David Cameron wants to revitalise families, schools and a sense of personal responsibility. Is he impossibly ambitious?
Prime Minister David Cameron has delivered a
speech in Oxfordshire on the fightback following the riots and looting last week.
It’s a remarkable repudiation of a generation of political correctness. If only
a part of it is accomplished, it will be an historic moment in dismantling the
welfare state and restoring responsibility and pride to families and
It is time for our country to take stock. Last week we saw some of the most sickening
acts on our streets. I’ll never forget talking to Maurice Reeves, whose family had
run the Reeves furniture store in Croydon for generations. This was an 80-year-old
man who had seen the business he had loved, that his family had built up for generations,
simply destroyed. A hundred years of hard work, burned to the ground in a few hours.
But last week we didn’t just see the worst
of the British people; we saw the best of them too. The ones who called themselves
riot wombles and headed down to the hardware stores to pick up brooms and start
the clean-up. The people who linked arms together to stand and defend their homes,
their businesses. The policemen and women and fire officers who worked long, hard
shifts, sleeping in corridors then going out again to put their life on the line.
Everywhere I’ve been this past week, in
Salford, Manchester, Birmingham, Croydon, people of every background, colour and
religion have shared the same moral outrage and hurt for our country. Because this
is Britain. This is a great country of good people. Those thugs we saw last week
do not represent us, nor do they represent our young people – and they will not
drag us down.
Why this happened
But now that the fires have been put out
and the smoke has cleared, the question hangs in the air: ‘Why? How could this happen
on our streets and in our country?’
Of course, we mustn’t oversimplify. There
were different things going on in different parts of the country. In Tottenham some
of the anger was directed at the police. In Salford there was some organised crime,
a calculated attack on the forces of order. But what we know for sure is that in
large parts of the country this was just pure criminality.
So as we begin the necessary processes
of inquiry, investigation, listening and learning: let’s be clear. These riots were
not about race: the perpetrators and the victims were white, black and Asian. These
riots were not about government cuts: they were directed at high street stores,
not Parliament. And these riots were not about poverty: that insults the millions
of people who, whatever the hardship, would never dream of making others suffer
No, this was about behaviour: people showing
indifference to right and wrong; people with a twisted moral code; people with a
complete absence of self-restraint.
Politicians and behaviour
Now I know as soon as I use words like
“behaviour” and “moral” people will say – what gives politicians the right to lecture
Of course we’re not perfect. But politicians
shying away from speaking the truth about behaviour, about morality -- this has
actually helped to cause the social problems we see around us. We have been too
unwilling for too long to talk about what is right and what is wrong. We have too
often avoided saying what needs to be said – about everything from marriage to welfare to common courtesy.
Sometimes the reasons for that are noble:
we don’t want to insult or hurt people.
Sometimes they’re ideological: we don’t
feel it’s the job of the state to try and pass judgement on people’s behaviour or
engineer personal morality.
And sometimes they’re just human: we’re
not perfect beings ourselves and we don’t want to look like hypocrites.
So you can’t say that marriage and commitment
are good things: for fear of alienating single mothers. You don’t deal properly
with children who repeatedly fail in school because you’re worried about being accused
of stigmatising them. You’re wary of talking about those who have never worked and
never want to work in case you’re charged with not getting it, being middle class
and out of touch.
In this risk-free ground of moral neutrality
there are no bad choices, just different lifestyles. People aren’t the architects
of their own problems, they are victims of circumstance. “Live and let live” becomes
“do what you please”.
Well actually, what last week has shown
is that this moral neutrality, this relativism – it’s not going to cut it any more.
One of the biggest lessons of these riots is that we’ve got to talk honestly about
behaviour and then act – because bad behaviour has literally arrived on people’s
doorsteps. And we can’t shy away from the truth anymore.
Broken society agenda
So this must be a wake-up call for our
country. Social problems that have been festering for decades have exploded in our
face. Now, just as people last week wanted criminals robustly confronted on our
street, so they want to see these social problems taken on and defeated.
Our security fightback must be matched
by a social fightback. We must fight back against the attitudes and assumptions
that have brought parts of our society to this shocking state. We know what’s gone
wrong: the question is, do we have the determination to put it right?
Do we have the determination to confront
the slow-motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country these
past few generations? Irresponsibility.
Selfishness. Behaving as if your choices have no consequences. Children without
fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort. Crime without punishment.
Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control.
Some of the worst aspects of human nature
tolerated, indulged – sometimes even incentivised – by a state and its agencies
that in parts have become literally de-moralised.
So do we have the determination to confront
all this and turn it around? I have the very strong sense that the responsible majority
of people in this country not only have that determination; they are crying out
for their government to act upon it. And I can assure you, I will not be found wanting.
In my very first act as leader of this party I signalled my personal priority: to
mend our broken society. That passion is stronger today than ever.
Yes, we have had an economic crisis to
deal with, clearing up the terrible mess we inherited, and we are not out of those
woods yet – not by a long way. But I repeat today, as I have on many occasions these
last few years, that the reason I am in politics is to build a bigger, stronger
society. Stronger families. Stronger
communities. A stronger society.
This is what I came into politics to do
– and the shocking events of last week have renewed in me that drive. So I can announce
today that over the next few weeks, I and ministers from across the coalition government
will review every aspect of our work to mend our broken society: on schools, welfare,
families, parenting, addiction, communities; on the cultural, legal, bureaucratic
problems in our society too -- from the twisting and misrepresenting of human rights
that has undermined personal responsibility to the obsession with health and safety
that has eroded people’s willingness to act according to common sense.
We will review our work and consider whether
our plans and programmes are big enough and bold enough to deliver the change that
I feel this country now wants to see.
Government cannot legislate to change
behaviour, but it is wrong to think the State is a bystander. Because people’s behaviour
does not happen in a vacuum: it is affected by the rules government sets and how
they are enforced; by the services government provides and how they are delivered;
and perhaps above all by the signals government sends about the kinds of behaviour that are encouraged and
So yes, the broken society is back at
the top of my agenda. And as we review our policies in the weeks ahead, today I
want to set out the priority areas I will be looking at, and give you a sense of
where I think we need to raise our ambitions…
But we need much more than that. We need
a social fight-back too, with big changes right through our society.
Families and parenting
Let me start with families. The question
people asked over and over again last week was “where are the parents? Why aren’t
they keeping the rioting kids indoors?” Tragically that’s been followed in some
cases by judges rightly lamenting: “why don’t the parents even turn up when their
children are in court?”
Well, join the dots and you have a clear
idea about why some of these young people were behaving so terribly. Either there was no one at home, they didn’t much care
or they’d lost control.
I don’t doubt that many of the rioters
out last week have no father at home. Perhaps they come from one of the neighbourhoods
where it’s standard for children to have a mum and not a dad… …where it’s normal
for young men to grow up without a male role model, looking to the streets for their
father figures, filled up with rage and anger.
So if we want to have any hope of mending
our broken society, family and parenting is where we’ve got to start. I’ve been
saying this for years, since before I was Prime Minister, since before I was leader
of the Conservative Party.
So: from here on I want a family test
applied to all domestic policy. If it hurts families, if it undermines commitment,
if it tramples over the values that keeps people together, or stops families from
being together, then we shouldn’t do it. More than that, we’ve got to get out there
and make a positive difference to the way families work, the way people bring up
their children and we’ve got to be less sensitive to the charge that this is about
interfering or nannying.
We are working on ways to help improve
parenting – well now I want that work accelerated, expanded and implemented as quickly
as possible. This has got to be right at the top of our priority list. And we need
more urgent action, too, on the families that some people call ‘problem’, others
call ‘troubled’. The ones that everyone in their neighbourhood knows and often avoids.
Last December I asked Emma Harrison to
develop a plan to help get these families on track. It became clear to me earlier
this year that – as can so often happen – those plans were being held back by bureaucracy.
So even before the riots happened, I asked for an explanation.
Now that the riots have happened I will
make sure that we clear away the red tape and the bureaucratic wrangling, and put
rocket boosters under this programme with a clear ambition that within the lifetime
of this Parliament we will turn around the lives of the 120,000 most troubled families
in the country.
The next part of the social fight-back
is what happens in schools. We need an education system which reinforces the message
that if you do the wrong thing you’ll be disciplined -- but if you work hard and
play by the rules you will succeed.
This isn’t a distant dream. It’s already
happening in schools like Woodside High in Tottenham and Mossbourne in Hackney.
They expect high standards from every child and make no excuses for failure to work
hard. They foster pride through strict uniform and behaviour policies. And they
provide an alternative to street culture by showing how anyone can get up and get
on if they apply themselves. Kids from Hammersmith and Hackney are now going to
top universities thanks to these schools.
We need many more like them which is why
we are creating more academies; why the people behind these success stories are
now opening free schools; and why we have pledged to turn round the 200 weakest
secondaries and the 200 weakest primaries in the next year.
But with the failures in our education
system so deep, we can’t just say “these are our plans and we believe in them, let’s
sit back while they take effect”. I now want us to push further, faster.
Are we really doing enough to ensure that
great new schools are set up in the poorest areas, to help the children who need them
most? And why are we putting up with the complete scandal of schools being allowed
to fail, year after year? If young people have left school without being able to
read or write, why shouldn’t that school be held more directly accountable? Yes,
these questions are already being asked across government but what happened last
week gives them a new urgency – and we need to act on it…
Responsibility and welfare
But one of the biggest parts of this social
fight-back is fixing the welfare system. For years we’ve had a system that encourages
the worst in people – that incites laziness, that excuses bad behaviour, that erodes
self-discipline, that discourages hard work… …above all that drains responsibility
away from people.
We talk about moral hazard in our financial
system – where banks think they can act recklessly because the state will always
bail them out… …well this is moral hazard in our welfare system – people thinking
they can be as irresponsible as they like because the state will always bail them
We’re already addressing this through
the Welfare Reform Bill going through parliament. But I’m not satisfied that we’re
doing all we can. I want us to look at toughening up the conditions for those who
are out of work and receiving benefits and speeding up our efforts to get all those
who can work back to work
Work is at the heart of a responsible
society. So getting more of our young people into jobs, or up and running in their
own businesses is a critical part of how we strengthen responsibility in our society.
Our Work Programme is the first step, with local authorities, charities, social
enterprises and businesses all working together to provide the best possible help
to get a job.
It leaves no one behind – including those
who have been on welfare for years. But there is more we need to do, to boost self-employment
and enterprise because it’s only by getting our young people into work that we can
build an ownership society in which everyone feels they have a stake.
Human rights and health and safety
As we consider these questions of attitude
and behaviour, the signals that government sends, and the incentives it creates,
we inevitably come to the question of the Human Rights Act and the culture associated
Let me be clear: in this country we are
proud to stand up for human rights, at home and abroad. It is part of the British tradition. But what is alien to our tradition – and
now exerting such a corrosive influence on behaviour and morality is the twisting
and misrepresenting of human rights in a way that has undermined personal responsibility.
We are attacking this problem from both
sides. We’re working to develop a way through the morass by looking at creating
our own British Bill of Rights. And we will be using our current chairmanship of
the Council of Europe to seek agreement to important operational changes to the
European Convention on Human Rights.
But this is all frustratingly slow.
The truth is, the interpretation of human
rights legislation has exerted a chilling effect on public sector organisations,
leading them to act in ways that fly in the face of common sense, offend our sense
of right and wrong, and undermine responsibility. It is exactly the same with health
and safety – where regulations have often been twisted out of all recognition into
a culture where the words “health and safety” are lazily trotted out to justify
all sorts of actions and regulations that damage our social fabric.
So I want to make something very clear:
I get it. This stuff matters.
And as we urgently review
the work we’re doing on the broken society, judging whether it’s ambitious enough
– I want to make it clear that there will be no holds barred and that most definitely
includes the human rights and health and safety culture…
Today I’ve talked a lot about what the
government is going to do. But let me be clear: This social fight-back is not a
job for government on its own. Government doesn’t run the businesses that create
jobs and turn lives around. Government doesn’t make the video games or print the
magazines or produce the music that tells young people what’s important in life.
Government can’t be on every street and in every estate, instilling the values that
This is a problem that has deep roots
in our society, and it’s a job for all of our society to help fix it. In the highest
offices, the plushest boardrooms, the most influential jobs, we need to think about
the example we are setting. Moral decline and bad behaviour is not limited to a
few of the poorest parts of our society. In the banking crisis, with MPs’ expenses,
in the phone hacking scandal, we have seen some of the worst cases of greed, irresponsibility
The restoration of responsibility has
to cut right across our society. Because whatever the arguments, we all belong to
the same society, and we all have a stake in making it better. There is no “them”
and “us” – there is us. We are all in this together, and we will mend our broken
society – together.
For the complete text of the speech, visit
the British Prime Minister’s website.