Rolling back the state only fans the flames
David Cameron believes small state equals 'Big Society'. That equation should read strong government equals strong society and the PM should look to Sweden, argues Robin Wilson
The former New York and Los Angeles police chief Bill Bratton, whom David Cameron has invited to advise him in the aftermath of the English riots, is famous for his thesis of 'broken windows'.
Bratton's claim was that, if the authorities showed 'zero tolerance' towards such petty vandalism, they would be able to turn around urban areas suffering high crime rates.
On April 4, 2010 the Westminster correspondent of the Financial Times blogged that, in 1987, while a student at Oxford, the future prime minister had been part of a 'raucous evening' involving the 10-strong 'Bullingdon Club'.
Hours after they had posed for a photograph in matching top hats and tails, they were chased by police through the city streets after a pot had been thrown through a restaurant window.
While others spent a night in the cells, Cameron and Boris Johnson - now mayor of London - made good their escapes.
A Channel Four docu-drama on the pair had previously revealed that the modus operandi of the club was to book a restaurant in a false name, smash it up and then throw large amounts of money at the owners.
The revelation was lost in the run-up to last year's General Election, but shortly before the poll Cameron made a major speech on the theme of the 'broken society'.
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He complained of a decline in "personal and social responsibility". He blamed this on "big government" and promised that a Conservative government would usher in the "Big Society" to take its place.
Having been forced to end his holiday in Tuscany by the riots, as prime minister Cameron returned to his theme of a 'broken society' in a speech yesterday in Oxford, linking "moral collapse" to a "big, bossy, bureaucratic state".
Leaving aside questions of the prime minister's individual standing in making such claims, it is not at all obvious why his equation 'small state = big society' should work. On the contrary.
Local government budgets have been cut dramatically in the past year and Haringey Council, which includes Tottenham, has closed eight of its 13 youth clubs.
Just a week before the riots erupted, the Guardian interviewed youngsters in Haringey, one of whom actually predicted riots because there was no longer an alternative to keep people off the streets.
Voluntary bodies at the heart of Cameron's argument are also contracting, rather than filling the gap, because of state cutbacks.
Cameron is also under pressure over cuts to the police service. He defended those yesterday, while simultaneously promising an assault on gangs.
Yet what was evident during the riots, as police resources were hopelessly stretched, was that looters breaking shop windows believed themselves to be beyond the reach of the law - not unlike those youthful members of the Bullingdon Club.
In fact, the international evidence clearly shows that the political equation should be 'strong government = strong society'.
And it is the Nordic countries, like Sweden and Denmark, which provide it - societies characterised by the very high levels of voluntary engagement to which Cameron says he aspires.
Around 90% of adult Swedes are members of a voluntary organisation and each is, on average, a member of about three. Moreover, in the Nordic model, there is a tradition - albeit eroding in recent years - of volunteering with organisations of which one is a member, rather than just sending a conscience-salving cheque to Greenpeace.
Cameron claims that what he takes to be high levels of welfare dependency and sense of entitlement are at the heart of the UK's malaise.
Yet the Nordic welfare states are both universal and more generous, being well funded by progressive taxation - and they haven't run up big budget deficits like the UK as a result.
This has been linked to the much higher level of trust in Nordic countries, as evidenced by surveys of public attitudes.
Because everyone contributes and everyone benefits, and the rules are simple and clear, there is more social cohesion than where benefits are meaner and individually means-tested.
Trust is also fostered by arrangements, like the Swedish governmental commissions, which promote the involvement of civil society organisations in the making of law and policy. These encourage all citizens to believe they have a stake in society.
Labour's Ed Miliband has struggled to articulate a clear alternative to Cameron's 'Big Society'. But he has been telling his staff over the summer to read a book called The Spirit Level.
It shows, by analysing hundreds of studies, that more equal societies, like the Nordics, perform better on every social problem (with the exception of suicide).
This works because unequal societies, like the UK, have stretched social hierarchies, which place increasingly high stress on those people who are towards the bottom of the pile.
As a result, their average performances on health, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, violence, avoidance of imprisonment, education and social mobility are poorer than in Nordic countries.
Miliband has so far largely confined himself to attacks on the irresponsibility of City bankers and of Britain's Press barons, so closely allied to the Conservatives.
If he can articulate positively what the good society would look like, he could put Cameron under serious pressure.