Effectively, the analysis of the riot is starting to fall into these two camps. It is either because they don’t have enough HD TVs, or too many. It is either because they had too much money from benefits, or not enough. The united outrage of the immediate aftermath is passing and increasingly divides came be seen in the views of columnists, politicians and the chattering classes.
Obviously, the true cause of the riots is a mixture of many things. However more important than the cause, although the cause is vitally important, is what do we do now?
All seem to agree that something needs to be done, but no one personally wants to do anything. The simple truth is that the British “moral middle” has long gone, badly wounded by commercialism of the Thatcher years and disillusioned by Blair years. People are concerned about the disaffected young unemployed working class, but they ask “What is in it for me, why should I bother?”
They already feel over taxed, having handed over their pay under the Blair/Brown years to pay for massive social spending and they still don’t feel that they are getting anything for all that spending. Either because of Murdoch or the Guardian (depending on your political persuasions) the country is going to the dogs. Why should they bother, what do they owe society, haven’t they given enough already?
The 500 people who cleaned up Clapham should be appalled, but the fact that 500 was all that could be mustered is a sign of the scale of the problem, not a cause for celebration. It is not only that those that rioted do not feel part of society, increasingly middle England doesn’t feel part of society either.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his work “The Social Contract” made clear that the basis of a modern society must be a “civil religion”. This religion would provide the glue that would bind society together, unifying communities around a common purpose.
The destruction of Christianity as a unifying force under the weight of scientific advance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, coupled with the self-destruction of belief in the “nation” during two world wars has left our modern societies with no glue to hold them together.
Few feel that they are part of something that they are obliged to sacrifice for, even fewer feels that they have a duty to contribute beyond merely paying taxes in return for services. So how can we expect to reverse the breakdown that we have seen, if people do not feel that they owe an obligation to wider society?
The idea of a “civil religion” is not new, and the Big Society is in itself an attempt to find a new way of binding society together through common values and a sense of creating something bigger them ourselves. Steve Hilton even briefly (in the patriotic haze post-Royal Wedding) thought about running a campaign about putting the “Great” back into “Great Britain”.
While that is not enough, it is at least an effort to try and create a new sense of patriotism which could bind the country together. Human rights, liberal values and the rule of law are simply not enough – the past thirteen years have proved that people need something much more emotional and personal than that.
And this is where politicians need to focus their attention. What is going to bind our country together? What is going to create the sense of shared endeavour? This is what should be keeping the Prime Minister and the Cabinet up at night, not the deficit.
Because for all the talk about the deficit, even if we are successful in rebalancing our economy, what good is it if society has broken down?
The rebuilding of a “moral middle” is the key to the future – and an area which politicians have ignored because it forces them to confront their key electorate. However this is where we can really see change.
David Cameron has the political capital at present to lead, to ask the hard questions and to give his Government and the country a new sense of purpose. I hope that he takes this opportunity – as Iain Duncan Smith said, we really are in the last chance saloon.