Anyone watching the news reports of the August riots could be forgiven for thinking that the Arab Spring had somehow arrived in Britain. If such scenes strain our credulity, should we look deeper for parallel causes? Is there anything Britain can teach the emerging democracies about democracy itself? Or are there lessons that we should have the humility to recognise and take on board?
Given that Ipswich was thankfully spared such violence, these might seem strange questions to pose in this Newsletter. But we may all be affected by whatever follows the riots: paying the cost of the destruction and the making good; of the trials, the appeals, the enhanced prison sentences; and any wider changes in Government policy and attitude. Indeed, at the time of writing in the immediate aftermath of the riots, the Prime Minister now speaks little of the Big Society, but has reverted to the language of a "broken society", parts of which are "sick". And we might agree, albeit differing on which parts.
What surely beggars belief is that, in such a short space of time, a peaceful demonstration in Tottenham could lead to such widespread destruction and looting in towns and cities across the country, involving people from all walks of life. Could social networking ironically have been the catalyst in a chain reaction of social disconnection? Was this violent outburst of anger and frustration caused by that part of society which was deemed "too big to fail", whose bail-out has impoverished the remainder of society (the "Big" bit) which is left to fend for itself? If ''help yourselves" was indeed a mantra for the Big Society, as I suggested in the previous Newsletter, then didn't the looters go a step further and "help themselves" amid the wreckage of the high streets?
So I would like to consider the Prime Minister's not unreasonable assertion that our society might be broken - but also, by implication, our particular version of democracy.
I would propose a different perspective. In spite of the extreme violence, 'broken' is not the appropriate word for the present state of society - for when was it ever whole? - but rather it is and always has been 'divided', which is perfectly natural and even healthy if we value our personal individuality while respecting others'. But this pro-social attitude of tolerance and co-operation is at odds with our "first past the post" democracy: your vote will count only if it helps get someone past the post, and won't count at all if it was for the losers. That would be fine if it made no difference who won. But what if a healthy society actually requires the proper participation of all sides in Government? And even though we now have a significant "centre" party, how can that change anything if all it can do is select which side to help "past the post" and which side to vanquish"?
Nearly fifty years ago, I learnt in 0 Level Economics that the UK had a "mixed economy", comprising an entrepreneurial private sector working alongside public sector industries and services, a pragmatic mix which was apparently invaluable in the post-war recovery. So did that notion really disappear in the sell-off of the nationalised industries, or does it still have neglected currency for the public services that make for a civilised modem society? For the intervening decades seem to have polarised our democracy between public and private sector values. This is far removed from the productive mixed economy of my youth and, as I suggested in the previous Newsletter, the Big Society is not the rationally devised solution to the conundrum; it is simply a collective label for every ordinary individual- you and me - having to pay the price for the excesses of others, to which we can now add the costs of the riots. Perhaps we are witnessing the social consequences of this ideological division, an imbalance which can only be perpetuated by our divisive version of democracy.
Why can't we all have our respective views and values represented in balanced post-election policies and programmes, including the plethora of legitimate minority interests within our more diverse modem communities? Wouldn't that be a more meaningful democracy? Our elected representatives seem to be asking more of the Big Society than they can muster between themselves.