Capitol Ideas

The British Riots: An Object Lesson

Compassionate conservatism was no match for last August's outbreak.

By From the October 2011 issue

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I happened to be in England shortly before the riots, which erupted in copycat fashion all over the country. No one saw them coming. There have been many references to the "feral underclass," a name for creatures formerly tamed but now wild. The welfare state, which has reached absurd levels in England, instructs the underclass that they are not responsible for anything that happens to them. Nothing is their fault and no one can tell them to do anything.

The automatic receipt of "benefit" tells them that nothing depends on their own effort or good behavior. Parents are severely restricted in how they can discipline their own children. If you want to read about England, keep an eye on Peter Hitchens in the Mail on Sunday. Here is something recent from his blog. Those who want to blame parents for the misdeeds of their children "should heed the cry of one such parent this week, a respected TV cameraman," Hitchens wrote.

"I am heartbroken and totally ashamed," he said of his daughter's criminal actions. "This is the end product of a society that tells you that you can't discipline your children."

Those who do, he said, risk being reported to police or social services. He concluded: "Children now have the power over their parents, rather than the other way round."

I think all modern parents will recognize the truth in this. Except for David Cameron and Ed Miliband.

Cameron is the prime minister, nominally conservative, and Miliband the leader of the Labour Party. He is so far to the left that he acts as a kind of insurance policy for Cameron. No matter how low Cameron falls in the public esteem, Miliband is not an enticing prospect to replace him.

My brother Richard, a minor officeholder (councilman) in the Conservative Party (he lives in an unaffected part of the country, near Gatwick), warned me even before the rioting began that the prospects for David Cameron are not good. He  doesn't have a conservative bone in his body. He launched his career as a PR man and that is what he remains. In fact, he has already achieved his life's ambition, which was to become prime minister. 10 Downing Street is his address. So his inclination will be to rest on his laurels. Tony Blair is his hero.

I can think of no better way of alerting American Spectator readers to the Cameron problem than to say that he is a compassionate conservative. Acutely conscious of his own privileged background -- Eton and Oxford -- his guilt feelings are easily stirred. A quick reminder that budget cuts hurt the poor will suffice to whip him into line. His post-riot comments about the "slow motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country," were seen as more PR.

The alleged budget cuts in England have yet to take effect. "Only in today's bizarre, economically illiterate political climate could such an extraordinarily large overdraft be confused for draconian belt-tightening," wrote a commentator for the (English) Spectator. One department that does face cuts is the police force. It was noted at the time that the police response to the initial rioting was tardy or nonexistent. Post-riots, you can be sure that those reductions in force will not happen. Thus do bureaucracies take care of their own. My brother showed me a chart with planned government spending increasing every year until 2016. Optimistically, revenues also projected to rise sharply in the same time. Reason: Under the Labour
government the top income tax rate was increased to 50 percent (from 40 percent) and Cameron has kept that in place.

It's assumed by all right-thinking people, including the BBC, that this substantial increase in the cost of doing business in Britain will have no effect on behavior. Richard Branson of Virgin Air, who has moved part of his operation from London to Switzerland, has already shown this assumption to be wrong. One of several errors behind the plan to raise taxes on the rich (on both sides of the Atlantic) is that the rich are exactly the ones who are the least likely to be played for suckers and can most easily move.

Few Americans realize that in forming his government, Cameron teamed up with the (leftist) Liberal Democrats who were given major cabinet posts and a great deal of influence. Cameron's Business Secretary, Vincent Cable, is anti-business, and would fit comfortably into the Obama administration. The Lib-Dems are "the yellow tail wagging the Tory dog, veto-ing or diluting mainstream Conservative policies." (Spectator again.) No real welfare reform will occur: well-advertised future cuts have been offset by immediate (and unannounced) increases. The National Health Service, regarded for some reason as a national treasure, will remain intact (there are still no charges for making an appointment to see a doctor, as there are now in Sweden and France); foreign aid goes onward and upward (giving away other people's money convinces liberals that they are morally superior people); carbon taxes have been increased to counter the global warming that humans allegedly cause (this will sharply increase the cost of energy and keep the BBC happy); and of course there will be no retreat on the new 50 percent top income tax rate.

The betting is that Cameron will also retreat from a promised reform of munificent civil service pensions, which are based on final salaries. Cameron faces "industrial action," or strikes, over his insistence that government workers make extra payments for pensions in excess of 100,000 pounds a year (about $160,000). In addition, a raft of EU measures will give temporary workers full employee rights after just 12 weeks on the job. Given that Britain employs eight million such workers, this could have a severe impact on labor market flexibility. Prudence will dictate that few such employees will be hired in the first place.

All of which means that the British economy will continue to do poorly. The main economic problem in England at the moment (as in America) is that the progressives who continue to advocate egalitarian policies have no conception that they don't work-- don't create jobs. The supposed morality of such policies blinds their advocates to their destructiveness.

YOU MAY WELL WONDER why we in the U.S. should care about Britain's pathologies. If you feel that way you have a point. The ruling class in Britain is rotten to the core. Now that they no longer rule the waves it might be better for all concerned if they were submerged beneath them. If a more fundamental rebellion in Britain were to rid us of the whole sorry lot I would quietly rejoice. But they are an object lesson.

Every time I return to the U.S. I sense that the same destructive forces are at work here as in Britain--

with the important difference that the forces of sanity are still alive and politically effective on this side of the Atlantic. They see the shoals and the hazards, and are eager to avoid them. To get an idea of politics in Britain you have to imagine a nightmare: the Democratic Party of Obama and Dick Durbin of Illinois opposed by a Republican Party led by Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine. There is no equivalent to the Tea Party.

The British establishment lives in constant fear of an uprising by a party of racially aggrieved whites. But blacks in England, because (as in America) their out-of-wedlock childbearing is routine and not even discouraged, suffer more than anything from poor "elite" leadership. As for the Muslims in Britain: their families are relatively intact and their businesses are one of the few welcome sights on the nation's high streets. More often than not, they were targets for the lawless mobs. They were the victims, not the instigators of the recent rioting.

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).