A section of the media, in particular The Guardian and The Independent had caught a section of the Conservatives gloating. Were the riots an inevitable offspring of David Cameron’s 'broken society'? The morning after rioting had subsided Cameron stood sullen in the presence of gathering microphones and cameras, his skin still glinting of the Tuscan sun. I turned off the sound on my little television set and tried to recall the first few verses from a Rudyard Kipling poem.
IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Politics is a waiting game. The nature of democratic politics lies in the art of making the impossible possible. The possibility of achieving the impossible is the ultimate lure for the egotist entering this arena. Yet, this impossibility could only be possible under the right conditions and with a degree of persuasion. The cynic would call it coercion. Dictatorships reek of the bitter pungency of forced imposition. The cynic would add that there is no need for even the subliminal coercion through propaganda when at the height of one’s political power, whether for a dictator or Blair.
I am not a cynic but a student of the human condition. There is no room for doubt in conservatism. Arguably, the London rioters have vindicated Mr Cameron’s assessment of the nature of man. Man meanders through a constant flux of aggression and self-interest. This lawlessness or ‘state of nature’ is nothing to be frowned upon yet it necessitates control. The early modern answer to this state of nature with the state still at its infancy, gesticulating through dictatorial monarchs, required the likes of Thomas Hobbes to argue for an absolute sovereign. To realise the potential of possible freedom within human society there needed to be a limit to the extent of that very freedom. Hobbes thought of it not as constriction but as ‘self-interested cooperation’ that could be achieved through a ‘social contract’ between the state and its citizens.
But Hobbes’ assessment of human nature is uncannily pessimistic. Perhaps, this pessimism could be attributed to the chaotic years of the English Civil War with the King and Parliament wrestling for absolute power. The notion of popular power propelling the state into the modern phenomenon that it is today was centuries away. Yet, the carcass that we have inherited today from those early notions of the political state contains the basic tenets of Hobbes’ social contract. The citizen as a member of civil society remains free to act in a way that is not forbidden by law. The sovereign state protects its citizens by limiting freedom when it comes to the forbidden. In three hundred years of Political Philosophy, protection and freedom have fallen in love, consummated, wedded, argued, separated and finally divorced. That is the state we are in.
David Cameron is of course not a direct philosophical descendant of Hobbes. Modern Conservatism has its roots in 18th century Whig politician and philosopher Edmund Burke’s idea that property is essential to human life. This singular conviction instills a necessary desire in people to be ruled and controlled. Burke anticipated that social changes brought about by the possession of property as the natural order of events should be taking place as the human race progressed. The division of property naturally leads to a convenient but altogether natural class system. This forms a social agreement and the setting of persons into different classes is the mutual benefit of all subjects.
What was a mere anticipation for Burke had led to a different reality centuries later. Burke understood conflict but seemed to have had little interest in the possibility of class conflict. Not all men are aggressive but some are so because of a ‘moral decline’ rather than any basic sense of inequality in society.
August had been a chance to shine for former and incumbent prime ministers. Tony Blair, an unlikely defendant of the chaviosa had been countering Cameron by stating that the riots should not be blamed on 'moral decline'.
What is this state that we are in? It would appear that our politicians are omniscient as well as possessing all the other qualities that hoist them into high offices of state. If politics is a waiting game laws are usually passed to reflect what had gone on before. After all, what is the point of burdening the statute books if there is no social need for a piece of legislation? The very nature of democracy is such that popular power can only come from populist laws, which more often than not, end up being short term containment and appeasement rather than dealing with the real symptoms of the disease. Politics is all that Kipling, inadvertently, warned us of,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:
Cameron's assessment of the broken society would at once seem different from what Blair had countered. Yet the moral stance is identical. Blair had affirmed his centre ground political stance once again; the 'left's reasoning for the riot is apparently concentrating on social depravity whereas the right is falling on the age old argument over a lack of personal responsibility'. Has Blair identified the real reasons for rioting? There is a 'group of alienated, disaffected youth who are outside the social mainstream and who live in a culture at odds with any canons of proper behaviour.' The former prime minister consoles us in stating 'that sort of improper behaviour is not endemic to British society but is common in the majority of developed western nations'.
Realpolitik always ignored what politics should really be about,
If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
The casual commentator, whether left leaning or right-wing might not question the veracity of Blair's assessment. I believe that David Cameron had identified the very same yet much of his real concern had been lost somewhere in between the machinery of press briefings and news conferences.
So if we have identified the perpetrators and highlighted the reasons for riots, surely, this is time to learn our lessons from the rioters and not take advantage of a situation to hand out instant justice. Instant justice smacks of instant rioting.
The right had been calling for more visible police presence for years. Yet the cuts in police budget, in real terms, would undermine that very demand. The Conservative led coalition seem to have concluded that increased police presence in our streets would be preventing future riots. The same argument had been used when CCTV cameras first reared their ugly grey heads, beady eyed, watching our each movement in town centres across the land. The effect of increased police presence certainly reassure many residents, however, such presence often shift the crime scene to where there are no cameras or uniformed police standing guard. More importantly, CCTV cameras do not prevent crime and even their usefulness as an investigative tool could have been questioned until the rioters were caught on camera.
Democracy, when based on popular power can stifle the fringes. Popular voice resonate through the mirrored walls of Versailles and the echoes drown out the squealing insects caught up in the cobwebs around the thin joints between those polished mirrors. Yet it is the fringes that colourfully define the state we are in and remind us of the necessary truths however unpleasant those truth might be.
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:
So what of the angry alienated youth and his morally declined rioting ways? Instant justice had been demanded by a hysterical right-wing. Magistrates had processed criminal cases one after another like a supermarket checkout. It is that very term processed I find so distressing. The purpose of the justice system is not to process criminals but to provide an impartial platform for defendants to argue their case in light of clear evidence linking them to a crime. Public opinion has no place in the execution of justice although, it does unfortunately play a major part in its conception. This is the primary model of social contract based on popular democracy that had upheld the modern political state since Bastille.
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!
Almost two decades ago the Rodney King riots in the US had a racial origin. The London riots might have started out as a protest by the Afro-Caribbean community around Tottenham against the police treatment of young black men, however, the criminal looting carried no echoes of civil rights movements from the past. The disturbance followed a trend all too known to the basest instinct in human nature, opportunistic greed. The civilised and environmentally conscious world we live in has no time for historical references. Julius Caesar, the Roman conqueror turned dictator called Rome the mob. Rome had always been the mob. In each mob there is the potential for senility. Public gatherings are the first to be banned by dictators in times of political unrest because the mob could turn violent at any moment. The equivalent in Britain would be the fees protest gatherings in the winter of 2010 as well as G20 protests. In both instances we witnessed how little provocation is required for events to turn nasty. Only the supremely charismatic leader, the likes of Mahatma Ghandi in colonial India or Nelson Mandela is South Africa could exercise a minor degree of control upon such mobs. The rest are doomed.
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
' Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!
Is it moral depravity or criminal intent that drives the modern man? Neither. Not all of us are men. We could not be men ignoring the abject social conditions that we live through.
Acknowledgement: © TTR