Cameron should have stuck to his Italian job
Published 19/08/2011 | 08:00
Whatever happened to the Big Society? David Cameron seemed to throw any idea of social cohesion out the window after he belatedly returned from Tuscany to try to put his stamp of authority on the response to the riots in England.
We did need a crackdown to restore order. That was fine.
Once the police gathered themselves, they massed sufficient numbers on the streets to quell the unrest.
They were absolutely right to publish pictures of rioters so that they could be tracked down, punished and shamed.
Cameron was also right to say that this process would not be slowed down by "phoney civil rights concerns", as it has in Northern Ireland.
After that, he suffered a rush of blood to the head. It is hard to sound simultaneously blimpish and spivvish, but Mr Cameron managed it this week.
When he talked of the need to "confront the slow-motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country these past few generations", he showed himself a man out of touch with the times, a blimpish and gouty figure in a bath-chair.
A generation is about 30 years. So, if you go back a few of them, you will reach the days when the undeserving poor were sent to the workhouses and there was no free elementary education and no national health service.
Class-divisions were firm and entrenched and social mobility was difficult.
That's the blimpish part. The spivvish one comes when he peddles quick-fix solutions, tearing up the rule book on sentencing, cutting offenders' benefits and throwing whole families of rioters out of their council houses because one member rioted. It smacks of unfairness. Bankers and expense-fiddling MPs, who brought the country to its knees, do not have their tax allowances cut to zero - the equivalent of reducing the benefits of the poor.
Cameron risks producing a fractured Britain, riven by class resentment, instead of the big and inclusive society he previously advocated.
What are people meant to do when they are evicted from the homes and cut off from state support? It is very difficult - if not impossible - to find work in that situation.
Many of Cameron's proposals probably won't command Cabinet support.
Already Liberal Democrat backbenchers are denouncing them as 'bonkers'.
Ken Clarke, the Justice Minister, is planning to cut 2,500 prison places to save money - not expand the jails.
If the Prime Minister means everything he said this week, there is trouble ahead.
Either way, it is worrying that, at this crucial moment, he has made such a lightweight response. He could always have stayed in Tuscany.