Wednesday, 10 August 2011


There was a key quote on the BBC website from someone in Liverpool pointing out that around 200 people have caused disturbances in a city of 480,000. He was keen to ensure that the reputation of Liverpool does not suffer as a result of the latest crimes. As an occasional visitor to Liverpool, I agree. Its a great place which happens to have its share of problems, as does everywhere else. This comment by a proud Liverpudlian is well made and it illustrates that the current lunacy is not the breakdown of society, just crime pure and simple.

The fact that such a small number of people can cause such disruption should not come as a surprise, despite the increasingly rabid media frenzy which is surrounding it (BBC News 24 cannot help but be excited at actually having some news to report for once). We live in a complex society with only the thinnest veneer of civilisation over the top of an ever-present potential for chaos, as all the desperate calls for soldiers and water cannons illustrates. As long as we stick to the simple truth that this is criminal activity and nothing more, we can start to look beyond what is at first shocking to see that most people are safe and going about their lives, while a very small number - mostly business people trying to improve their lives and those of colleagues and employees - experience terrible loss which will hopefully be addressed as soon as possible.

I am surprised at how little there has been from the serious commentators beyond the tired 'bring in the army/water cannon/baton rounds'. Calls for the police to use water cannon continue with absolutely no reference to the utility of this resource or the desire of the police to use it. The police in England do not have water cannons and their spokesman has said they do not want to use them even if they could get them. Dave has now jumped on to this bandwagon with his 'dog whistle' speech, claiming that we could have water cannons within 24 hours. That's it, Dave, lose the plot, why don't you...

What has been instructive has been listening to Radio 5 Live over the past couple of days and hearing a range of comments, surprisingly few of which have been of the 'hang 'em and flog 'em' variety. Lots of people have sought to blame the current criminal activity on the coalition government, completely ignoring the culture of instant gratification, corruption and consumerism which preceded 2010 in the guise of 'new' Labour (How ironic the moniker 'new' seems these days...). With Ed Miliband desperately trying to sound tough (difficult with that voice), Ken Livingstone blaming bus fares for crime, Diane Abbott calling for a curfew and Alastair Campbell blaming the current unrest on the removal of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, we may have to wait some time for a coherent Labour response. Perhaps the hilarious Ed Balls will think up a line of attack - he usually does, in the absence of anyone else to do so - but I'm not holding my breath. Until Labour issue a mea culpa for their failings in the previous 13 years they really aren't on particularly solid ground.

[If your question is 'what failings', well, spending more than the government earned in every one of the 13 years of Labour government; throwing money at the NHS with little demonstrable improvement in productivity but a massive hike in the bill we all pay; persuading more people to go to university despite the fact that graduate jobs are not numerous enough to satisfy demand and that this push demeans those who choose not to go to university; paying people to go to college, rather than motivating them with a sense of wanting to achieve; climbing up the fundament of media moguls in the interests of re-election rather than challenging the sleaze and obsession with celebrity they produced as an attack on a civilised society; failing (like every government since the 1960s) to change the education system; ignoring the needs of local authorities to be able to raise taxes fairly and spend them on local priorities, instead introducing a raft of needless targets...I'll stop there, without mentioning the illegal war, the destruction and loss of reputation it caused and the abject failure to plan financially for the future during a period of relative economic prosperity. The essential point is that Labour hasn't got a leg to stand on...Or a credible leader, for that matter.]

But I digress...Many people on the radio and other media have pointed to the need for better parenting and greater power for teachers in schools. One's mind immediately drifts to Sure Start centres, a Labour initiative admittedly which attempted to address deeper social ills among a small number of families. It's nice to recall that no Sure Start centres have been closed down by Lib Dem authorities. The trouble is that there is no evidence that they actually work. The principle is good and is one only a Tory could disagree with but some idea about what they do is needed.

Maybe this is where the idea of localism and the 'big society' (I know, I'm chuckling too...) come into their own. Perhaps we can just ignore the latter one and focus on localism, which could be the answer. Local powers to intervene in families and schools, coupled with local budgets for authorities from taxes raised locally (there's a scary thought for Whitehall) could offer solutions and, crucially, if a number of competing local systems were introduced we could see what works and what doesn't. Get all the parties to sign up to a ten year plan to invest in this way (although finding who is in charge at Labour HQ to agree to anything will be a challenge) and to agree to leave the trials alone for that period, followed by an all-party review, might shine some light on the problems which have arisen.

People moan about politicians but now is the time for politicians to listen, consider and act - in short, to do their job. Will they do this on Thursday? No. They will argue, score points, try to out-tough each other and leave having shed little light on the issue at hand. Or at least the two old parties will. Listen to the debate and you will hear Lib Dems discussing the problem, not the politics.

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