Cameron marooned as 'Big Society' goes up in smoke

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron says the “fight-back” has begun. But the mayhem that has swept over London and other cities in recent days has left some Britons wondering what – if anything – the government can actually do for them.


As he flew off to Tuscany for a summer break less than a fortnight ago, British Prime Minister Cameron could justifiably have thought that he had weathered the worst of a rotten summer.

The British public had swallowed plans for the steepest spending cuts in recent history without budging, student protests against rising tuition fees had – for the time being – abated, and a sprawling phone-hacking scandal that had prompted calls for Cameron’s resignation had seemingly died down.

But less than a week later, the British prime minister rushed home to find that his government’s widely touted credentials on crime prevention had been ridiculed and that his cherished project of a “Big Society” – an ambitious and ill-defined concept to return power from the state to the people – lay in tatters.

Discipline and punish

Since his anticipated return on Tuesday, Cameron has adopted a tough stance on the riots that have swept across urban areas in England, warning vandals and looters that they would “feel the full force of the law”.

On Wednesday, the prime minister sought to reassure Britons that police forces would stamp out the violence, which for several days saw hooded youths loot shops and burn buildings in total impunity. “Whatever resources the police need to restore order, they will get; whatever tactic they deem necessary, they will have legal backing for,” Cameron said.

The prime minister also sought to dismiss claims that the riots may have been provoked by unpopular government policies, namely the recently announced budget cuts that are set to slash funding for community groups in poor areas of Britain. The riots underscored “as much a moral problem as a political one”, Cameron told media reporters gathered outside Downing Street.

“There are pockets of our society that are not only broken, but plainly sick,” Cameron said, identifying “a lack of responsibility among certain youths” as the “root cause” of the current unrest.

Asked what might be done to cure the “sickness”, Cameron stressed the importance of “parenting, discipline in schools, and a welfare state that doesn’t reward idleness”.

The prime minister said he would unveil measures to rebuild businesses and communities on Thursday during a debate with lawmakers, who have been called back from summer recess for an extraordinary session of Parliament.

Broken society

Cameron’s renewed emphasis on morality harked back to his flagship “Big Society” project, which he launched amid much fanfare at the start of his term in office.

Seeking a new vision for Britain after more than a decade of New Labour rule, Cameron had heralded the advent of a “Big Society” made possible by a “small government”. Yet, the riots that have set English cities ablaze in recent days have served as a painful reminder that the country’s disenfranchised youths feel excluded from the first and abandoned by the second.

“Cameron’s big society is a failure,” said Ben Maloney of Movement for Change, a community group sponsored by the opposition Labour Party. In an interview with FRANCE 24, Maloney described Cameron’s pet project as little more than “a PR move designed to paper over the cracks in government spending”.

Maloney said the government’s sweeping budget cuts, which are yet to be implemented, would starve community centres in poor neighbourhoods of cash, forcing them to shut down and leaving unemployed youths with little to do except indulge in drugs, crime and anti-social behaviour.

His words echoed the stiff criticism expressed by former London mayor Ken Livingston, who described the riots as an unleashing of pent-up resentment over the economy, unemployment and steep budget cuts.

Responding to the critics, ministers have described attempts to link the riots to the government’s austerity drive as “opportunistic” and “sickening”.

‘Katrina moment’

Criticism of the ruling Conservative Party has also revolved around claims senior leaders were slow to react to the crisis.

Both Cameron and London mayor Boris Johnson, who was heckled by Londoners on Tuesday, have come under criticism from members of their own party for delaying their return from holiday. Analysts said this could be the London mayor’s “Katrina moment”, referring to the devastating hurricane that hit the US state of Louisiana in 2005 and to which President George W. Bush was notoriously slow to react.

In a sign of growing tension within the Conservative camp, Johnson fired his own salvo by criticising government plans to cut funding for police, a move later defended by the interior minister, Theresa May.

The Conservatives were not the only ones to endure the public’s wrath. The deputy prime minister, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, was also booed by angry crowds in Birmingham on Tuesday.

As the simmering discontent surfaces, some observers have pointed to a growing sense among Britons that politicians – or, indeed, the police – could do little to help them.

Government impotence

Like other countries across Europe and North America, the British government has looked largely impotent in the face of recession, market crashes and surging unemployment. This time it has appeared powerless to bring order to the streets of Britain.

Amid all the tough rhetoric about law and order, ministers have quietly acknowledged that “flash riots” organised on the Blackberry Messenger service, whose encrypted messages have emerged as a favourite tool for rioters, are almost impossible to control.

As Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland put it on Wednesday, “there are many who – while agreeing that David Cameron and Boris Johnson needed to return, if only for appearance’s sake, – harbour doubts as to how much difference the politicians will really make”.

But Ben Maloney of Movement for Change says there is still a great deal government can do.

“The riots betray an underlying feeling that communities are being ignored,” Maloney explained, adding that politicians urgently needed to be more engaged with local communities.

The first step, Maloney said, will be to understand what caused the riots. Was it the surging unemployment, or the growing gap in wealth between rich and poor? Or was it the sense that the government is no longer interested in the plight of Britain’s “underclass”?

“Unless we figure out what has gone wrong,” he said, “this is bound to happen again.”

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