The House of Commons was rather more packed than I expected to hear the Prime Minister’s emergency statement on the riots. I think David Cameron struck broadly the right tone. A mixture of outrage, reassurance, promises of help for the victims, an intention to bring the looters to justice and recognition that crime has to be seen in a social context.
The Leader of the Opposition made a consensus building response and then MPs questioned the PM for nearly three hours, with about 160 short contributions. The best contributions were from MPs whose constituencies had actually experienced violent disorder. David Lammy (Tottenham) and Hazel Blears (Salford) were particularly good. Some of the point scoring questions (from either side) from MPs representing seats that had not seen trouble, we could have done without. But generally it was a good House of Commons occasion and it was right for Parliament to reassemble to debate the issue that concerns every one of our constituents, on which there are a huge variety of views out there.
MPs have to bob up and down to catch the Speaker’s eye and he got through Members from many other parts of the country before he got to me, about an hour into proceedings. The art of these occasions is to juggle in your mind many different questions or permutations of the same question and hope that they’ve not all been snatched by others when you’re called. I am particularly interested in the social divisions in modern Britain so was relieved most MPs concentrated on the criminal behaviour and its consequences.
The PM’s final point had been about “tackling the deeper problems”, saying that “responsibility for crime always lies with the criminal. But crime has a context. And we must not shy away from it.” He went on to talk about children not knowing the difference between right and wrong and a society that “glorifies violence, shows disrespect to authority, and says everything about rights but nothing about responsibilities.”
I entirely agree with him. But there is another context. I think 95% of society work hard and try to do their best for themselves, their families and their community. But at either end of the social scale we have people who do not seem to have a stake in wider society, or at least behave without regard for the effect it has on the rest of us. And they are the super rich as well as the dirt poor.
So after mentioning that Bristol West has experienced violent disorder in April as well as this week and praising the Prime Minister’s strong words I asked, “in dealing with the deeper issues in society, does he agree that people who feel themselves marginalised from society are much more likely to first listen to and then respect those strong words if people at the other end of the social spectrum not just in the board room, as the Leader of the Opposition said, but rather more popular people in society do not display such venal and conspicuous consumption behaviour that sets such a bad example for people who are following them?”
Who do I have in mind? Well, senior bankers and other City types certainly spring to mind. A common complaint I hear is that the “bankers have got away with it” – they continue to enjoy a lavish lifestyle despite the widespread criticism of their reckless behaviour that caused the credit crunch. They are hated by some and derided by many for their lack of contrition or willingness to change their ways and set a good example.
But far more likely to be in the minds of the people who looted are people who are also super rich but popular, not derided. And here we have a galaxy of stars, ranging from Premier League football players to TV celebrities. Many of them are paid more than bankers. Many of them are “tax dodgers”. Our tabloids and celeb magazines are plastered with stories about their lavish lifestyles, luxury houses, fast cars and scandal ridden antics in exclusive clubs or the bedroom.
If people at the bottom of the social pile are to be exhorted to behave and conform then that message should ring loud and clear in the ears of the social elites too. At this time everyone should take a good look at themselves and ask whether they are a contributor or a drain on society. Do we set an example that would be good for others to follow? Do we take responsibility or do we act with impunity?
This is about whether we have a moral compass. Some people need to be taught what it is. Some need to rediscover it. I know that solving society’s ills is rather more complicated and multi-faceted. But laying down some base values about working hard, getting your just rewards, setting a good example for others and being a positive contributor to society are good places to start.