Today, responding to the disorder that swept through many of Britain’s cities a little over a week ago, David Cameron set out his response in a speech at a youth centre in his Witney constituency. It’s an important event – it provided an opportunity for Britain’s Prime Minster to set out a considered response to the deep problems underlying the rioting.
What emerged was no more than a set of prejudices, unsupported by evidence, analysis or imagination, that told us almost nothing of the world in which the large majority of people live in Britain. For most of us, that’s a world of complexities, ambiguities and of conflicts of interest, of huge diversity and the widest range of experiences. Instead of analysis and serious consideration, instead of humility and an open mind seeking understanding, Cameron offered slogans culled from the collected editorials of the Daily Mail, the repeated ramblings of a pub bore. If this is the best that Eton and Oxford have to offer, thank God for comprehensive education.
It takes a certain type of self-deception to make a speech decrying the evils of modern British society without using the word “greed”, except once, in passing, near the end. Yet so warped, so partial is Cameron’s view of the problems we face that he has managed it.
Many of the themes were familiar. This was about criminality, not poverty or about Government cuts. Yes, we’re cutting police budgets but there will always be enough police on the streets (Really? you can’t suck police from rural areas into the inner cities indefinitely).
The speech really gets into its full mendacious stride when he asks the rhetorical question about whether politicians should be delivering lectures. But instead of talking about a culture of milking public funds to buy duck houses, repair moats and resurface tennis courts he launches into an extraordinary passage about what we apparently can and cannot say – his speechwriter has the good taste not to use the words “political correctness gone mad”, but this is what it is about:
But politicians shying away from speaking the truth about behaviour, about morality…
…this has actually helped to cause the social problems we see around us.
We have been too unwilling for too long to talk about what is right and what is wrong.
We have too often avoided saying what needs to be said – about everything from
marriage to welfare to common courtesy.
Sometimes the reasons for that are noble – we don’t want to insult or hurt people.
Sometimes they’re ideological – we don’t feel it’s the job of the state to try and pass judgement on people’s behaviour or engineer personal morality.
And sometimes they’re just human – we’re not perfect beings ourselves and we don’t want to look like hypocrites.
So you can’t say that marriage and commitment are good things – for fear of alienating single mothers.
You don’t deal properly with children who repeatedly fail in school – because you’re worried about being accused of stigmatising them.
You’re wary of talking about those who have never worked and never want to work – in case you’re charged with not getting it, being middle class and out of touch.
In this risk-free ground of moral neutrality there are no bad choices, just different lifestyles.
People aren’t the architects of their own problems, they are victims of circumstance.
‘Live and let live’ becomes ‘do what you please.’
Well actually, what last week has shown is that this moral neutrality, this relativism – it’s not going to cut it any more.
There’s just one problem with all this - it’s just not true. Of course those things can be and are being said – they’re being said by politicians and the media the whole time. They’re being said in the Daily Mail every day. Cameron is tilting at a small army of straw men. He’s invoking an extraordinary and wholly imaginary world, in which the guardians of so-called political correctness inhibit free speech. Some of what he condemns is actually is about recognising that there are standards of courtesy which mean you exercise some responsibility for the feelings and situations of those around you. A lot of people don’t like this, because they’re lazy or because they are made uneasy by the fact that people have different backgrounds and outlooks to their own. But actually, being part of a community means that you make the effort to do that. Does Cameron really want to return to a world where the old hate-words for people with coloured skins or with disabilities are socially acceptable? And this is not somebody holding forth in the pub or on an internet message board – this is the Prime Minister of Great Britain, who has a responsibility and a duty to take a bigger view.
He goes on:
Our security fightback must be matched by a social fightback.
We must fight back against the attitudes and assumptions that have brought parts of our society to this shocking state.
We know what’s gone wrong: the question is, do we have the determination to put it right?
Do we have the determination to confront the slow-motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country these past few generations?
Irresponsibility. Selfishness. Behaving as if your choices have no consequences.
Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort.
Crime without punishment. Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control.
Some of the worst aspects of human nature tolerated, indulged – sometimes even incentivised – by a state and its agencies that in parts have become literally de-moralised.
Again, we need to look at the assumptions at work here. Again, much of this simply isn’t true. Crime without punishment – in a society that imprisons more people than ever before, and than elsewhere in Europe, without any appreciable difference in crime? Schools without discipline – yes, there are (and always have been) disciplinary problems in schools, but where’s the evidence? Hard evidence – most notably from OFSTED – shows that discipline in most schools is good and improving.
Most of all, reward without effort. Cameron, like most of his cabinet, is the recipient of vast inherited wealth. Irresponsibility? Selfishness? Behaving as if your choices have no consequences? Cameron is a friend and advocate of bankers. How dare this man whose friends and classmates have gambled Britain into the worst economic crisis for eighty years lecture working people on reward without effort, and irresponsibility and selfishness. And, unsurprisingly, there is no mention at all of corporate tax evasion.
What follows on welfare is standard Tory stuff, about encouraging work and stopping people living lives in which the state will always bail them out. It needs no more than a comment that a Government of millionaires and a Parliament of people drawn from a political class that has almost no contact with the daily lives of people on benefits is in no position to comment.
But then we come to something really extraordinary:
As we consider these questions of attitude and behaviour, the signals that government sends, and the incentives it creates…
…we inevitably come to the question of the Human Rights Act and the culture associated with it.
Let me be clear: in this country we are proud to stand up for human rights, at home and abroad. It is part of the British tradition.
But what is alien to our tradition – and now exerting such a corrosive influence on behaviour and morality…
…is the twisting and misrepresenting of human rights in a way that has undermined personal responsibility.
We are attacking this problem from both sides.
We’re working to develop a way through the morass by looking at creating our own British Bill of Rights.
And we will be using our current chairmanship of the Council of Europe to seek agreement to important operational changes to the European Convention on Human Rights.
But this is all frustratingly slow.
The truth is, the interpretation of human rights legislation has exerted a chilling effect on public sector organisations, leading them to act in ways that fly in the face of common sense, offend our sense of right and wrong, and undermine responsibility.
It is exactly the same with health and safety – where regulations have often been twisted out of all recognition into a culture where the words ‘health and safety’ are lazily trotted out to justify all sorts of actions and regulations that damage our social fabric.
So I want to make something very clear: I get it. This stuff matters.
And as we urgently review the work we’re doing on the broken society, judging whether it’s ambitious enough – I want to make it clear that there will be no holds barred…
…and that most definitely includes the human rights and health and safety culture.
Let’s just read that again. Because, once again, it simply isn’t true. We hear a lot of rhetoric about the Human Rights Act – usually from newspaper journalists who love to run stories about some enemy of society or other insisting on their human rights as a means to avoid their just deserts. But the European Convention of Human Rights has been a part of our culture for generations – all the Human Rights Act did was make it applicable in Britain’s courts. Nothing in substance has changed. It’s a huge mythology – and Cameron knows that perfectly well. If he was honest, he’d be challenging, not parroting, the tabloid rhetoric.
And health and safety. Cameron and his family have lived lives of extreme privilege and have no direct experience of working in dangerous conditions for low pay. He probably cannot understand that health and safety legislation has immeasurably improved the lives of millions of ordinary working people, by ensuring that they do not have to work in fear for their lives or their health. It’s not surprising to anyone that Cameron regards profit as more important. I’d defy him to find any real example of health and safety regulations damaging our social fabric – it’s just one of those fancy phrases that Tories and tabloids use when they lie. But the real dishonesty here is that what we think of as the health and safety culture has nothing to do with health and safety legislation and everything to do with the fear of being sued. It’s not health and safety legislation, but the privatisation of redress. Cameron and the Tories look to the short term, without realising that rolling back health and safety legislation will simply make the litigation culture worse. And more and more people will be told that they can’t do things because of health and safety, when what they really mean is because of the insurance, and a culture of litigation which looks awfully like the sort of irresponsibility that Cameron attacks elsewhere.
I mentioned that greed gets no more than a passing mention. There’s another word that’s missing – “sorry”. This is not a speech in which Cameron is willing to recognise the failures of our political system. I’d argue that Britain may not be broken, but our political class most certainly is. No recognition of a political class that is increasingly remote from the people it governs; whose relationship with the media – especially the Murdoch press – is endemically corrupt; no recognition that the corruption is also endemic in the police service. No recognition that Britain is a democracy in which three established parties offer variations on the same economic policies, and in which dissent and a real desire for change is swept into the margins; no recognition that increasing numbers of people are giving up on democracy to the point where they won’t turn out to vote, in elections where the composition of Parliament bears little more than a passing resemblance to how people voted. No recognition that while parts of London burned, our Prime Minister’s principal occupation appeared to be arranging a photo-opportunity with an Italian waitress. And no recognition that a man who belonged to the Bullingdon Club, that Oxford society in which the uber-privileged indulged in recreational criminal damage is not best placed to read moral lectures to the poor.
And no recognition that for all but the very richest children, the prospect of a university education is becoming increasingly difficult; that the political class has committed Britain to illegal and futile wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; no recognition that Cameron is paving the way for the NHS when he said explicity at the election that he did not do so; that the burden of dealing with our banker-generated economic problems falls increasingly on the poor and vulnerable, while the wealthy regard paying tax as one of life’s optional extras.
Parts of our society are in deep trouble. Contented societies do not see rioting and looting of the sort we saw in England ten days ago. Aspects of our society certainly need fixing – as anyone on the left will agree; we wouldn’t be on the left if we didn’t believe that things were badly wrong. But for me it’s our political system that is broken. And Cameron’s speech – the speech of a weak, scared man trying to look strong by hunkering down into an ideological bunker – provides all the evidence I need.