Witney: Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday promised a law and order “fightback” and robust action to mend what he called Britain’s broken society after riots and looting last week shocked Britons and tarnished its reputation abroad.
In a speech full of tough language likely to please his traditional Conservative supporters, Cameron vowed more “no-nonsense policing” and tougher sentencing to tackle gang culture and known troublemakers, and said he would to do more to promote families, boost discipline in schools, and encourage hard work.
“We have been too unwilling for too long to talk about what is right and wrong,” Cameron said in a speech at a youth centre in his affluent southern constituency of Witney, near Oxford.
Behind him, the wall bore a graffiti-style mural centred on characters wearing the kind of hoods and masks associated with those widely seen on television ransacking shops last week.
More than 2,800 people have been arrested since a protest over a fatal shooting by police on 4 August prompted rioting and looting in the poor north London area of Tottenham. That spread across the capital and sparked violence in other English cities.
Cameron, who returned from holiday abroad last week after days of unrest, is seeking to tap into widespread public anger over the protests. They came 15 months after he took office at the head of a centre-right coalition committed to cuts in welfare and other spending that critics say will hit the poor.
“This has been a wake-up call for our country. Social problems that have been festering for decades have exploded in our face,” said Cameron, who also faces criticism for plans to cut police spending and for his management of the crisis.
“Now, just as people wanted criminals robustly confronted on our street, so they want to see these problems taken on and defeated. Our security fightback must be matched by a social fightback.”
The stakes are high for Cameron. Any repeat of last week’s lawlessness, in which shops were smashed up and set on fire and five people were killed in related violence, will sap public confidence in his government.
However, analysts say Cameron, a 44-year-old former public relations executive from a wealthy establishment background, could benefit politically if he provides the tough law and order response some voters are seeking.
Cameron has taken a hard line in rhetoric. His speech on Monday talked of the dangers of indiscipline in schools and family breakdown, succour to traditional Conservatives who feel their young leader has been too liberal on social issues.
No extra cash
Cameron and his centre-left Liberal Democrat coalition partners will review their programme over the coming weeks, looking at issues like welfare and substance addiction in an effort to promote more stable communities.
But the prime minister has ruled out easing spending cuts which some left-wing critics say are fuelling tensions in Britain’s cities, where the divide between rich and poor is gaping.
Planned austerity has put Cameron on a collision course with the police, still smarting over his criticism of their initial response to the riots. Police chiefs say a 20% cut in their budget over the next four years will make it harder for them to maintain law and order.
Cameron believes that jittery financial markets will take fright at the first sign of backtracking on plans to erase by 2015 a budget deficit that peaked at over 10 % of national output.
“Yes, we have had an economic crisis to deal with, clearing up the terrible mess we inherited, and we are not out of those woods yet -- not by a long way,” Cameron said, referring to his centre-left Labour predecessors.
“But ... the reason I am in politics is to build a bigger, stronger society.”
At Witney Ecumenical Youth Trust, where Cameron gave his speech, young people stressed the importance of organisations like theirs -- a charity which relies on donations and which almost closed a few months ago.
They fear government cuts, which have meant local councils cutting back on services like youth centres and care for the elderly, could exacerbate social problems.
“If they try to close this place down, there will be a riot,” said 19-year-old Jesse Day, who felt the Trust’s facilities had helped keep him out of prison. “I would have been banged up by now if it wasn’t for them. It’s my family.”
Opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband said the government had to help young people who felt they would face tougher lives than their parents or grandparents.
“Are issues like education and skills, youth services, youth unemployment, important for diverting people away from gangs, criminality, the wrong path? Yes. They matter,” Miliband said in a speech at the London state school where he was educated.
Miliband said a lack of morality was not confined to a “feral underclass” but had also been displayed by risk-taking bankers, legislators who fiddled their expenses and newspaper reporters who hacked into telephones for stories -- all major topics of debate in Britain in the past couple of years.
“When we talk about the sick behaviour of those without power, let’s also talk about the sick behaviour of those with it,” he said.
It was a line echoed by Cameron. Politicians are conscious that voters, disillusioned by what many see as a failure to punish bankers they hold responsible for the financial crisis, could take unkindly to being lectured by politicians, many of whom were also embroiled in a 2009 expenses abuse scandal.
Cynicism towards those in power has been further fuelled by a phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World newspaper, which exposed a cosy relationship between British politicians, the press and police.
In Witney, another 19-year-old Georgia Hayes, was not convinced Cameron had got the message about opposition to cuts:
“He’s there on TV trying to make himself big and beautiful,” she said. “Bring the youth centres back. Stop the cuts. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer.
“He should think about other people for once.”