The Great British House Cleaning of 2011

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Britain is going through a house-cleaning operation the like of which it hasn't seen for perhaps a generation. 

We are experiencing a storm of public discomfort and self-questioning, amidst a growing distrust of major institutions that have traditionally provided the foundations for a stable social order.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair is, on one level, right to argue that England’s recent riots were not a sign of widespread moral breakdown, as David Cameron has suggested. That type of hyperbole is largely inaccurate – as evidenced by the moral outrage the majority of Brits seem to have felt in the aftermath of the riots. As Blair suggests, the riots point to a breakdown of the system for some people and this needs to be addressed in a very specific way.

Yet David Cameron is also correct up to a point. Many of the rioters and looters were people who were, for all intents and purposes, normal young people. They had no particular grievance with ‘the system’; many had jobs and were from healthy, sound families. They were not gang members, nor did they have any history of trouble with the law. Where was their moral compass during the rioting? Why did they get involved? Where were the inbuilt ethical parameters that would normally keep young people – and the not-so-young – out of harm’s way in situations like these?

This is a time for collective self-evaluation in the wider society, but perhaps even more so it is a time for self-examination among those who lead our major societal institutions. As I’ve written elsewhere, the currency that suffers most in a downturn is that of public trust. The sharp outbreak of the financial crisis, arriving unexpectedly as it did on the back of a sustained period of growth, left public confidence reeling. 

At the height of the recession, public anger was first directed at corporate leaders, particularly in the finance and banking sectors. Multi-million pound bonuses were being paid to people who had failed to provide due care in their management of mortgage and pension funds and the like. The same anger was directed at MPs when, at a time of austerity, it became clear that many of the people’s servants had been lining their pockets. The reputation of Parliament as an institution still hasn’t fully recovered in the eyes of the electorate.

Just prior to the recession, the institutional church had its moral authority called into question in the wake of devastating stories about child abuse. The Catholic Church in particular has still not fully redeemed itself in the public mind. 

More recently, the ongoing phone hacking saga has raised serious questions, not only about the propriety of news gathering methods but about the relationship between the press and other institutions. The News of the World saga brought into sharp focus the relationship between what I call newslite – the type of news normally associated with celebrity culture – and what used to be dubbed ‘hard news’.

We the public seem to have an unwritten contract with newspapers and the electronic media. There are lines of ethical propriety and general humanity that shouldn’t be crossed when gathering news on celebrities, yet we may tolerate certain levels of intrusiveness when it comes to people who make their living by courting publicity.  

We will not accept the same levels of intrusion when they are applied to ordinary members of the public. What is so repugnant about the News of the World situation is not simply that ordinary people were being spied upon, but that many of those who were targeted were at their most vulnerable.

Most often, this type of underhand data-mining is done not in the name of important issues of public interest, or hard news, but for the sake of entertainment value. The common perception was that the News of the World would do almost anything to sell newspapers; that it believed the ends – making money – justified almost any means.

Indeed, this is the real issue: in this age of celebrity obsession, multi-media news platforms and competition with social media, will news generally move in the same direction? And what will that mean to public trust?

It wasn’t just the press that came under scrutiny during the News of the World saga; important questions were also raised about the police. Have police personnel routinely received payments for information given to journalists? Did British police effectively sweep earlier allegations about phone hacking under the carpet, rather than running a thorough investigation?

At around the same time, in separate developments, the courts were placed under the microscope. The conclusion of the Milly Dowler trial saw the emergence of a string of impassioned charges about the way courts of law handle crime victims.

Meanwhile, a new study called into question the selection process for British judges. It suggested that judges are hopelessly out of touch with the general public, socio-economically and ethnically.

Commenting on all of this in early July, I warned that great care would need to be taken to ensure that the public did not lose trust in either the police or the courts in the way they had already done with government and business.

With the riots across some of England’s major cities, this is precisely the situation that has ensued.

The public mind has been focussed on the ability of its police to respond to large-scale unrest and the readiness of its courts to adequately deal adequately with the aftermath. Those people who complained about the sentence given to Charlie Gilmour, have now been drowned out by the much louder cries for tougher sentences for public disorder offences.

Indeed, we are left wondering whether we really want a police ‘service’, or a police force. The answer, of course, is a bit of each. We need police organisations that have enough social awareness to avoid making bad situations worse. But we also need them to have the bite and the appetite to deter crime wherever possible and to manage it with sufficient force – and no more – when it occurs.

Educational institutions are also coming under increasing scrutiny, as universities respond to new government parameters regarding fees. Increasing numbers of high-level students are faced with the possibility that they may not be able to get into the course of their choice - or that they may not be able to afford it. For many students, university is becoming less of an option now. They may need to find other alternatives to university and the coming-of-age experiences it provides.

For a Millennial generation that has largely been told it is uniquely gifted, highly valued and will be free to pursue its greatest dreams, this is tough to take. Middle-class parents, who expected their children to receive a better education than they did, also find it difficult to adjust to and will soon start making more of a noise about it.

We can expect to hear many more stories emerging about the perceived short-sightedness, greed or mismanagement of colleges and universities in coming months.

In short, during this time of uncertainty and austerity, every major societal institution is being called into question. There is no hankering after change for change’s sake and people distrust calls for change that appear opportunistic. Yet people are looking for something solid to lean on, some sense of reassurance that while the economy is weak other aspects of the social order remain robust.

Leaders in business (particularly banking), government, press and media, police, the courts, education and religion have discovered that public trust is desperately difficult to recapture once it has been compromised. Some economists foresee a period of at best stagnant growth lasting as long as five years or more. On a deeper, psychological and social level, it may last even longer than unless there is a conscious effort on the part of institutional leaders to regain public trust.

This will require something other than a ‘more of the same’ mentality. What will be needed is not management so much as leadership. Management, whilst vital in every organisation, is focused on the maintaining and tweaking the status quo, efficiently. Leadership, on the other hand, often turns accepted wisdom on its head, seeking out new and previously unexplored solutions to challenges.

Management will focus on establishing a structure, whilst leadership will concentrate on building a culture. The questions facing core social institutions right now are questions about culture. This is why many people are demanding more than new government targets and new layers of bureaucracy to ensure that they’re reached. In a way, this is an opportune time for leaders of all our major institutions to both listen and direct. They need to listen to the voice of what Richard Nixon, perhaps opportunistically called, ‘the silent majority’. The values of Middle England must be heard and assimilated into the culture-building of all of our social institutions.

Often, the literati and glitterati, who claim so much attention in the pop-culture and exercise disproportionate influence in the media and politics, are out of step with the values of everyday families. Indeed, some have expressed surprise at the strength of feeling in the wider community when it comes to demands for stronger criminal sentences and greater help for families. The workaday majority hasn’t, I think, changed its values in the wake of the riots and other scandals of our time. It has refocused them and is making them heard.

This is a reaffirming of the fact that most of society, for all its liberal language, still values a fairly conservative (small ‘c’) approach, especially when it comes to children, families, property and the basic issues of right and wrong.

Leaders will also need to direct. You can’t lead from behind, or from within the pack. In the midst of societal house cleaning, people want and demand more than opportunistic, sound bite demagoguery. They’re looking for leaders who can stand up for proven values and, yes, do the right thing, whatever the short-term cost to themselves or their positions. If that type of leadership does not emerge at this crucial time, we may find an increase in peaceful civil disobedience, which can carry powerful implications economically as well as socially.

The post-riot clean-up brigades, armed with their brooms, pointed to a growing desire for community ownership, a willingness to take responsibility for the community. This is a very welcome development in an era when so much human interaction seems to take place in the cyber-world rather than the real world. Yet, if there is no positive and pragmatic response to this from institutional leaders, no channelling of this energy or recognition of people’s efforts, grass-roots initiatives can also become a precursor to civil disobedience.

Regulations seem much easier to break for those who feel the law doesn’t represent their best interests. This is true not only for the marginalised, but for the mainstream. If civil disobedience then fails, if citizens feel the system is still ignoring their concerns, they may wish to take matters into their own hands in a more proactive rather than a merely reactive way. In that event, vigilantism of one form or another may not be far away.

As part of the leadership we need, the government must define where its ‘Big Society’ starts and ends. How much of a community’s prosperity and wellbeing needs to be initiated within the community itself? How will government and other institutional bodies contribute? How much of a community’s security is to be entrusted into its hands – where is the line between community ownership and things like vigilantism?

In the end, damaged public trust will only be restored when leaders in each of our key institutions begin to replace short-sighted self-interest with a visible drive for the common good. Unless the currency of public trust is boosted, Britain will remain a far poorer country, even after its economy is fully restored.


Hear Mal's BBC radio interview on The Riots: Restoring Trust.



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