireland angle if you still need one)

  • Rory Carr

    An early indication of one arm of government’s determination not to be hampered by health and safety considerations came even before the riots began.

    It happened just round the corner from me at Tottenham Hale. But then it has to be said that such consideration, which the Met takes very seriously in respect of its own officers, has not been noticably robust when applied to members of the public. Certainly the families of Harry Stanley (deceased); Jean-Charles de Menezes (deceased); Ian Tomlinson (deceased); and Mark Duggan (deceased), among others, might have noticed.

    Of course in the case of Jean-Charles de Menezes, on 1 November 2007 the Metropolitan Police Service was found guilty and was fined for having failed in its duty of care to Menezes in breach of The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, which I suppose must have brought great comfort to his bereaved parents, and was perhaps what motivated the Prime Minister’s thinking when he determined to tackle such restraint on the Met going about their proper duty of shooting whom they will without having to be hampered by such namby-pamby considerations.

  • Lorcan Mullen

    @ Reader

    no, I think people with criminal convictions are perfectly capable of standing for political office.

    On the one hand, our criminal justice system is ostensibly based on rehabilitation and constructive jailing. It would be silly to design a system where people are supposed to become ‘normal’ citizens at the end of the process, but are then permanently stripped of some fundamental aspects of political citizenship. Our freedom to be voted for is as fundamental as our right to vote. This is even before we get to arguments about permanent exclusion from formal politics (no SF leadership within formal politics would have been a serious brake on the path to peace, probably) or those who face convictions for legitimate direct action.

    In bringing up the Cameron and Clegg cases, I suppose I was condemning their hypocrisy in embracing the ‘simple criminality’ line. They could be (justifiably) condemnatory, but still look for and solve the underlying issues. That would be real leadership.

  • wee buns

    Cameron naturally takes great pains to NOT mention events which triggered trouble: police killing of a black man who never fired a shot, where communities are feeling the pain of having services cut to the bone.

    “Government cannot legislate to change behaviour…people’s behaviour does not happen in a vacuum: it is affected by the rules government sets and how they are enforced.”

    Note the language used – not moralistic, but of sociology and social effect.
    He has tried very hard bless him, to present himself as the first truly post Thatcherite UK leader. After three massive electoral losses he needs to pander to prosperous, socially liberal middle class voters; can’t afford to preach pure morals from the castle top, as did his predecessors.
    Simultaneous to the ‘lefty’ language are the sneaky ways they’ve executed deep cuts into what they promised would not be cut: utterly cynical. Hence ensuring the poorest communities feel radically isolated while trying to butter up middle class liberals with his tongue.
    It is as laughable as it is vindictive. Nobody with a brain takes seriously the pseudo sociological blatherings of Thatcher’s children.

  • abucs

    The point that the Conservatives make is that if you try to force all meaningful interaction through the state it breeds an attitude of entitlement and resentment which is the exact opposite of what built Western civilisation in the first place. It destroys civility, community and creates fragmentation and narrow minded views of looking after only oneself.

  • Reader

    wee buns: police killing of a black man who never fired a shot, where communities are feeling the pain of having services cut to the bone.
    Black? not really. And I don’t think the looters were too badly hit by library closures, or they wouldn’t (famously) have ignored the bookshops.

  • Greenflag

    @ abucs,

    ‘It destroys civility, community and creates fragmentation and narrow minded views of looking after only oneself.’

    For further observation of this recurring phenomenon keep a beady eye on the gyrations of Wall St and other stock exchanges today and indeed any day over the past few weeks or years .Of course you may state that Wall St is NOT the state but then it might as well be -as our so called democratic governments prove powerless to stave off another world wide recession with ever more bank failures and even more bank bailouts as the ‘Western ‘ form of capitalism goes belly up and succumbs to the authoritarian quasi fascist Chinese corporate model of non democratic one party governance.

  • wee buns

    Strikes me as tired & half-baked theorizing, to respond to widespread civil unrest with various causes and numerous layers, by throwing it into one lump of civilisational decline…

    Not ‘really’ black?
    Library closures, the only cuts?

  • wee buns

    funny is’nt it, that although the market dominates social and psychological life (ads,movies, games, music vidoes etc) it apparently plays no role in social and psychological formation!

  • Reader

    weebuns: Reader. Not ‘really’ black? Library closures, the only cuts?
    Duggan had one black parent and one white parent. You conclude that makes him black. So far as it actually matters, I can contend that makes him white. Should we use a lightmeter, or was his criminal background enough for you?
    As for the cuts. Mostly they haven’t hit yet. Local authority cuts to the library services (famously) have started to hit. I suggest most of the looters didn’t actually notice. Then there’s the EMA cuts (4 weeks EMA = 1 blackberry). Not very noticeable during the summer holidays, though.

  • wee buns

    ‘So far as it actually matters, I can contend that makes him white. Should we use a lightmeter, or was his criminal background enough for you?’

    If it doesn’t matter…err….why bother contesting it. I might have been interested in calling you on the remainder if that remark if it were less hysterical. Typical of the nonsense coming from the Right – lashing out at anything & anybody, from single parents to Amy Winehouse. The trigger was police murder. No hairs split changes that.

  • Reader

    wee buns: The trigger was police murder.
    But the trigger could have been *anything*. It could have been a football fight, a pub brawl or a gang war. What turned a disturbance into 3 nights of looting across London and England was the temporary belief that people could nick stuff with almost no chance of getting caught so long as they didn’t stand out from the crowd.
    You might wish to call me on the race issue, but you were the one seemingly using the one-drop rule to classify Duggan – not me.

  • Rory Carr

    If the Prime Minister is serious about seeking the cause of the rioting which swept so much of England’s inner-cities he need look no further than to the wise words of his able Deputy, Nick Clegg who had warned that a Conservative-led government without a proper mandate “cutting teachers, cutting police and the wage bill in the public sector” would lead to “Greek-style unrest” on UK streets.

    Of course that was before the election, and before he had joined the Conservatives in a coalition government “without a proper mandate”, and before he had become Deputy Prime Minister, all of which experience has led him to a Damascene volte face so that he now realises that in fact the rioters were motivated by nothing more than “sheer criminality”.

    For those of you who may consider that there is something unprincipled about Mr Clegg’s seemingly self-serving change of outlook I would remind you that there is nothing so true to the principles of LibDemism as reneging on one’s electoral promises in order to gain advancement.

    Sir Richard Rich lives !

  • Rory Carr

    Here is the link to Clegg’s wise words of warning which I failed to include above.


    Such forgetfulness surely qualifies me for a leading position in the LibDem front ranks.

  • Greenflag

    @ wee buns ,

    ‘funny is’nt it, that although the market dominates social and psychological life (ads,movies, games, music vidoes etc) it apparently plays no role in social and psychological formation!’

    You might think that wee buns but I could’nt possibly comment . I could but it would take up another whole thread and I’d be accused of diversion;(

  • Greenflag

    @reader ,

    ‘But the trigger could have been *anything*.’

    Indeed it could . Unfortunately this rationale is a bit like that of the ‘genius ‘ ‘politician ‘ or ‘banker’ or hierarchical cleric or hedge fund CDO tranche seller – who spills oil or gunpowder all over the streets of a city or polity or economy or market and then expresses horrified surprise when the flames rise up around him and then blames the problem on a cancer stick smoker’s carelessness in not using an ashtray 🙁