Understand a Little More, Condemn a Little Less

Back in 1993 when the Shadow Home Secretary, Tony Blair, was developing (not-yet-new) Labour's criminal justice policy ("tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime"), the Prime Minster John Major told the Mail on Sunday that "Society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less".

At the time I thought the comment overly simplistic, a dog whistle call to the right and generally not worthy of a man who I greatly respect and agree with across many areas of public policy. I have never understood why politicians would ever want to understand less about any problem facing society. Surely those charged with policy-making and organising government ought to be thoroughly engaged with the facts of any issue before sallying forth and passing laws and cutting/increasing budgets.

I was therefore greatly heartened when before, during and after the last General Election, Conservative politicians were extolling their commitment to evidence-based policy-making as opposed to policy-based evidence-making. However, politicians from the Prime Minister down are now recycling condemnation quotes, stoking the boiler of public opinion and aiding and abetting the media in their search for yet attention-grabbing headlines. And it's not just the red tops who are trying to out do each other with their pithy summaries of the recent outbreaks of violence, a quick tune in to the BBC News channel yesterday left me with the impression that the scars of looting and thuggery were left etched on every street of the Kingdom.

Whilst we are undoubtedly all shocked, saddened and indeed angered by the actions of a small minority of our fellow citizens in destroying the lives of their neighbours, we will not get anywhere with a "lock em up and throw away the key" approach to fixing the situation. Back in 1981 riots spread across parts of London and Liverpool and politicians were again queuing up to condemn and attack family breakdowns and low morals. But Michael Heseltine was rolling up his sleeves and getting on with the job almost immediately. Within days the then Environment Secretary was writing memos to Cabinet colleagues starting with the assertion that "it took a riot" for the Government to wake up and take note of the effects of malaise of urban deprivation and lack of economic choices among a large number of young men and women. His argument that Government needed to take action to tackle deep seated problems and to recognise the existence of an underclass, to take seriously the effect of social and economic exclusion, was the antithesis of Norman Tebbit's view that all the jobless needed to do was "get on their bike" and look for work. Heseltine characterised this debate as the struggle for the soul of the Conservative Party.

Heseltine's example of an adherence to evidence-based policy-making and a proper understanding of the full scope of the issues highlighted during the unrest of the early 1980's needs to be carefully reconsidered in 2011. In this context, the call out to former LA supercop Bill Bratton is an interesting tactic. On the one hand it shows politicians at their populist worst - they believe that "something must be done", the public want "something to be done", this is "something". But the PM is not stupid man and he knows that Mr Bratton is not a one trick pony and will have been cognisant to the supercop's belief that no community can "arrest its way out" of rioting and looting and that what the UK is now facing is not "just a police issue, it is in fact a societal issue".

The role that any outside assistance must give to our politicians and senior police officers in tackling the problems thrown up by last week's events, then surely it must be in helping to concentrate minds on the root causes of social disintegration, focusing particularly on failing public policy areas such as education, support for families and community cohesion.