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.


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