Thursday, 11 August 2011

Politicians and the riots: does no-one have anything helpful to say?


One of the most depressing things about England's recent riots is the reaction of politicians.

They've never been at a lower ebb. Their expenses shenanigans wounded their class more than they know. Their robotic way of speaking, exemplified by an Ed Miliband interview where he gave the same answer over and over again, sets them apart from a populace that has stopped listening to them.

Indeed, there's a sense that all the centres of authority in our society - Parliament after expenses, the press after 'hackgate', the police after well, take your pick really - have dissolved or rather slunk away. That's part of our rudderless sense of non-direction right now.

But they haven't made things better in their stupid, idiotic, laughable, childish response to the present civil disturbances across England.

It's easily summed up in a now-notorious exchange between pint-sized verbal pugilist Michael Gove (above) and a chillier-than-thou Harriet Harman on Newsnight the other day. She says: 'cuts' are to blame. He gets red-eyed and angry, saying 'she's talking out of both sides of her mouth', he has 'no respect' for her any more, and that the riots were purely, completely 'criminality' that have no more explanation than that. Harman unconvincingly claims that the abolition of Educational Maintenance Allowance, the trebling of student fees and the closing of Job Centres has led to the violence. Er, I doubt it. Gove then counters that there's nothing to this but sheer wanton looting and greed. Hmm, not very persuasive either. You can watch the unedifying spectacle here if you really want.

Is it too much to ask that we move beyond such platitudes of Left and Right and start to actually think? Gove says 'tighten discipline in schools'. Miliband blames 'gang culture'. Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, says 'don't cut police numbers'. The Prime Minister himself argues that a tougher approach on the streets will work. Which probably it will if we're talking about reducing lawlessless and disorder in the short term, but really - aren't we entitled to ask for more from our leaders?

There's a lot of thought out there on both Left and Right. Most of it may be wrong. Some of it certainly is. Neo-liberals stress the fear of getting caught and punished as a key determinant of the 'decision' to risk criminal activity. Not, you note, crude police numbers. More socially-minded conservatives stress the bleeding away of a sense of shared responsibility for one another. Neo-Keynesian economists are minded to blame long-term unemployment and the crushing waste of hope and talent that represents. Marxists and Socialists argue that the grotesque growth of inequality over the last thirty years, and our society's constant stress on consumerism and display, must have played a role. Thoughtful policemen talk about redoubling efforts to understand 'their' areas, and the challenges of grass-roots policing, which obviously hasn't been the success that everyone thought.

I suspect that, well... they're all a bit right, and we should talk about it in an adult and mature manner.

What do we get instead? Politicians circling each other, talking about 'criminality' versus 'cuts', two entirely inappropriate categories - Conservatives stressing threat and fear to shore up their electoral base, Labour hoping to make capital out of the situation, Boris stalking the Prime Minister and hoping eventually to replace him.

How sad.

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