Responses to the UK riots – Lots of heat. Not much light. Not a lot of hope.
Remember Tony Blair in 2005 after 7/7. He announced that the ‘rules of the game have changed’ then proposed 90-day detention without trial and a host of other policies. Suddenly, everyone became an expert on “extremism”, though their arguments were usually based on gross generalisations and false assumptions. Anyone who made the link to the Iraq war was at first attacked as appeaser of terrorism, and later simply ignored.
Fast forward to Cameron in 2011. “We know what’s gone wrong: the question is, do we have the determination to put it right?” If that were true, politicians of all parties would not have been running around playing catch-up for the last week. Suddenly, everyone’s an expert on gang culture and the causes of moral degeneration amongst the rioters.
There has already been mention of policy changes – in particular to the European Convention on Human Rights and a proposed British Bill of Rights (these have been raised by the Conservative Party policy for some time and not well received). Those who make the link to the funding being cut from social programmes to help Britain’s underclass because of the Treasury cuts is portrayed by some sections of the media as excusing the riots and brushed aside by the government.
The repeat pattern by politicians to move fast to pacify public opinion, even if it means violating the liberal principles that you preach to China, Zimbabwe etc; to justify pre-existing policies using a false premise; and to rubbish or ignore criticisms of their policies which may have caused, or which could exacerbate the problems – does not bode well for the future.
There has to be an acknowledgement of the depth of the problems, and some real understanding before there could be any hope of solving the problem.
Recognition of a moral degeneration
There has been some recognition of a moral degeneration. Mr Cameron said “ 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”.
He is not wrong. But he cannot restrict this to the few who rioted.
“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.”
These undesirable qualities are the fruits of a system that makes citizens consumers; where the freedom of speech and the freedom to insult and ridicule – even the sacred – are indivisible; where ideas about God, and ultimate accountability, are banished from the public space, to a degree where people are vilified for wearing symbols of their faith openly.
But as several people have commented before, these are qualities that exist right up to the top of society. In recent years, it was the sight of MPs looting Plasma screen TVs, laptops, second homes etc that sickened the public. But most got off very lightly. There was certainly no ‘zero tolerance approach’. A cursory glance at the expenses records of the current Cabinet is proof enough of this. Bankers and hedge fund managers made fortunes from reckless trading, destroyed the financial system, walked away with their profits, and left the taxpayer to make up the losses.
Newspapers routinely violate people’s privacy and bribed the police for stories. Indeed, we have even read about Nick Clegg’s conviction for arson as a teenager, and questions asked about David Cameron’s presence at a Bullingdon club function where a restaurant window was smashed in an act of criminal damage.
To leave the public with a feeling that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor is not a way to make people feel part of society. But the evidence is that the values under criticism exist across every sector of society.
Which values for society?
But even if Cameron succeeded in finding a means to embed a new set of values into British society, the question remains which values?
Britain has a Christian, conservative heritage that a significant proportion of the population adhere to. But they have been superseded in power by those who have secular, liberal outlook. The two significantly contradict each other on many issues, and it is hard to see a consensus emerge that carries the population in a united manner.
This schism has been illustrated in much of the commentary in the aftermath of the riots. One section of society will not look at the breakdown in values because it points the finger at the liberal values they cherish. So the concentrate on the economic reasons that society is divided and the underclass has been neglected.
The other group recognises the moral degeneration in society caused by liberal values, but will not accept that the capitalist economic system markets these values, and has caused a wider gap than ever between richest and poorest in society.
Neither group sees the other’s viewpoint, and neither group will accept that liberal values and the free market, as we know it, are products of the European enlightenment, and the abolition of religion from life’s affairs.
The liberal paradox will prevent the repair process
Cameron told people that the “Government cannot legislate to change behaviour, but it is wrong to think the State is a bystander. “ This is the dilemma in liberal societies. Much of the behaviour has resulted from the liberal values that are the foundation of society. Yet, legislating to prevent these harms is anathema to politicians – especially if profits are to be made from that behaviour. To prove a point using an example not directly linked to this situation, there is ample empirical evidence on the harms to society and individuals from alcohol and gambling, but it would be unthinkable that politicians would ban these.
The problems that emerged last week have multiple, varied and fundamental causes. They include the economic system that excludes those at the bottom from society from in having a stake and widens the gap between rich and poor; a market that propagates material values in order to fuel its own profits; individualism that encourages people think of themselves not society; a ‘freedom-gone-mad’ culture that encourages disrespect for symbols of authority – including parents, teachers and the law; a disrespect for the political class who are so obviously tainted by the same moral degradation they lecture others about.
This complexity of problems cannot be solved in a piece-meal and patch work way.
It is a systemic problem, requiring systemic change. And there is no sign that anyone is thinking on anything like that level.
People need to be aware of the depth of the problems if there is any hope that they can address them – on an individual or societal scale. In the absence of it is more than likely that the ill thought out responses of politicians will simply make matters worse.
Dr. Abdul Wahid is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain.