One of the few positive outcomes of the riots in England last month was a big improvement in the concepts used to debate such events. While the rioting began, the media commentariat resorted instinctively to familiar left-wing sociological explanations for social unrest: police brutality, racism, inequality, unemployment and the failure of government to address such “root causes”. However, Prime Minister David Cameron, drawing on a conservative character he had previously kept concealed, stepped up to re-define the debate in terms of individual morality.
Cameron said “the riots were not about race, government cuts or poverty¾they were about behaviour”. Britain, he said, had long inhabited “a culture of moral neutrality … a 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.” He used terminology which, over these same generations, has been all but taboo. He told the rioters: “We will track you down, we will find you, we will charge you, we will punish you.”
Such language must have stunned human rights lawyers and magistrates, social workers, criminologists, sociologists and like-minded journalists for whom the notion of punishment conflicts with all their social values and policy prescriptions. Cameron’s comments were not impulsive. He was well aware of his targets. He singled out the human rights and the occupational health and safety industries for special mention:
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 safety¾where 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.
Cameron’s response was powerful enough to force Labour Opposition Leader Ed Miliband into a token concession. In his major speech on the events, Miliband recognised, correctly, that most people who grow up in deprived neighbourhoods do not turn to crime. “Individuals are responsible for their actions¾and every individual has the choice between doing right and doing wrong.”
But Miliband went on to argue that Cameron was being “shallow and superficial” in blaming parents, the rioters and the police. “We must avoid wheeling out the old stereotypes and prejudices in this debate,” Miliband said. “Children’s ideas of right and wrong don’t just come from their parents.” Instead, the rioters were imitating the example set by the rich and powerful: “The bankers who took millions while destroying people’s savings … The MPs who fiddled their expenses … The people who hacked phones to get stories to make money for themselves.” He called for an inquiry into “the deeper issue of inequality” to understand why some felt they had no stake in society at all.
This debate is worth dwelling upon because it displays very clearly the difference between modern conservatives and social-democratic politicians. It is plainly not the conservatives who are the captives of “old stereotypes and prejudices”. The intellectual paradigm that excuses criminal behaviour on the grounds it is generated by social forces beyond the control of its individual perpetrators is an old one, now long past its use-by date. In a recent essay, Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm said it originated in The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 written by Marx’s collaborator, Frederick Engels.
Ten years ago this month, when the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks on New York and Washington killed thousands of Americans, this concept was probably at the zenith of its influence. A vocal majority of left-wing literary writers and intellectuals around the world agreed with Noam Chomsky that Islamic wrath had been provoked by the “far more extreme terrorism” of US foreign policy. British feminist novelist Jeanette Winterson claimed America had only reaped what it had sown. “Capitalism and imperialism,” she said, “were the real co-pilots of those planes.” Susan Sontag wrote in the New Yorker: “Where is the acknowledgement that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed super-power, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?”
At the same time, however, one leftist writer was wise enough to describe these comments as “appalling rubbish”. Salman Rushdie wrote: “To excuse such an atrocity by blaming US government policies is to deny the basic idea of all morality: that individuals are responsible for their actions.” This is true: morality always comes down to individual responsibility. Blaming terrorism or any other criminal behaviour on social forces or social grievance is an evasion.
Today, David Cameron has, like Rushdie, risen to a difficult occasion. Hopefully, his stand will impress British electors. If it does, he will have struck a well-timed blow against an insidious concept that has been taken seriously for far too long.