Cameron's London riots speech raises British ire

Prime Minister David Cameron's speech yesterday about the roots of last week's riots had no shortage of critics.

Alastair Grant/AP
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron speaks at a youth center in Witney, his Parliamentary district in southern England, Monday, Aug. 15. In his speech yesterday, Cameron called London rioters the product of dysfunctional families.

A day after Prime Minister David Cameron called London rioters the product of dysfunctional families, the British press has seared Mr. Cameron for his speech on the riots, saying he is seeking political gain while not grasping the roots of last week's violence.

Prime Minister Cameron "denied that racial tensions, poverty, or his government's controversial austerity cuts were to blame. He claimed there were around 120,000 problem families in Britain who had little respect for authority, singling out boys raised without a male role model as especially prone to 'rage and anger'," The Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday.

“These riots were not about race: The perpetrators and the victims were white, black, and Asian. These riots were not about government cuts: They were directed at high street stores, not Parliament," said the Conservative prime minister. “And these riots were not about poverty: That insults the millions of people who, whatever the hardship, would never dream of making others suffer like this.

“No, this was about people showing indifference to right and wrong, people with a twisted moral code, people with a complete absence of self-restraint,” he said.

In the past 24 hours, opinion writers have weighed in.

The Telegraph's editorial board wrote that while Cameron's speech mentioned the areas that need to be addressed, it lacked specific recommendations and showed little understanding of what could be done to turn the "broken society" around.

One headline said that the Prime Minister was laying out plans to “fix society”, and that rather captured the all-embracing nature of his ambition – as well as its scatter-gun impracticality. For example, Mr Cameron said that the problem of police officers being snowed under by bureaucracy “will be fixed by completely changing the way the police work”.

More immediately pressing, however, is the need to deal with the levels of criminality that we saw last week. Two thirds of those convicted of looting had previous convictions – testimony to the failings of the criminal justice system. The Prime Minister said that he was determined to “sort it out”, but did not explain how.

Across the board, Cameron critics accused him of political expediency and of being unable to understand those not from his same socioeconomic background. Guardian social affairs editor Randeep Ramesh said he was "seeking opportunity in a moment of crisis."

The prime minister sought to identify "deeper problems" and came up with a sociological canard: the culture of poverty.

This analysis is one that regards the chaotic lives of poor people as cause, not symptom, of the collapse of their communities. For the prime minister, these families and their children simply chose to be feckless, indolent or on the wrong side of police lines.

Such talk will do much to harden public attitudes – helpful to a prime minister who wants to push draconian social policy through the Lords in the autumn. The rhetoric will profit the contentious welfare reforms, a policy built on the idea that poor people are "culturally" unique and dependent on welfare by their own design.

Guardian columnist Anne Perkins framed Cameron's speech as an attempt to change the public's understanding of the violence and bring them on board with the Conservative Party's agenda.

It was less about the speeches themselves than the underlying contest for how the riots are understood. For Cameron, they need to be seen as a question of personal responsibility and personal morality. That way he can repackage the broken society. Moral rearmament pleases his long-standing critics on the right and feeds into his broader programme of welfare and educational reform. It also gives him an opportunity to sharpen the message: that, for example, the welfare state denies moral hazard.

Cameron is credited with putting a kinder face on the Conservative Party, but after yesterday's speech – in which he brought up the Human Rights Act, the health and safety culture, and "120,000 dysfunctional families" as causes of society's problems – "the nasty party is making a comeback," Perkins argued.

Indeed, Guardian columnist John Harris said Cameron sounded more like Margaret Thatcher than the progressive that he used to portray himself as. "Cameron was meant to be slightly different," Mr. Harris said. The old Cameron would have acknowledged the connections between "deprivation, and crime, disorder, and family dysfunction," Mr. Harris writes.

There is masses of this stuff in the archives: as late as November 2009 he was paying tribute to Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's The Spirit Level, and saying things like this: "There's a massive difference between a system that allows fair reward for talent, effort and enterprise, and a system that keeps millions of people at the bottom locked out of the success enjoyed by the mainstream." He was talking about modern Britain. What happened?

Today he sounded cold, cynical, and occasionally quite odd. How did he end up making no reference to youth unemployment but decrying the Human Rights Act and that hoary old Aunt Sally, health and safety culture?

The riots of the 1980s bear many similarities to last week's riots, he said. "Then, as now, there was a spasm of over-the-top sentencing and political rhetoric accompanied by a rising sense that something in society was very wrong, which too many people at the top failed to grasp."

Margaret Thatcher's response engendered little admiration – "Not for the first time, she was unable to strike the right note when a broad sense of social understanding was required," The Times wrote. Its judgment of Ms. Thatcher's response could have just as easily described Cameron yesterday, Harris wrote.

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