Comment: Cowardice defines our response to the riots

The political response to the riots has been deeply cynical and lacking in vision. England deserves better.

By Ian Dunt

Now that Tony Blair finally offered his two pennies worth, we have a full house of political leaders' views on the riots that hit England this month.

Blair's piece on the disorder has been reported mostly in terms of how it deviates from David Cameron's thoughts, but their conclusions are deceptively similar, in that both men treat the riots as a vindication of their existing views.

"By the end of my time as prime minister, I concluded that the solution was specific and quite different from conventional policy," Blair writes, citing his 'respect' agenda policies and a version of early intervention programmes. "The agenda that came out of this was conceived in my last years of office, but it had to be attempted against a constant backdrop of opposition, left and right, on civil liberty grounds and on the basis we were 'stigmatising' young people. After I'd left, the agenda lost momentum."

Plainly Blair's miracle solution to the deep-seated social and economic problems in English cities is his continued and perpetual leadership of the country. As tempting as it is to ascribe that view to his messianic delusions, it's this approach to the riots which dominates the debate. Instead of being startled out of their complacency, our political leaders feel vindicated.

Take Cameron's theory, repeated again this morning in the pages of the Sunday Express. In order of appearance, he mentions cutting down police bureaucracy, elected police chiefs, the welfare system, the Human Rights Act, recognition of family in the tax system, school discipline and a national citizen service. The guiding thread between these ideas is not that they are all broadly useless against addressing the underlying causes of what happened a fortnight ago, but that they are all existing Conservative policy.

It’s a profoundly disappointing response from a prime minister who, despite criticism, managed to get the right balance between stamping out the rioting and maintaining Britain's policing traditions when he managed the operational response to the disorder. Unfortunately, his political response has been truly pitiful, lacking in vision or leadership and cynically exploiting the events to drum up more support for his party's existing legislative agenda. Several political columnists have laughably suggested that the prime minister has a new drive since the riots. In fact, he has precisely the same drive and is merely hoping the tires survive on an altogether more perilous road.

Blair and Cameron's hopeless response to the crisis is just a distilled version of our general failure to react to what happened. Already, the memory fades – the sense of fear. It should not fade. If you live in a major urban area, you know what I'm talking about. That fear that what you held to be reliable and safe, the streets outside your home, had turned into something violent and uncontrollable. It’s that fear that will see us improve the country, if we harness it humbly, rather than lazily and cynically.

Too many of us have seized on the riots as more evidence of our existing opinions, just as we do with any major political event nowadays. Right-wing commentators blame family breakdown, multiculturalism and adopt a 'pure criminality' approach which blocks off further analysis and justifies an exclusively police response. To be fair, most of them have been sufficiently concerned for their reputation to avoid Cameron's absurdist suggestion that health and safety laws had something to do with it, although it was useful of the prime minister to allow us such an uncluttered view of his more deranged thoughts. Meanwhile, the left blames inequality, disadvantage and powerlessness. It still labours under the knee-jerk resentment of any mention of family arrangements as social engineering.

As I wrote on the day of the riots: nothing is off the table anymore. We owe it to ourselves to take on board the views of the other camp. For starters the left needs to find a way of discussing family breakdown without worrying that it is judging single parents or tacitly accepting paternalist moralising from the political class. The right needs to stop pretending that this situation can be properly analysed without addressing disadvantage and the effect gross inequalities have on social cohesion.

Both of these compromises would be perfectly obvious to an alien or an 11-year old girl. Any newcomer to the debate would raise them instantly and see quickly that they were both relevant. But we have become so deeply bunkered down in our respective camps that we treat the mere mention of the other side's keywords as an alarm signalling the need for return fire.

What's required is humility. England is a much more problematic and fractured place than we had previously imagined. What should be a turning point for our society is being hushed-up and appropriated for personal political gain by our leaders while we replace genuine debate with schoolyard taunts and tribalism. It may be months from now, or years perhaps, but one day soon we'll regret it.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.