The Corner

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The British Majority Is Fed Up? They Already Were


Post-riots, the Telegraph strikes an optimistic note, seeing an opportunity in Britain for David Cameron to “seize a rare moment.” For the Telegraph, as for me, the riots were inevitable:

This crisis has been building for years. It is the result of a major cultural shift that took place in the 1960s and 1970s, and the long-term decline of the conservative values and institutions that had underpinned British society since the late 19th century. This process was marked by a collapse in the belief in marriage, a retreat of the police from the streets, a move away from tough penalties for property crime, the rise of moral relativism and rampant consumerism, the diminution of stigma as a restraint on bad behaviour and the entrenchment of welfare dependency. It was not about poverty, but a collapse in values. Today, the benefits system sustains the underclass and poor state schooling is unable to compensate for the harm caused by broken homes and absent fathers. Inadequate policing cannot suppress the symptoms of crime and disorder. These communities are trapped in a vicious circle, where violence, crime, intimidation and hopelessness are quotidian. It is a world from which most of us are insulated until it spills into the wider community, as it did so nightmarishly this week.

But, unlike me, the Telegraph considers the likelyhood of a useful response to be high:

Here, then, is an opportunity for David Cameron to seize a rare moment in recent British history when the cacophony of liberal voices has been silenced by a palpable change in the national mood. Since he broke off his Italian holiday to take control of the response, the Prime Minister has shown an ability to articulate a sense of outrage, even if the harsh penalties he promised are unlikely to be visited upon many of the culprits. He has been more surefooted than most, including Boris Johnson, who after his tardy return to the capital needs to show that his political strengths are not limited to the good times.

What Mr Cameron must now do is unambiguously pursue the remedies that have been available for years, but which successive governments have been too frightened to adopt for fear of offending a vocal progressive minority which no longer has any credibility. These include a tough policy on welfare, whereby recipients accept a job or lose their benefits; police reforms to ensure proper democratic accountability and the imposition of the order that communities need to see on their streets if anything is to improve; and an overhaul of schools to offer an opportunity denied to so many children in the sink estates. None of these ideas will be sufficient on its own, but taken together they might at least begin to undo the damage of the past 40 years.

Naturally, I would that this were true. The “liberal voices” will not, of course, be silenced, but the Telegraph appears to believe that they will now be drowned out by the sentiment of the majority, with whom they share little common cause; as if the riots were the straw that finally broke the camel’s back. This is an attractive idea, but forgive me if I put the champagne on hold.

The “liberal voices” to which the article refers are already far outnumbered by a silent majority in the United Kingdom, and the distance between elite opinion and the average subject is already considerable. Britain’s history is punctuated with some admirable concessions to the principle of liberty, many of which its citizens have watched planted elsewhere but denied them at home, but it has largely been the story of a kingdom which moved directly from paternalism to socialism and, having thrown off an absolute monarch, accepted with alacrity first rule by the aristocracy and then by the technocracy. The stark difference between the assumptions held by the majority and those held by the elite is a feature of the system not a fault, and ’twas ever thus.

It is not the British people — especially the English, who are more conservative than their Welsh and Scottish cousins — who need convincing that the welfare, criminal justice, school, and policing systems need an overhaul, but that strange and shadowy bunch which comprises the permanent governing class, the majority of whose members are are either privately educated and live at the end of leafy, secluded drives, or professional government apparatchiks whose iron-clad job security and for-your-benefit power protect them from ever paying the price for the sorry state of affairs that their policies have inflicted upon a once-proud country. It will be a tough nut to crack.

There appears to be a subtext in the piece: cometh the hour, cometh the man. But let us not forget that David Cameron’s first instinct, what he chose to promote to the first order of business in a recalled Parliament, was to blame social media, and moot the prospect of shutting down the country’s telecommunications systems at the first hint of a disturbance. Once again, the symptoms and not the causes are being addressed. This is because addressing causes is unpopular and difficult. It is depressing to note that the only prime minister since the Second World War who has had the honesty to candidly and repeatedly speak the truth about the consequences of our post-war welfare fetish was Margaret Thatcher: She pulled no punches, she did not dress up her sentiments or obscure the harshness of her message to such an extent that it lost its meaning, and she revelled in taking on who she saw as the enemies of liberty and of civilization (the socialists at home, the Soviet Union abroad). The result? The economy rallied and Britain was saved from what looked like terminal decline. Her reward? To be generally loathed for being “harsh,” even by many of those who would broadly agree with her. 

Mrs. Thatcher’s great strength was that she did not particularly care about being popular — for which, let us not forget, she was rewarded with three election victories. And taking on the status quo is going to make the government unpopular. But David Cameron is no Mrs. Thatcher. The prime minister is not the man to stand up and say what needs to be said. He is still racked with guilt for his privilege and afflicted by that vacuous and peculiarly British concept of “One Nation” conservatism, which seeks to compromise between liberty and safety, and which has largely accepted the post-war settlement as being the foundation of a “civilized” society, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. 

I am afraid that the devil is in the detail, and, as the piece notes, “the Prime Minister has shown an ability to articulate a sense of outrage, even if the harsh penalties he promised are unlikely to be visited upon many of the culprits,” Mere words, as we free speech advocates are fond of saying, cannot hurt you. But they can not help you either. There will be little virtue in the outrage demonstrated by David Cameron if his resolve goes no further than the teleprompter. Unfortunately, unlike the Telegraph, I hold out little hope that it will be any other way.