Lack of trust in politicians was a significant factor behind the riots that erupted in England this month, according to a major academic research project.
Although poverty and lax moral values played a part in people’s decision to join the disturbances, a stronger influence was their attitude towards politicians, researchers at Essex University and Royal Holloway University of London found.
The findings, seen by The Independent, are expected to be studied by a panel being set up by the Government to look into the causes of the riots and a separate inquiry by the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee.
The academics’ verdict will be a bitter pill for many politicians to swallow. Some on the left have blamed the riots on deprivation and the Coalition’s deep spending cuts, while many on the right, including David Cameron, have highlighted the lack of responsibility in Britain’s “broken society.”
According to the report, “There will be burning and a-looting tonight,” politicians are seen as “a class apart” who abide by their own rules . It warns that tough measures to punish rioters such as withdrawing their state benefits --backed by Conservative ministers-- are likely to backfire. Such penalties could “further alienate some sections of society from the public realm” and “only serve to compound the problem of public disorder rather than addressing it.”
The authors say political factors behind the riots could include “middle class looting” by bankers in the financial crisis as well as the MPs’ expenses scandal. They may have “made it more acceptable for everyone else to ‘take’ what they wanted, when they wanted it.” Another factor could be mistrust of the police, creating “alienation.”
The research, based on opinion polls and focus group discussions, was underway before the riots but provides a unique insight into the minds of those who took to the streets. Data about people’s general willingness to break the law were analysed to test the three most common explanations for the riots.
“People’s disposition towards state institutions weigh more heavily in shaping their propensity to obey the law than their belief systems and personal values,” the report concludes. “This finding has obvious and considerable implications for the question of how best to respond to the riots. If people’s willingness to abide by laws laid down by the state is compromised by their jaundiced view of state institutions and their mistrust of political elites, an effective response will have to address political engagement in general and the perceived ‘looting’ of state resources by those at the top in particular. Breaches of trust by those at the top appear to have profound negative consequences for the health of the body politic.”
It adds: “These results should be sobering for politicians. If those at the bottom of society are to refrain from engaging in violent disorder, more needs to be done to build public confidence in the integrity of those at the top of British government.”
Sarah Birch, a reader in politics at Essex University, who carried out the research with Nicholas Allen, a senior politics lecturer at Royal Holloway University of London, said: “Though it would be an over-simplification to say that lack of confidence in the political system caused the riots, the evidence we’ve examined suggests that there is something about the functioning of the political system and the behaviour of politicians that makes a significant minority of people potentially available for participation in acts of mass illegality.”
Dr Birch added: “If politicians want to provide moral leadership, they need to do so through their deeds as well as their words.”
The ESRC-funded study is into public understanding of the ethical behaviour of politicians. Asked whether people should obey the law, even when it goes against what they think is right, 13 per cent of those questioned disagreed and 4 per cent replied don’t know. People on annual incomes of less than pounds 10,000 were more willing to break the law.
The report can be read at www.essex.ac.uk/government/ethicsandintegrity.