These riots were not a product of permissiveness

Blaming the looting on the ‘liberal experiment’ of the 1960s is not only wrong - it could also make the real problems in urban communities worse.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics UK

It is hard to formulate a genuinely liberal response to the recent spate of riots and looting in Britain.

You get caught between two dystopian, and equally depressing, visions of society: one where the consequences of the cultural, moral and legislative changes associated with the permissive Sixties are leading us to hell in a handcart faster than you can say ‘Daily Mail’; the other where kids stealing computers and beating up their neighbours are just another (indeed, more sympathetic) version of what bankers, business tycoons and immoral governments do. Those people’s everyday practices have been described by the anti-globalisation campaigner Naomi Klein as ‘Looting with the lights on’.

Both these parables of decline share a common fatalism, borne out of an implicit contempt for individual autonomy. The Daily Mail brigade argues that people need stricter social and moral codes – backed up by the police – to control the excesses of their individual desires, while Guardianistas would prefer to believe that the looting kids are blindly driven by the bleakness of their material circumstances in a hyper-consumerist culture. By way of a solution, one side wants to reduce people’s autonomy by clamping down on their civil liberties; the other wants to do it through recognising poor youth as victims of their circumstances who need more, not less, financial and therapeutic support from the state.

One of the influential ideas to gain traction in the post-riots autopsy is ‘compassionate Conservatism’. This seeks to promote a kind of ‘third way’ between crass lefty-ism and traditional moralising, and has been most systematically developed by the Lib-Con work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith and the think-tank the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ). The CSJ’s agenda is to fix ‘broken Britain’ through policies that self-consciously reduce individuals’ dependence on the welfare state through strengthening the role of the family and communities. In this social vision, individual autonomy becomes reposed as a sinful indulgence practised by the selfish; the goal is to nudge people’s values more in the direction of conformity and self-sacrifice.

None of these diagnoses have any space for a genuinely liberal perspective, which upholds individuals’ ability to make and exercise choices about their personal lives without in any way endorsing the trashing of other people’s livelihoods. A liberal vision of society is one in which individuals are assumed to be able to make moral choices and live with the consequences of their actions. In the post-riots dialogue, all sides assume, for different reasons, that individuals cannot or should not make moral choices, and that any response must find more effective ways of controlling people’s behaviour, whether through sheer force or therapeutic manipulation.

Yet it is not true that our current malaise is a consequence of permissiveness, and it is neither possible nor necessary to turn the clock back to a time where people had fewer lifestyle choices or more stringent community obligations. The problem is rather that the spirit of permissiveness has been emptied of its content: the principle of individual autonomy. And there is a danger that many of the solutions being proposed in the wake of the riots will exacerbate the very problems they set out to address.

The ‘permissive’ moment

An article by Tim Montgomerie, editor of the Conservative Home blog, in the Daily Telegraph articulates the social conservatives’ diagnosis of ‘broken Britain’. ‘Over the past week we have witnessed the culmination of the liberal experiment’, he wrote, arguing that: ‘The experiment attested that two parents don’t matter; that welfare, rather than work, cures poverty; you tolerate “minor crime”; you turn a blind eye to celebrity drug use; you allow children to leave school without worthwhile skills; you say there’s no difference between right and wrong. Well now we’ve seen the results.’

Attacking the Labour Party for its reliance on the welfare state to solve every problem, Montgomerie complains: ‘The left is always ready to attack hyper-capitalism for the ways in which it can erode community bonds, but it looks the other way when it comes to thinking about the ways in which the hyper-state can devour social capital. Labour has become the most materialist and consumerist of Britain’s two largest parties… It reveres “lifestyle choices” as though the kind of home in which a child is raised is somehow equivalent to whether you get your weekly groceries from Morrisons or Asda.’

It is not hard to see why this diagnosis has resonance, particularly with some of those whom Iain Duncan Smith described back in 2004 as ‘Britain’s conservative majority’: referring to those members of the British public who don’t buy the Guardian or live amongst London’s chattering classes. One of the most uncomfortable features of the New Labour regime was its metropolitan disdain for the general British public. The fallout from the recent riots has cast into sharp relief the extent to which people feel estranged from both politicians in Westminster and the communities in which they live, and disempowered by an out-of-touch elite.

But while this might work as a pithy critique of the New Labour years, it does not provide an argument against the ‘liberal experiment’. The major problem with New Labour – as implied in the Tories’ criticism of the ‘nanny state’ – was its profound illiberalism; its determination that people should not make personal choices or act on moral beliefs.

The liberal experiment that preoccupies the Centre for Social Justice and other proponents of British social conservatism today is in fact the result of a brief moment in the late 1960s and early 1970s, where changes at the cultural, political and legislative level brought about a self-conscious social commitment to individual choice in their personal lives. Abortion and contraception were made legal and available, homosexuality was decriminalised and divorce laws were reformed.

This wave of liberalising legislation was, as veteran abortion rights campaigner Madeleine Simms has put it, ‘the spirit of the age’: a time when allowing individuals more choice and control over their intimate lives (who they slept with, who they married, whether or when they had babies) was seen as desirable and positively right.

Not everyone appreciated this shift: the ‘culture war’ against traditional institutions and authority figures was a bitter one, and to some extent has continued to rage ever since. And not all the aspirations of the Sixties liberal reformers, or the outcomes of their campaigns, were positive ones. But let’s be clear about why the ‘liberal experiment’ won its place back then.

It was the failure of established institutions, both those housed in the church and in the state, to win their moral arguments that opened up the space for change. Already, by the late 1960s, the failure of the postwar welfare state to satisfy people’s ambitions for liberty and change was becoming apparent. For all the talk by commentators today about the welfare state of the postwar period as some golden age of plenty, at the time it was experienced as drab, oppressive and stunting both of individual and social ambitions. Individuals wanted more autonomy in their decisions and more control over their lives.

The reforms of the Sixties also represented a moral project. Not a morality that was shared by traditionalists, or a morality that was always coherent or justifiable, but a morality nonetheless. Campaigns to allow women access to legal, safe, abortion and to allow men to practice homosexuality without fear of prosecution, were based on deeply moral arguments about equality, privacy and autonomy. The ‘liberal experiment’ of the Sixties did not pass laws legalising riots, shoplifting, petty crime and general insubordination: what it did was to repeal intrusive old laws that no longer worked, either at a moral or pragmatic level, in the society of that time.

In examining how we got from there to here, there is a glib laziness in explanations that draw a direct line from abortion rights to bad parenting, or from divorce reform to one-parent families. In different circumstances, women’s ability to have the number of children they wanted, when and with whom they wanted them, and couples’ ability to leave marriages that were destroying them, could quite easily have led to a stronger social fabric and more committed intimate bonds.

The problem is not that the liberal experiment succeeded, giving people too much freedom. If the looters were products of a genuine ‘liberal experiment’, which believed that individuals had the moral right to take responsibility for their own actions, they would not be treating the mindless trashing of communities as though it were the moral equivalent of dyeing one’s hair pink. The problem is the extent to which it has failed to withstand the dependency culture promoted by an increasingly interventionist welfare state.

Fuelling a dependency culture

Rather than offering convincing explanations for the riots, much of the commentary has used them as a reason to air ideas and policy measures that have been rumbling on for some time. So for self-styled compassionate Conservatives, these recent events simply prove the need for more aggressive ‘community-building’ intervention, where the state operates through the Third Sector to adopt and re-educate gang members (according to Duncan Smith, interviewed by the Spectator, those who refuse are told there will be no hiding place); to intervene proactively in family life right from the start (‘Early years work at the beginning with the kids, and early intervention all the way down the chain’); and generally to continue with the project of therapeutic management that was pioneered by New Labour.

What is interesting about this approach to social policy is that it simultaneously poses the welfare state as the cause of the problem, and yet proposes an even more extensive welfare state (working through the Third Sector) as the solution. ‘Whereas Big Society Conservatives are immersed in the importance of relationship-building, within families and within communities, it is the left that constantly emphasises the right to personal fulfilment’, writes Tim Montgomerie.

This statement presumes both that personal fulfilment and family life are contradictory, and that it is the state’s role to ‘immerse itself’ in reconstructing people’s personal lives. Both presumptions show how far we have come from the ideals of the genuine ‘liberal experiment’, which believed that allowing people more autonomy in their private lives would lead to a greater sense of personal fulfilment and responsibility.

Furthermore, by seeking to make people more compliant, through fostering a greater sense of dependency on the authorities and telling those who refuse that there is ‘no hiding place’, the agenda playing out here is most likely to fuel individuals’ sense of grievance, entitlement and disconnect from those around them.

For example, the tough-sounding call to deal with the riots as a product of inadequate parenting, through an aggressive ‘early intervention’ programme and through more emphasis on educating parents about how they conduct their family lives, builds on one of the most corrosive of New Labour’s pet projects. Over the past decade, the official obsession with parenting techniques has already done great damage to parents’ capacity to exercise their authority. It conflates discipline with child abuse, depriving parents of the options needed to discipline their children, then blaming them when they fail to do so. This has been poignantly illustrated by the quotes filling the media from parents complaining that they were told only to praise their children and never to smack them. These complaints have been taken to mean that parenting classes should be promoting tough love rather than ‘positive parenting’, but the upshot is the same.

Whatever specific parenting technique that is proposed, official intervention into parenting discourages parents from doing what they intuitively think is right and instructing them to follow textbook guidelines or TV tips instead. Children quickly pick up on the uncertainty this creates and internalise the message that mum and/or dad are not the ‘boss of the family’ after all. Parents themselves are treated like misguided children or recalcitrant teens, with politicians instructing them what to feed their children, what (not) to drink in front of them, how many hours of homework to spend with them per night, and alternately criticising parents for mollycoddling their kids or for not letting them take enough risks.

It is not liberal permissiveness, but the profoundly illiberal trend towards parent training that has fuelled adults’ sense of disconnect and powerlessness when it comes to their own children. Meanwhile, it is telling that adult society’s approach to out-of-control teenagers is to focus even more intently on babies, in the form of ‘early intervention’, as if the teenagers are already lost to us and they are too big to handle anyway.

The recent mayhem has at least prompted commentators and politicians to ask some tough questions about British society today. In attempting to answer these questions, we should resist the attempt to turn on the genuinely progressive gains of the past in the naive hope that less freedom means a greater sense of individual responsibility. A properly liberal response would be to restate people’s right to make their own choices, on the grounds that only this can nurture a genuine sense of responsibility.

Jennie Bristow edits the website Parents With Attitude. She is author of Standing Up To Supernanny, and co-author of Licensed to Hug. (Buy these books from Amazon (UK) here and here.)

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Topics Politics UK


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