David Cameron’s entire career in politics, as the man who converted the “nasty” Conservative party to the squishy “nice” party, I have consistently dismissed any conservative rhetoric coming from him—particularly his tough-sounding
in the wake of the British riots—as meaningless PR. However, his denunciations of Britain’s ruling leftist social and moral ethos as the cause of the anarchy released in the riots have become so comprehensive (leaving aside matters of race and immigration, of course) that one can no longer simply dismiss them. An
has quotations from Cameron’s recent remarks which seem to represent a reversal of everything he has stood for or countenanced in the past, and a repudiation of the existing system. For example:
We can’t know if he means any of it. He probably doesn’t. But the fact that he’s even saying these things seems extraordinary. At the least, he sounds like a liberal who has been mugged by reality.
After Riots, British Leaders Offer Divergent Proposals
By JOHN F. BURNS and ALAN COWELL
LONDON—With neighborhoods across a wide array of English cities and towns still resounding with the clamor of cleanup crews and with police reinforcements cautiously drawing down, Britain’s top two politicians ventured Monday into a political landscape profoundly altered by last week’s rioting and offered competing prescriptions that seemed to rupture an uneasy consensus that has prevailed in British politics for a generation.
Radically different speeches by Prime Minister David Cameron and Ed Miliband, the leaders of the Conservative and Labour Parties, appeared to set the stage for the kind of gloves-off, left-versus-right politics Britain has not seen since Margaret Thatcher’s heyday in the 1980s. Both in their early 40s and both previously characterized by cautious efforts to command the center, the two men signaled that the riots had girded each of them for a new battle that could determine Britain’s future for years.
Mr. Cameron promised an uncompromising across-the-board reworking of the social policies he blamed for “the slow-motion moral collapse” across Britain in recent generations, while Mr. Miliband assailed the government’s punitive approach, saying “tough action against gangs” and other steps favored by Mr. Cameron needed to be complemented by action to “show young people there’s another way.”
The mood was captured by a headline for a column on the left-of-center Guardian newspaper Web site, proclaiming that Mr. Cameron’s effort had heralded “the return of the nasty party,” meaning the Conservatives of the 1980s and 1990s. Conservative-supporting columnists responded in kind, saying Mr. Cameron had at last spoken up for a majority in Britain, addressing moral issues too long avoided by politicians.
“Social problems that have been festering for decades have exploded in our face,” Mr. Cameron said in a speech in his home constituency in rural Oxfordshire. “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. Some of the worst aspects of human nature tolerated, indulged, sometimes even incentivized, by a state and its agencies that in parts have become literally de-moralized.”
The “responsible majority” of Britons, he said, were “crying out for their government” to confront these issues. Accordingly, he said, his government would set out over coming weeks to “review every aspect” of social policy. “On schools, welfare, families, parenting, addiction, communities, on the cultural, legal, bureaucratic problems in our society, too; from the twisting and misrepresenting of human rights that has undermined personal responsibility to the obsession with health and safety that has eroded people’s willingness to act according to common sense.”
Mr. Miliband spoke at his boyhood school in north London, a state school in a working-class neighborhood, as if to accentuate his differences with Mr. Cameron, who had attended the exclusive Eton College. He spoke derisively of the prime minister having chosen the “easy and predictable path” by blaming “criminality, pure and simple,” words Mr. Cameron used at the height of the looting and pillaging, and condemning him for suggesting, in reply to those who pointed to social deprivation as the cause of the disorder, “that to explain is to excuse.”
The speech took more direct aim at Mr. Cameron and his top ministers, who have announced an array of tough new measures to deal with the rioters and encouraged the courts to hand out stiff jail terms. “A new policy a day, knee-jerk gimmicks rushed out without real thought, will not solve the problem,” Mr. Miliband said. “We’ve heard it all in the last few days. Water cannon. Supercops. A daily door knock for gangs. And today, more gimmicks.”
Mr. Miliband called for a “national conversation” on the causes of the riots that would “give people a chance for their voices and views to be heard.” While the government has set out plans to evict rioters and their families from state-subsidized housing and to strip convicted rioters of welfare benefits, Mr. Miliband said weaning young wrongdoers from crime was “harder when support is being taken away.”
The implications for British politics were far reaching. Mr. Miliband was staking out ground that has strong support on the left wing of his party, if less among an older, traditionalist Labour bloc as incensed in many ways by the rioting as traditionalist Conservatives. Many of those who work with underprivileged youths have also spoken strongly against the kind of retributive measures Mr. Cameron and his ministers have advocated, and they have pressed for the continuation of the redemptive social policies that have prevailed for decades.
They have spoken out strongly, too, against round-the-clock courts that have been in session in London and other cities, sending 60 percent of the 2,500 people arrested in the riots to jail pending trial. The national average for those jailed while awaiting trial for criminal offenses was 10 percent before the riots. The courts have also handed down harsh jail terms even to the lesser offenders, including a five-month sentence in London to a 22-year-old single mother of two who was given a pair of shorts by a friend who had looted a local store.
But for Mr. Cameron, another political calculus was at work. He spoke of his determination to break with the conventions that have governed mainstream politics since the demise of Mrs. Thatcher’s my-way-or-the-highway approach in 1990, when she resigned. “We have been unwilling for too long to talk about what is right and what is wrong,” he said. “We have too often avoided saying what needs to be said, about everything from marriage to welfare to common courtesy.” But now, he said, “the party’s over.”
The prime minister’s new hard-line approach is not likely to sit well with the junior partners in his coalition government, the left-of-center Liberal Democrats, who have been increasingly restive about the impact of the harsh public-spending cuts demanded by the Conservatives. If they were to quit the government, that could force a new general election.
But with opinion polls since the riots showing strong support for a law-and-order crackdown, and support for the Liberal Democrats at a nearly historic low, Mr. Cameron may calculate that they have little choice but to stay with the Conservatives, bowing at least part way to Mr. Cameron’s new right-of-center impulses.