David Cameron’s most memorable contribution to yesterday’s parliamentary debate was a false dichotomy. “This is not about poverty, it’s about culture,” he said. In fact, as I argued yesterday, it it is both.
It’s a point that Ed Miliband made well on the Today programme this morning: “Is it culture or is it poverty and lack of opportunity? It is probably both.” This should be strong territory for Miliband. Peter Oborne’s widely praised column (“The moral decay of our society is as bad at the top as the bottom”) merely made the point that the Labour leader has been making for months, namely that the current disorder is symptomatic of a lack of responsibility at the top and at the bottom of British society.
Miliband said this morning: “It is about irresponsibility wherever we find it in our society. We’ve seen in the past few years: MPs’ expenses, what happened in the banks, what happened with phone hacking, what do those things share in common … it’s a lack of a sense of right and wrong, and a “me first” mentality.”
Unlike Harriet Harman and Ken Livingstone, he wisely avoided the fallacy of blaming the cuts, tuition fees, and the replacement of EMA, for the rioting. Instead, he recognised the long-term social and economic deformities that lie beneath the violence, including, most obviously, inequality.
“I deeply regret that inequality wasn’t reduced under the last Labour government … more unequal societies, where people don’t have a stake are societies where people feel alienated and you’re more likely to see these sort of events,” he said.
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett crunched the numbers in The Spirit Level (a book Miliband has asked all his staff to read this summer) and proved beyond doubt that the most unequal societies are also the most violent. Below, for instance, is a graph demonstrating the correlation between inequality and homicide rates.
There was a time when David Cameron was prepared to draw on such insights. In the 2009 Hugo Young Memorial Lecture, he noted:
Research by Richard Wilkson and Katie Pickett has shown that among the richest countries, it’s the more unequal ones that do worse according to almost every quality of life indicator. In “The Spirit Level”, they show that per capita GDP is much less significant for a country’s life expectancy, crime levels, literacy and health than the size of the gap between the richest and poorest in the population. So the best indicator of a country’s rank on these measures of general well-being is not the difference in wealth between them, but the difference in wealth within them.
But he has since resorted to Thatcherite type, offering little more than the revelation that Britain has a problem with “gang culture”, without troubling to ask why. So long as Cameron remains in denial about the corrosive effect inequality has on our society, there is every chance that the riots will happen again.