As the dust settles on the riots that swept our cities recently, attention turns to understanding and responding to them. The Prime Minister and his Ministerial colleagues have, along with sections of the press and, it’s fair to say, sections of the public, been using highly emotive language to describe what happened. Ken Clarke, the Justice Secretary, recently described the rioters as a ‘feral underclass’. Describing anyone as ‘feral’ is simply dehumanising – something the Nazis and other early 20th century eugenicists were particularly fond of. [And no….I’m not saying Ken Clarke is a Nazi. Just making a point about the practice of using language that suggests people are ‘sub-human’]. Although the Justice Secretary goes on to make some salient points about the failure of the criminal justice system, this type of language undermines whatever else he might have to say. It is hardly the sort of mature politics that are required in times of social stress.
The concept of an ‘underclass’ has long been a contentious battleground for political scientists and philosophers – coming to the fore in the UK during the late 1980s when US libertarian sociologist Charles Murray published ‘The Emerging British Underclass’. Murray suggested that an over-generous welfare state is giving rise to increases in violent crime, labour market drop-out and single parent families. [He subsequently went on to say – in The Bell Curve – that black people had lower IQs than white people – sparking further controversy and accusations of racism]. The similarities between Murray’s thinking and many of the comments made by politicians in the wake of the riots is striking. Have we somehow gone through a timewarp back to the 1980s?
The combination of ‘feral’ and ‘underclass’ seems to conjure up a picture of uncontrollable animals roaming the streets. Perhaps that is the intention. But it also has the effect of distancing responsibility – since the rioters operate on purely animal instinct and cannot be reasoned with like you or I. But even if we put to one side the philosophical and semantic overtones of the term, the existence of a section of society so alienated from society and so disaffected that they riot and loot cannot be something we view as simply someone else’s fault. Blame for society’s ills rests with society as a whole. We cannot separate ourselves from the causes or effects of society. Like the popular environmental saying – you are not stuck in traffic, you are traffic.
We cannot absent ourselves from being part of a society that (in small numbers) took to the streets to riot and loot.
David Cameron has talked about a ‘slow motion moral collapse’, suggesting we need to renew our morality and ethics.
I’m not particularly opposed to this idea – in fact I share the Prime Ministers concerns about a lack of ethics and commons social values. However I think our views on the causes of this and how you address differ markedly.
Where do the values and ethics of a society come from? In part they are formed by the influence of our families, peers and social networks. But they also come from the opinion formers and influencers of public life – politicians, the press (or perhaps more accurately those who control the media?), celebrities and the leaders of business and civil society.
When David Cameron talks about moral collapse is he alluding to the lack of morality displayed by MPs and Peers in Parliament over the expenses scandal? Does he mean the greed that fuelled the banking crisis? And what about the (illegal) invasion of personal privacy by the press in order to sell a few more papers? If he does, it’s far from clear.
And yet for many people who are neither MPs, nor bankers, nor rioters, they don’t seem so radically different. There seems to be a distinct lack of appreciation of the social norms and morals that guide the lives of millions of Britons in all instances. You can argue about the degree to which they have ‘stepped over the line’ but few would dispute that they have all acted unethically. What appears to differ significantly is the language used to describe the people involved and the prescribed remedy. I don’t recall hearing any Ministers talking about ‘feral bankers’ (perhaps you could argue that Vince Cable has come closest!) or ‘out of control parliamentarians’….but maybe I missed it.
The tough punishment handed out to the looters and even to those (unsuccessfully) inciting unrest is in stark contrast with the treatment of the powerful.
Take Sir Fred Goodwin, erstwhile CEO of RBS, who oversaw the near collapse of the biggest bank in the world – saved only by the injection of billions of pounds of public money. And his ‘punishment’ for contributing to a worldwide global banking crisis and unprecedented public spending cuts? To walk away with his £16m pension pot in tact – belatedly bowing to public anger by voluntarily agreeing to reduce it to just £350,000 per year (on top of the £2.7m payout he’d already taken from it). Of course one can argue that, unlike the looters, Fred Goodwin did not break the law and so ought not to be punished. Of course that’s true, but we are talking about morality, and it rather overlooks the fact that laws are made and as such determine the social norms and ethics that govern society. If our political leaders decided that excessive risk taking motivated by greed in the banking sector was illegal (as well as immoral) then Fred Goodwin (and others) might have gone to jail. So, while the distinction between bankers and looters is a fair one, the finger points firmly at our political leaders to act, where the laws fail to reflect our social norms and values.
Similarly, the expenses scandal that shrouded Westminster resulted in over 350 MPs (that’s well over half of them!) being told to repay expenses totalling £1.2m. These were, in all but a tiny number of instances, simply ‘mistakes’. Indeed many of them were…grave errors of judgement. And yet only a handful of parliamentarians have faced criminal proceedings. And the remedy? Changing the system for claiming expenses. Not blaming the parents. How strange.
Politicians seem to like using terms like ‘moral compass’ but it appears as if many of them missed out on their Scouts or Girl Guides orienteering badges.
The riots require a measured and ethical response. Moral leadership, some might call it. But how can our politicians be expected to provide it when they have so patently failed to address a lack of ethics in corporate and political governance? [And I’ve barely mentioned the illegality and corruption at the heart of our press and police…we’ll see how the current investigations on these fronts progress].
At a recent meeting I attended, Children’s Minister Tim Loughton dismissed the possibility of their being any link between the riots and Douglas Hogg’s moat (a point I was quick to challenge him on). Of course there were probably rioters who’ve never heard of Douglas Hogg – but that misses the point about the exposure of the expenses scandal in general. In the eyes of many many people, unethical and immoral behaviour is the same whether it’s inner city looters or MPs in the shires.
Until politicians get to grips with this ‘feral overclass’ they can have little moral credibility in responding adequately to the riots.