By Giles Dexter
21st Century Wire
August 10, 2011
On Wednesday David Cameron finally admitted what many of us have known for some time: that parts of British society – what has come to be known as the ‘underclass’ – are “not just broken, they’re sick.”
Little does the Prime Minister realise that among youth the word “sick”, like the word “wicked”, now means something uber cool. So doubtless the rioters regard the epithet as a compliment.
It’s just one more example of just how appallingly out of touch the almost exclusively privately educated Tory cabinet are with great swathes of those they rule, but certainly don’t represent. They don’t even speak the same language.
The knee jerk reaction of a Conservative government when faced with civil strife has always been authoritarianism, their instinct being to demonise and criminalise. They are the ruling class, sustained by the bourgeoisie and the still deferential poor, and they always fight to defend their own. History has observed that save for exalting the market above all other social instruments, British conservatism isn’t really an ideology, it is a cadre of self-interest, whose overriding priority is the maintenance of its own wealth, position, privilege and power. In the current paradigm we are witnessing, it is safe to say that they are out of touch. And therein lie the seeds of the current malaise.
David Cameron is without a doubt the most intelligent and humane Conservative Prime Minister for half a century, now heading the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, but we have some way to go before he acknowledges that the seeds of sick Britain were sewn in the 1980’s by his sometime idol, Lady Margaret Thatcher. In a remark that immediately revealed her to be Grantham’s answer to the simpleton Chauncey so brilliantly portrayed by Peter Sellers in ‘Being There’, Margaret Thatcher famously declared that there was “no such thing as society, only individuals”(sic).
Her government, and those of her proteges Messrs Major and Blair, took her at her word and between them – bit by bit, piece by piece, set about dismantling the civic, and very civil society that had evolved in Britain through the Great Reform Acts of the 19th century, Women’s Suffrage, Two World Wars and the founding of the modern Welfare State. Where once we all had a stake, now some are excluded. Until privatisation, each and every hoody and every single mum owned a tiny part of the enterprises that brought water to our taps, gas to our cookers and power to our lights, but no more. Where once we could travel around our capital and our country at modest expense on genuinely public transport, we no longer can. Where once education was free, it no longer is. Where we had public service and a common wealth, now we have only self service and private wealth. In a society shorn of any sense of public probity, where wealth distribution is skewed more strongly in favour of the rich (and more specifically the super rich) than in Victorian times and where money, possessions and celebrity are exalted above all and any other aims in life, is it any wonder that the often parentless, badly educated ‘underclass’ want to grab whatever they can ?
The smash and grab culture so unpleasantly displayed on Britain’s streets the last few nights is the unfortunate but inevitable result of a society that divides people sharply into ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and where even many of the ‘winners’ have recently been unmasked as criminals of a very unpleasant kind. Of the few looters to be interviewed in the media, the overriding impression they give is that since no one cares about them, why should they care about anyone else ? While not overtly politically motivated, there is a more than dim awareness among most that while some banks are deemed too big fail, their government has no such qualms about watching them disappear down the plughole of society.
The millions that will never be an X-factor winner or play for Manchester United had been happy to spend most of the time hypnotised by the circus, but when that spell is broken, as it now is, the social cohesion based on shared values and principles that once held us together is missing.