Leading article: Liberalism has improved Britain – its defenders must speak up

Related Topics

When David Cameron spoke of "pockets of our society that are not only broken, but frankly sick", in his first response to the recent rioting, he was saying no more than would have been expected from a Conservative prime minister in such circumstances.

Less predictable, perhaps, was the near-unanimity on parade in Parliament on Thursday, where MPs from all parties vied to identify a malaise that stemmed, as they saw it, from a destructive moral laxity pervading Britain. From parenting to education to policing, a cross-party consensus called for discipline, toughness and the re-establishment and enforcement of boundaries.

It could be argued that, in their clarion calls, the politicians were doing no more than reflecting the public mood. An e-petition demanding the withdrawal of state benefits and council homes from those involved in the disturbances has soared to the top of the 10 Downing Street website. A poll we publish today has 78 per cent of those asked supporting automatic prison sentences for anyone convicted of rioting and 54 per cent agreeing that Mr Cameron failed to provide the necessary leadership.

Given the sight of trashed high streets and the television pictures of recent days, this reaction might not be altogether surprising. But the long-term cost could be considerably higher even than that of the rioting. The very real risk now is that three nights of sporadic and localised violence could force three decades or more of liberalism into reverse.

True, some aspects of social policy may have had unintended, even malign, consequences. Allocation of social housing according to need alone has created greater concentrations of disadvantage. A focus on child poverty may not only have helped single parents, but also made child-bearing a logical life choice for some ill-equipped to become parents. But the alternatives must be considered, too.

The differences between the Brixton and Toxteth riots of 30 years ago and the violence that began in Tottenham a week ago are starker by far than the similarities. Then, racism on the part of the police was a prime catalyst. Thirty years on, racism has not been completely expunged, but it is not what triggered the latest disturbances. If the looters who have reached court so far evinced any disadvantage, it was social and economic. After 1981, much policing was rethought, with community relations front and centre. It is an achievement that the clamour from many of these same communities now is for more policing, not less.

And while multiculturalism as an approach designed to foster social harmony is in the dock across Europe, the sensitivity to cultural difference and protection for civic rights that it presupposes have served Britain well. If anyone needs evidence, it can be found not only in the look and feel of our shops and streets, but also in the way communities have come together to condemn the rioters, clean up and collect money for the victims.

As for social attitudes, we have to ask what a fast track back to 1980, or even the 1950s, would produce. Do we want pupils to be in cowering fear of teachers armed with belts and canes? Do we want two-thirds of schoolchildren to be written off as failures at 11? Pregnant teenagers forced to have abortions or banished? Do we want sexual difference stigmatised again? Or families who cannot afford their rent to be split up? Those made redundant to face destitution?

There are compelling reasons why many facets of liberalism were embraced and, thanks to liberalism, Britain in 2011 is a far better place for the majority of its citizens than the Britain of 1981. This is the conclusive riposte to those now seeking to set back the clock.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
With an eye for strategy: Stephen Fry’s General Melchett and Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder  

What Cameron really needs is to turn this into a khaki election

Matthew Norman
An Italian policeman stands guard as migrants eat while waiting at the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry bound for Porto Empedocle in Sicily. Authorities on the Italian island of Lampedusa struggled to cope with a huge influx of newly-arrived migrants as aid organisations warned the Libya crisis means thousands more could be on their way  

Migrant boat disaster: EU must commit funds to stop many more dying

Alistair Dawber
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own