In a crisis, those struggling to assert authority rapidly develop a common language. Last week, experts, politicians and community leaders engaged in another battle – the prolific use of "R" words: responsibility, respect and rules. And robust – as in the desired policing strategy. We're told one section of Britain doesn't want to abide by the rules. They don't know the real meaning of respect, and they have no interest in shouldering responsibility. That might be true of many who took part in the casual violence and happy- go-lucky looting and arson, but we need to look closely at our own personal ethics before rushing to blame one age group or social class.
On Wednesday, David Cameron talked about "a complete lack of responsibility" in some sections of society. Ed Miliband did the same on Thursday and Friday. The trouble is that many young people have a completely different idea from our political leaders of responsibility and respect. In broken families, or homes where mum is a teenager, respect is what you want from your mates. Respect is not something you naturally grew up with, learnt from a set of boundaries or rules imposed by your parents. To the young, respect is a way of making you feel important when you have very little and no support system at home.
One man who works with gangs told Ed Miliband that some kids attack their mums if they are told what to do. They don't know any better. Kids know teachers aren't allowed to touch them. They can threaten to report to the social services anyone in authority who disciplines them – that's how far the balance of power has shifted. The fact that kids, black and white, have adopted quasi-American slang, where the police are "feds" and pals are "bruvs" shows they regard life as a battle in which they are warriors. They have no high-minded cause but a complicated set of rules and regulations. Discipline exists within their peer group; it's just not the kind most of us understand.
The majority of young people work hard, never break the law and try their best to get on in life. For others, life is more difficult – the Government seems determined to cut youth projects (75 per cent of the youth services budget has been slashed in the deprived north London borough of Haringey, for example), reluctant fully to fund apprenticeships and invest enough resources in getting all kids literate by 11. There are nearly a million young people under 25 out of work and 17 per cent of 15-year-olds can't read and write properly, a shocking state of affairs. In many of the areas where rioting took place, up to 90 per cent of the kids receive support via the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), which is also to be cut. How many will be able to afford to go to college in a year's time?
I find it a bit rich when Cameron and the London Mayor, Boris Johnson, blather about looters, when they both belonged to the Bullingdon Club at Oxford University, where no evening was complete without a bit of pointless destruction. Even Nick Clegg admits to setting fire to things as a youth. Johnson's alleged marital infidelities hardly make him the right person to pontificate about broken homes. As for antisocial behaviour, politicians and bankers are both guilty of diddling the taxpayer – and I didn't see many of them go to jail for nicking a bottle of wine or a television set on expenses. Journalists can't be too self-righteous either, as the number of arrests in the phone-hacking scandal reaches 12, with more expected.
Talk of moral decay is just as pathetic. These children are the product of the Blair years – even Ed Miliband admits that Labour was better at reshaping the fabric of society than instilling ethical values. Citizenship classes seem a sick joke these days. Cameron's big new "responsible" master plan should be implemented from the top down, and never mind enforcing it, jackboot-style, on the lower orders.
If we shop in malls, high streets will get a new role
Driving through London last week, I noticed that one casualty of the riots is the notion of window shopping. Retailer after retailer offer a blank-shuttered façade, making our high streets (which were already pretty drab places, with a high percentage of vacant stores and charity shops) look bleaker than ever.
Mary Portas was appointed by the Government to breathe life into our shopping streets, even though she has been a consultant to Westfield, whose huge malls have sucked shoppers away from them and into faceless boxes. She has called a group of big retailers to a working lunch next month, but her task, in the wake of the riots, is doomed. Businesses are facing a bill of more than £140m and many will close for good.
Why don't we stop trying to save the high street and turn it into something different such as low-cost housing with community facilities? People on low incomes like malls and chains – the staff don't patronise them. It's only the middle classes who care about high streets. If we want to save them, we've got to shop there – and most of us can't be bothered.
Long school holidays spell trouble
Hazel Blears made a bit of a fool of herself last week by asking why rioting kids weren't at school. Clearly, Planet Blears operates to a special calendar. But why doesn't Michael Gove tear himself away from the television studios and order English schools to start the autumn term early?
Any money spent recompensing teachers for losing part of their holiday would be worth it compared with the cost of any future extra policing. The long summer holiday – especially when the weather is rubbish – is an anachronism. Schools should be open year-round, and offer compulsory summer activities that teach kids practical skills.
I know teachers will complain – but modern schools need to assume a far more proactive role in shaping their pupils' lives.
Wrong sermon, Archbishop
Once again, the Archbishop of Canterbury gets it wrong in his response to the riots. Dr Rowan Williams says it's essential that the Government build strong communities, but people make communities, not government initiatives.
Between the wars, strong communities were often in the poorest areas, where people looked after each other without state aid. Years of Labour directives have left many people infantilised. They can tick boxes but can't see how to do things for themselves.
David Cameron needs to junk red tape, remove restrictions and health and safety garbage to make it easier for local people to start youth clubs and run activities for all ages. He should stop the sale of council property to developers and hand it to residents instead, for community projects funded by the Lottery.