Watching the violence in our major cities over recent nights I have been thinking long and hard about the deeper causes. The opportunity to run rampage, steal and loot, destroy property and cause havoc and generate fear does not just happen overnight. The answer, for my money, is to be found in three inter-related causes.
Firstly, we need to think about the values imbued in our young people at school and throughout our society. The presumption for some young people is that the state owes them a living and that nothing is their fault. This attitude has arisen because we are too reluctant to objectively measure attainment and provide proper discipline in schools with absolute values behind them. With a backdrop of intermittent parenting, children do not feel loved and cared for so they, in turn, don’t care about what the implications of their behaviour will have on others. For some, school has become an occasional drop-in social club, not a place where they go to learn, where the teachers command respect and where the education received is seen as the passport to employment and independence. Without challenging the “all must have prizes” culture – regardless of what the individual’s own input is – we will continue to see feral youths emerging from our schools poorly prepared for the real world. We are failing them unless we insist on basic standards of personal behaviour enforced with a zero tolerance approach to wrong-doing. I do acknowledge the challenge of providing meaningful employment opportunities and that this is acute in some parts of the country. We must listen carefully to sensible voices from these communities and grasp the sense of hopelessness and respond to it. The massive expansion of apprenticeships is a welcome policy to provide new pathways to our teenagers, but more targeted interventions will be needed.
Secondly, and closely related to the first point, is the consistent denial of moral absolutes in our society. It is no longer politically correct to say that families need a strong father figure to give discipline and set an example and that we need to do everything we can to encourage stable families. Instead, as a political class, we have tip-toed around every sensitivity as we fall over ourselves to be inclusive and not make a moral judgement on anyone’s lifestyle. I wonder, of all those who have been perpetrating the violence of recent days, how many have had a stable family life where their father was there at all times and actually cared about where their son or daughter was? I don’t agree with much of what the current US President says but when Barack Obama said, “What makes a man a man is not the ability to have child but to raise one” he was spot on. British society needs to think deeply about what social patterns we incentivise and encourage and to change direction. We were told by the Deputy Prime Minister that David Cameron’s attempts to support marriage were “patronising drivel”. Well, he was wrong and the associated liberal sentiments of “anything goes and it mustn’t be for us to intervene in peoples’ lives” have contributed to a society where everything has become “acceptable”, but to what end? Acceptable it may be for now and we should acknowledge the heroic work of many single parents who do provide a moral compass in the home. But what we have seen in recent days on our streets is not acceptable and any lucid analysis cannot fail to link the long term causes to these events. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that the drift we have seen in society, as the moral compass of our culture flips to the latest tide of sentiment, has consequences, and pretty dire ones looking at the news in recent days.
Finally, we need to acknowledge that there has been a growing chasm developing between those in authority and society at large. My family tell the story of when my policeman grandfather walked down the street in uniform and kids stepped back to let him pass – mindful of his authority in the community. At one time not so long ago police officers, teachers, council leaders, even MPs held a role that commanded respect. It may be that in a 24-hour media culture where every stumble or mistake is magnified we have, drip by drip, eroded the stature of these professions. It may be that in the last category – MPs, that as we lose the influence to define our own laws as power becomes concentrated in the hands of very few or to others in foreign lands, we appear to be without meaningful influence over events that our constituents write to us about. Of course political leadership is not a popularity contest and the current government is doing a lot to face up to the economic mess we have been left. They are doing that with clear resolve and determination – what we need now is clear resolve and determination to once and for all face up to the deeper causes – to restore codes of discipline in our community, tackle the causes of family breakdown, and provide support for the police and teachers so they can do the job we want them to do.