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On Cameron’s BS

In Politics, Society on March 7, 2012 at 3:28 pm

This article was first published by New Left Project on 15 Feb 2012

‘Our challenge to be a young country is not just economic, it is social and moral. Look at ‘the wreckage of our broken society.’ Tony Blair, 1995

‘What is it I am really passionate about? It is actually social recovery as well as economic recovery. I think we need a social recovery, because as I have said lots of times in the past, there are too many parts of our society that are broken.’ David Cameron, 2011

One theory of comedy suggests that punchlines are lent greater potency by the presence of the letter k.  While the now commonly heard epithet, ‘the broken society’ is no punchline, the hard syllable does give it an evocative quality.  And the man who popularised the term was certainly someone who had a talent for coining a catchy phrase – Tony Blair.  The term has become a modern cliché in the UK, used as justification for a variety of political changes and policies, and deserves some background and some analysis. How did Blair use the term, and how has it developed since then?

In 2012, the person we most commonly hear talking about the ‘broken society’ is David Cameron. While it appears he is discussing the same thing, actually he is arguing something quite different from Tony Blair. So do these words carry any meaning as a descriptor, and if they do, is it that which was intended by the speaker? And if society is broken, then how do we fix it?

Blair

In 1993, two year old James Patrick Bulger was tortured and brutally murdered by two ten year old boys on a railtrack in Liverpool.  The story was and is horrific. The subsequent public outcry was understandably hysterical.  How could such a thing happen in a supposedly civil society?

The country had been under Conservative rule for thirteen years, but a new light was emerging in the Labour Party. That year, Tony Blair, then shadow home secretary, had written a pamphlet for the Fabian Society criticising Clause IV of the Labour Manifesto. This was the beginning of the Third Way, New Labour was being born. After the murder, he gave a speech in Wellingborough in which he said, ‘We hear of crimes so horrific they provoke anger and disbelief in equal proportions… These are the ugly manifestations of a society that is becoming unworthy of that name.’

One year later, Blair became leader of the Labour Party and one year after that took up the refrain again at his leader’s speech in Brighton.  He captured the popular mood in describing the country as ‘dying, broken, demoralised Britain.’  He described something that middle class Britain perceived, and in so doing consolidated that picture in its collective imagination, ‘the family weakened, society divided, we see elderly people in fear of crime, children abused, youngsters hanging around street corners with nothing to do…’

How had Britain reached this perceived state of moral decrepitude? Blair had one explanation – ‘I love my country and I hate what the Tories have done to it.  Every promise ever made has been broken – taxes, unemployment, crime, the health service, education…. Imagine for one moment a Tory fifth term Britain.  Would there be a National Health Service? [Audience – NO!] Would there be a free state education system for all? [NO!] Would Mr Redwood be in charge of deciding which single parents get to keep their children? [NO!]’

Near the climax of the speech, he let rip his direct accusation, ‘I know what the people want to say to those Tories: it is no good waving the fabric of our flag when you have spent sixteen years tearing apart the fabric of the nation; tearing apart the bonds that tie communities together and make us a United Kingdom; tearing apart the security of those people.’

In 1987, Margaret Thatcher had said in an interview with Woman’s Own magazine, ‘There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.’ Seemingly in direct response to this, Blair now said, ‘We are not simply people set in isolation from one another, face to face with eternity, but members of the same family, same community, same human race. This is my socialism and the irony of all our long years in opposition is that those values are shared by the vast majority of the British people.’  This quotation is particularly interesting; the first part shows how he disagreed with neo-classical economics. He did not conceive the basic unit of society to be an individual whose behaviour was dictated entirely by self-interest. But the second part also shows that nor did he believe in all that economic guff in socialist theory and practice – socialism was about society. ‘Socialism for me was never about nationalisation or the power of the state, not just about economics or even politics. It is a moral purpose to life, a set of values, a belief in society.’

Part of that morality involved a Kennedy-esque appeal to the electorate.  He spoke of responsibility, ‘Our challenge to be a young country is not just economic, it is social and moral. Look at the wreckage of our broken society… A young country gives rights but it demands responsibilities… Justice for all, responsibility from all.’  Part of his rhetoric involved a nostalgia for the traditional family unit, ‘A young country that wants to be a strong country can not be morally neutral about the family. It is the foundation of any decent society… In every area of policy, we should examine its effect on the family.’

The speech painted a vision of a broken society, but it was not morose or backward-looking.  As the Guardian‘s leader article described it, ‘He told the hall that he loved the party, and the hall told him that the party now feels the same way about him. Mr Blair has learned how to make his party feel good.’ He used the idea of the broken society to create a vacuum into which a new party with a new vision must enter – New Labour. As well as the descriptions of a country ostensibly ravaged by Tory rule, there was also repeated use of the words, ‘young nation,’ ‘a nation reborn,’ ‘a new Britain.’  He said Labour had ‘100,000 new members’ and ‘a huge increase in Young Labour – five times as many in Young Labour than in the Young Conservatives’. It was a party revitalised, so what better party to be the midwife for this rebirth of the nation. ‘New Labour, new Britain, the party renewed, the country reborn.’

And what better person to lead the way than Tony Blair. Supremely confident in his own ability to solve any problem by ‘drilling down’ to the heart of the matter. Supremely confident in his ability to convince others of his solutions. And, as it would prove, supremely confident that his solutions to problems were correct – no matter how many millions of the electorate marched in the street to protest otherwise.

So what did he propose? An increase in health and education budgets, and new ways of thinking about and deploying this funding. Public private partnerships would no longer be taboo for the Labour Party. Of the NHS, he said, ‘Let the internal market that pits hospital against hospital cease.’ In education there would be ‘no return to selection, academic or social’.  We would see more police on the beat. Regarding central government, he planned to ‘sweep away the quango state’. He promised to discard a Tory demand for compulsory identity cards. Finally, he gave his word, ‘The party will carry out in government the programme we provide in our manifesto – nothing more, nothing less.’

Under Labour rule, the electorate saw the NHS being opened up to independent sector treatment centres to create an internal market, faith schools selecting pupils on the basis of religion, a general flourishing of quangos and focus groups and a government push for identity cards.  And of course, the travesty of Iraq despite two million marching in protest against the war. He accused the Tory government of breaking its promises and then went on to do the same himself.

A society that had been told it was broken had also been told by the man it would elect as leader that he had the answers. He delivered a booming economy, a re-energised NHS and unemployment levels just above 5%. (Northern Rock collapsed a few months after he announced his resignation.) But the electorate felt betrayed by the man who had broken his promises.  It felt he had displayed not supreme competence, but supreme arrogance.

By the end of Blair’s reign, I recall it became common at UK hip-hop concerts for acts to start a chant of ‘Fuck Tony Blair! Fuck Tony Blair!’ The audience, largely young men aged fourteen to thirty, would join in enthusiastically and this would go on for several minutes before seamlessly segueing into the next track. I heard no further debate on who or what should replace him. Just a unified desire to ‘fuck’ him.

Cameron

In February 2011, David Cameron set out his vision for the ‘Big Society’. He described ‘economic recovery’ as his ‘duty,’ and ‘social recovery’ as his ‘mission,’ about which he felt passionate because ‘there are too many parts of our society that are broken.’ He cited evidence of a moral nature similar to Blair’s, ‘Whether it is broken families or whether it is some communities breaking down, whether it is the level of crime, the level of gang membership, whether it’s problems of people stuck on welfare, unable to work, whether it’s the sense that some of our public services don’t work for us – we do need a social recovery to mend the broken society.’

The word, ‘responsibility,’ is of even greater importance to Cameron than it was to Blair. In one passage of the February speech, he uses the word three times in three sentences, ‘There’s one word at the heart of all this, and that is responsibility. We need people to take more responsibility. We need people to act more responsibly.’ The lack of responsibility of which he speaks is targeted at a specific socioeconomic group. The speech does not mention the irresponsibility inherent in the causes of the global financial crisis, nor that displayed by those who would gain from the consequences of it.

Tony Blair’s sentinel event was the death of Jamie Bulger. For Cameron, it was the August riots. Once again, the country reached a level of hysteria conducive to the use of the event as a political football. The left blamed the riots on the government’s austerity drive. The right spoke of a culture of irresponsibility and entitlement, a generation bred on welfare, the Human Rights Act and X-Factor.

In Witney, David Cameron spoke of the nation’s ‘slow motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country these past few generations. Irresponsibility. Selfishness. Behaving as if your choices have no consequences. Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort. Crime without punishment. Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control.’ Rather than wait for the evidence on the motivations of the rioters being collected by sociologists at the LSE, he rushed in with his own analysis, ‘I don’t doubt that many of the rioters out last week have no father at home. Perhaps they have come from one of the neighbourhoods where it is standard for children to have a mum and not a dad.’ He goes on, ‘From here on, I want a family test applied to all domestic policy.’ Sound familiar? Sixteen years earlier, Blair had said, ‘In every area of policy, we should examine its effect on the family.’

That Cameron’s rhetoric was insincere demagoguery was belied by his inconsistency. He starts by saying to the House of Commons, ‘The perpetrators of the violence we have seen in our streets are not in any way representative of our country – nor of our young people.’  But in the same speech he uses the riots as representative evidence of a culture without decency, ‘This is not about poverty, it’s about culture. A culture that glorifies violence, shows disrespect to authority and says everything about rights but nothing about responsibilities.’  In the Witney speech, he says, ‘Those thugs do not represent us, nor do they represent our young people.’  He then concludes by contradicting himself, ‘Whatever the arguments, we all belong to the same society and we all have a stake in making it better. There is no them and us, there is us. We are all in this together, and we will mend our broken society together.’ So does that ‘we’ include the rioters or not? What about their supposedly absent parents?

So what is Cameron pushing when he speaks of the broken society? What is the conclusion of the argument for which he is invoking the broken society as ballast?

To the House of Commons, he summarised his response to the riots, ‘There is no one step that can be taken. But we need a benefit system that rewards work and that is on the side of families. We need more discipline in our schools. We need more action to deal with the most disruptive families. And we need a criminal justice system that scores a clear, heavy line between right and wrong. In short, all the action necessary to help mend our broken society.’

Welfare has been at the heart of objections to Tory policy under Cameron. A basic summary of the Welfare Reform Bill is that certain specific benefits will be cut, such as child and housing, as well as a benefits ‘cap’ introduced, while Iain Duncan Smith pushes towards the holy grail of a single benefit, Universal Credit. The Tory argument is that the current system is profitable enough for people to live on welfare without any motivation to find work. It is ‘a system that encourages the worst in people – that incites laziness, that excuses bad behaviour, that erodes self-discipline, that discourages hard work, above all that drains responsibility away from people.’ Therefore, an overall cut in what is offered will create or improve the incentive to work. The attachment of the broken society rhetoric to this argument adds an emotionally charged social and moral counterweight to what is essentially an economic change which will disproportionately affect the worst off in society.

In the Witney speech, Cameron compares the actions of the workless with the actions of those other great demons of our time – the bankers, ‘We talk about moral hazards in our financial system, where banks think they can act recklessly because the state will always bail them out. Well this is moral hazard in our welfare system; people think they can be as irresponsible as they like because the state will always bail them out.’ But the vapidity of the comparison is demonstrated by the lack of any other references to the causes or consequences of the global financial crisis in this speech until the final few words, ‘Moral decline and bad behaviour is not limited to a few of the poorest parts of our society. In the banking crisis, with MPs’ expenses, in the phone hacking scandal, we have seen some of the worst cases of greed, irresponsibility and entitlement. The restoration of responsibility has to cut right across our society.’ This is not followed by spelling out what his actions will be to combat what he sees as immorality is these other areas. Instead it is followed by the aforementioned warm, fuzzy, ‘There is no them and us, there is us.’ We are all in this together, but only some of us need fixing.

Cameron’s concentration on removing the ‘incentives’ that he believes keep people on benefits, focuses the debate on the poor while ignoring the much greater incentives on offer in the financial industry for those who would act without thought for the consequences of their actions.  The idea of blunting this incentive, or allowing the taxpayer to gain from it via a financial transaction tax, seemed so unpalatable to him that he saw fit to withdraw himself and the country from the recent EU treaty over the issue, putting at risk the country’s continued authority in Europe. The idea that such a tax might pay for another incentive to work – a higher minimum wage – is not even entertained.

Is society broken?

Blair described the broken society, and blamed its creation on the previous fifteen years of Tory Rule. Cameron used similar anecdotal evidence to support his description of a society devoid of morality or responsibility, but instead blamed its existence on a culture of entitlement in which the ‘worst aspects of human nature [were] tolerated, indulged – sometimes even incentivised – by a state and its agencies that in parts have become literally de-moralised’.

But is society really broken? To refer to the descriptors which Blair and Cameron cited themselves, Home Office figures from 2010 show that divorces have been on a downward trajectory since 2001, teenage pregnancy rates have remained flat and crime has been falling since 2002. However, the same document also shows that popular perceptions of the level of crime have risen in the same time.

Neither Cameron nor Blair cited the increasing disparity between rich and poor, the homogenisation of wealthy communities and their separation from the less well-off, the stagnation of real wages since the 1970s, even while the economy was booming. While these may not be evidence of a broken society, they could certainly support an image of a divided society.  However, the conclusions to which this evidence would lead would likely differ from the two leaders’.

It is also undeniable that the riots did happen. Children and young adults, largely young men aged fourteen to thirty, did think that it was okay to smash shops and steal things. They threatened people and in some cases actually caused physical harm to them. Why? The studies done by the LSE show that opportunism was a key factor; i.e. Cameron’s description of ‘criminals who’ve taken what they can get’ was not incorrect.  However, in saying, ‘The young people stealing flat screen televisions and burning shops was not about politics or protest, it was about theft,’ he is refusing to countenance any further motivating impulses, allowing him to characterise them as two-dimensional thugs who must be disciplined, rather than humans who must be understood.  If there is a break in society, it appears that he would seek to consolidate it rather than mend it.

The LSE studies showed that the rioters had diverse motivations, but it seems that one key aspect was a generalised cry of rage against a pervasive sense of injustice – increases in student tuition fees, removal of education maintenance allowances, police stop and search procedures and of course, the spark that set it off, the death at the hands of the Metropolitan Police of Mark Duggan. Why did these young people feel that an appropriate way of expressing this rage was through property destruction, theft and in some cases, violence?

Could it be that ‘appropriate’ has nothing to do with it, and ‘opportunity’ has everything to do with it? The words of Martin Luther King have become hackneyed over the past few months, but I must indulge them again ‘The riot is the language of the unheard.’ Is this not an amplification of the chant, ‘Fuck Tony Blair! Fuck Tony Blair!’

This is a generation (of which I am part) which feels let down by politicians, uninspired by politics. But not in the slightest apathetic to the state of society, the country or the world. It protested in its millions against war in Iraq, but the government it had elected did not listen. It protested in its thousands against the increase of tuition fees, but the government it had elected did not listen. The Liberal Democrat Party, which owed a large share of its votes to students and young people, broke its own manifesto promise to support the increase. It protested in its hundreds of thousands against the government’s cuts to public services and against top-down NHS reforms that had been explicitly ruled out in the Tory manifesto. The government it had elected did not listen.

This is a generation that has witnessed the entire Parliamentary establishment become engulfed in an expenses scandal, seen a major newspaper collapse after its criminal practices were exposed, watched helplessly as the economy floundered after a crisis caused by irresponsible practices which David Cameron still baulks at  de-incentivising. We’ve listened to him tell us ‘we’re all in this together’ while he hobnobs with a coterie of Chipping Norton neighbours with a seemingly stentorian influence over him of which we can only dream. In our most recent efforts to be heard outside St Paul’s Cathedral, as part of the international Occupy movement, to create a new model of direct democracy, he told us our efforts were ‘not particularly constructive’.

The basis of representative democracy was and is accountability at election time, an accountability that assumes and depends on reliable, accurate information regarding what the government has done, what it is doing and what it aims to do. All of this has become suspect.

Voter turnout in 1992 was 78%. By 2001, it had fallen to 59%. While there has been a slight increase since then, the 2010 turnout was still languishing at 65%. Labour party membership has fallen from a peak of 405,000 in 1992 to 166,000 in 2008. Conservative Party membership has fallen in the same time period from 500,000 to 250,000, Liberal Democrats from 101,000 to 60,000. The numbers of people who perceived a great difference between the parties fell from 56% in 1992 to 23% in 2010. The numbers who saw not much difference rose from 12% to 34%. The numbers of people who thought it was not really worth voting rose from 8% in 1991 to 18% in 2010. This is a generation that feels representative democracy, dominated by an elite of professional politicians, is not working. And the less we engage with it, the less representative it becomes.

So what will this generation do to be heard? What must it do?

The hard syllable poetry of those who govern us is a sophistic nonsense. The ‘broken society’ has been an argument for ‘muscular liberalism’ of various kinds, but the electorate has submitted to neither what it expected, nor what it wanted. The broken society may be a misrepresentation, a malleable tool used in myriad ways by a congeries of elite players of the political game. It may be BS. But at heart it is not a myth. Society is divided and our version of democracy is embodying its most important division – between the powerful and the powerless. The ‘broken society’ is an incitement to renew our democracy, to obliterate the distance between us and them, rich and poor, workers and workless, governing and governed. We must speak, shout and scream if necessary. And we must listen to ourselves speak, shout and scream. We must hear. And we must be heard.

This article was first published by New Left Project on 15 Feb 2012 at http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/david_camerons_bs

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