It might seem strange to describe doing nothing as undervalued. After all, it is the middle of the summer holiday season when many people are busy doing nothing, looking forward to doing nothing or fondly remembering a fortnight just passed doing nothing. The last category probably includes not a few politicians who hastily packed up their beach towels, improving books on social theory and economics and families to return to harrumphing duties in the House of Commons.
In the aftermath of the rioting and pillaging that briefly took hold of London, Birmingham and Manchester last week, pundits and politicians have had to hastily cobble together suitable responses to the events. Unsurprisingly, the overarching theme to these responses has been to echo the public’s demands that “something must be done”.
However, what is much more contentious is the answer to the question, “so what must be done?”. Nobody really knows what needs to be done. Perhaps all of the things blamed by David Cameron, Ed Miliband and the other voices are to blame and we need a general “down with that sort of thing” response. There’s a germ of truth in most of the claims to understand the causes – although even I’m struggling to see quite how Health and Safety legislation was significant enough a factor to be worth being in the Prime Minister’s firing line. Maybe its impact in reducing the opportunities for children to indulge in organised perilous activities like going camping or climbing trees might have contributed to a culture where there was no safety valve for youthful frustrations. Or at least not for those who were unable to make good the aftermath of their drunken rioting by throwing bundles of tenners at the victims, like members of the Bullingdon club are reputed to.
It will take time to assess the real causes of the breakdown of order. This will involve sifting out the non-reasons too (the withdrawal of EMA or the fees that will be payable by undergraduate students who won’t be filling in their UCAS forms until later in the year are not likely to have contributed much more to the thoughts of the rioters as they covered their faces before heading out than the red tape of health and safety).
Unfortunately, one thing that politicians don’t have is time. Reactionary soundbites are being made because politicians are gripped by a fear of being seen to do nothing. Better to do something, anything, than to risk being portrayed as “do-nothings”. That, today, is the worst thing a politician can be accused of. It opens them up to being caricatured as ditherers, indecisive, clueless, or (particularly if they are Tories) too aloof to care. Perhaps it is a sign of the continued masculinity of political discourse – if there’s a problem, politicians consider it a failure of their machismo not to be able to quickly see the problem and do something about it.
That was certainly the theme picked out by Lord Mandelson in criticising David Cameron and George Osborne as the financial crisis hit. The repeated attack was that they would have done nothing and that this should be unfavourably contrasted with Gordon Brown having led in saving
the world the banks. In the momentum of those momentous, but now curiously distant, days nobody really stopped to ask whether what was being done was the right thing, or whether it needed doing (it was hard to tell then and nearly impossible to imagine now for instance, how securing a shotgun wedding between staid old Lloyds Bank and the disastrously holed HBOS was going to make things better). We heard that the ATMs were all going to run out of cash unless “something was done” but never really stopped to question whether this was actually true or might just have been self-serving exaggeration from the same bankers who caused the problems and stood to gain the most from the banks being bailed out.
Similarly, while there are undoubtedly many social ills that need to be addressed because young people don’t generally go on the rampage en masse, kicking in shop windows and looting shops to order, that doesn’t mean that doing even more of the same things that were done in the past for that group is the answer. More youth clubs, more outreach workers, more information about training opportunities, more EMA, more investment in regenerating housing stocks etc etc etc would make it look like something was being done just as much as more prison places, benefit cuts and evictions from social housing. But it might be no more effective in addressing the problems or satisfying the general public.
Societies and economies are big things. Small changes can have big effects. Big changes, like trying to stop a car on the motorway by shifting into reverse rather than progressively braking and changing down, can be counterproductive. Trying to do too much too precipitately is dangerous and foolish.
A period of silence and reflection is needed. Let the politicans have their soundbites but don’t pressure them to take drastic action in exactly the terms of their rhetoric because neither they nor us know where such action will take us let alone whether it will be better than where we are going already. Just saying what they believe will be more popular with their own supporters and the public more generally is the main aim for most politicians. What they actually follow through with could and should be more considered. Cameron’s speech (http://bit.ly/rfl0As ) has been criticised for being a return to the “nasty party” that he spent so long trying to detoxify (eg http://bit.ly/qzKCtA ) but in fact doesn’t introduce a lot that is new or different to the line he’s developed in the 5 years or so since he became Tory leader. Miliband has encouragingly resisted the temptation to say very much in terms of concrete proposals http://bit.ly/oJ7Qfu .
When it has all died down it may just be that doing little or nothing new or additional might be the best balance between the extreme “do somethings” of banging all the perpetrators up, stopping their benefits and evicting their parents from their homes and being seen to reward the focusless protests by giving even more of the social support services that did not make much difference before. That might show that the majority believe in a plague on both houses – the hangers and floggers and the bleeding hearts.
Something must be done? Are you sure about that?