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George Osborne’s mistakes
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The forgotten workers
It was a reasonable guess that, once the government had appointed a group of the great and good to investigate the summer riots, somehow we would all have to share the blame. It is a central tenet of liberal Britain that while criminals may share some of the blame for the acts which they perpetrate, they are invariably driven to committing them through the negligence and callousness of the rest of us. Meanwhile, the real problems — those created by an unreformed welfare system — are ignored.
The Riots, Communities and Victims Panel has certainly not let us down on this score. Among the factors it blames for the riots in its interim report published this week is ‘conspicuous consumption’. ‘In our conversations with rioters and young people who did not riot,’ the report asserts, ‘it was clear that brands and appliances are strongly associated with their sense of identity and status.’ In other words: if we want to tackle the causes of the riots we must all stop lusting after that iPad or flashy coat.
Perhaps the panel is aware of a period in British history when people did not want to feather their nests. No matter how rich or poor, humans tend to want to improve their lot. Yes, a group of hardcore thieves targeted specific clothing and electrical shops, from which they emerged carrying armfuls of goods. But to extrapolate from this that the riots were somehow inspired by shopping envy is lazy and wrong.
On the contrary, modern consumer societies can claim to be among the most peaceful ever. For a truly violent society, it is necessary to look for one whose prevailing values are obsessive religious devotion, political ideology or nationalistic identity.
The panel is midway through its report, and one can guess at its final conclusions: we need better sports facilities, youth clubs and drama groups to keep potential rioters off the streets. Certainly the arrival of a pingpong table never did a community any harm. But rather than fixing on the easy target of consumerism, it should be recognised that it can also be a power for good. As Samuel Johnson wrote: ‘a man is seldom so harmlessly employed as in making money’. But it’s hard to make money if you leave school without basic qualifications — as most of the convicted rioters did.
It is anathema to the panel to focus the blame on our failing education system, or to point out that welfare-dependency in the areas hit by riots was just as high in the boom years. Sadly our government seems equally blind. After losing a battle with the Liberal Democrats, George Osborne has just increased welfare payments by 5.2 per cent for next year. This is twice the rise that the average worker can expect.
Last summer’s riots exposed an urgent problem in Britain’s sink estates, and it’s not a greed for flatscreen TVs — but the broken link between work and reward. The problem is not that people covet new trainers, it’s that so few believe that finding a job and saving money is the best way to further their ambitions. For low-paid workers, watching the unemployed enjoy a rise they can only dream of sends a clear message: they have been forgotten. This is no way to fix a broken society.
A-minus, Chancellor Although he did not pay quite as much attention as we had hoped, we are pleased to see that the Chancellor learnt at least some of the important lessons we prepared for him a fortnight ago in our issue entitled: ‘How to Fix Britain’. Mr Osborne fell short of implementing Norman Tebbit’s suggestion that he reduce fuel duty, but he did at least defer the 3.02p increase that was due to take effect in January. He also heeded Allister Heath on the need for an urgent review of planning law and took a line from Dominic Raab (our backbencher of the year) who begged him to defend employers against unfair dismissal claims.
But Osborne has fallen short of our A+ grade. Not because he’s gone too far, as most papers claim, but because he hasn’t been nearly brave enough. As Steve Forbes points out on page 14, radical thinking is needed to save Britain from disaster. His job is not to win a game of political chess against the Labour party, but to redefine politics by changing the terms of debate.
At least Osborne will have a chance to try again.The great joke about the budget is that all of its forecasts were predicated on the assumption that the eurozone crisis will be quickly resolved. But that scenario is looking more and more remote. We suspect that George Osborne will soon have the opportunity to tear up the policies he revealed on Tuesday, and adopt the rest of our agenda.
the spectator | 3 December 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk