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Parliament debates the riots

August 11, 2011

The House of Commons was rather more packed than I expected to hear the Prime Minister’s emergency statement on the riots.   I think David Cameron struck broadly the right tone.  A mixture of outrage, reassurance, promises of help for the victims, an intention to bring the looters to justice  and recognition that crime has to be seen in a social context.

The Leader of the Opposition made a consensus building response and then MPs questioned the PM for nearly three hours, with about 160 short contributions.   The best contributions were from MPs whose constituencies had actually experienced violent disorder.  David Lammy (Tottenham) and Hazel Blears (Salford) were particularly good.  Some of the point scoring questions (from either side) from MPs representing seats that had not seen trouble, we could have done without.  But generally it was a good House of Commons occasion and it was right for Parliament to reassemble to debate the issue that concerns every one of our constituents, on which there are a huge variety of views out there.

MPs have to bob up and down to catch the Speaker’s eye and he got through Members from many other parts of the country before he got to me, about an hour into proceedings.  The art of these occasions is to juggle in your mind many different questions or permutations of the same question and hope that they’ve not all been snatched by others when you’re called.  I am particularly interested in the social divisions in modern Britain so was relieved most MPs concentrated on the criminal behaviour and its consequences.

The PM’s final point had been about “tackling the deeper problems”, saying that “responsibility for crime always lies with the criminal.  But crime has a context.  And we must not shy away from it.”  He went on to talk about children not knowing the difference between right and wrong and a society that “glorifies violence, shows disrespect to authority, and says everything about rights but nothing about responsibilities.”

I entirely agree with him.  But there is another context.  I think 95% of society work hard and try to do their best for themselves, their families and their community.  But at either end of the social scale we have people who do not seem to have a stake in wider society, or at least behave without regard for the effect it has on the rest of us.  And they are the super rich as well as the dirt poor.

So after mentioning that Bristol West has experienced violent disorder in April as well as this week and praising the Prime Minister’s strong words I asked, “in dealing with the deeper issues in society, does he agree that people who feel themselves marginalised from society are much more likely to first listen to and then respect those strong words if people at the other end of the social spectrum not just in the board room, as the Leader of the Opposition said, but rather more popular people in society do not display such venal and conspicuous consumption behaviour that sets such a bad example for people who are following them?”

Who do I have in mind?  Well, senior bankers and other City types certainly spring to mind.  A common complaint I hear is that the “bankers have got away with it” – they continue to enjoy a lavish lifestyle despite the widespread criticism of their reckless behaviour that caused the credit crunch.  They are hated by some and derided by many for their lack of contrition or willingness to change their ways and set a good example.

But far more likely to be in the minds of the people who looted are people who are also super rich but popular, not derided.  And here we have a galaxy of stars, ranging from Premier League football players to TV celebrities.  Many of them are paid more than bankers.  Many of them are “tax dodgers”.  Our tabloids and celeb magazines are plastered with stories about their lavish lifestyles, luxury houses, fast cars and scandal ridden antics in exclusive clubs or the bedroom.

If people at the bottom of the social pile are to be exhorted to behave and conform then that message should ring loud and clear in the ears of the social elites too.  At this time everyone should take a good look at themselves and ask whether they are a contributor or a drain on society.  Do we set an example that would be good for others to follow?  Do we take responsibility or do we act with impunity?

This is about whether we have a moral compass.  Some people need to be taught what it is.  Some need to rediscover it.   I know that solving society’s ills is rather more complicated and multi-faceted.  But laying down some base values about working hard, getting your just rewards, setting a good example for others and being a positive contributor to society are good places to start.

42 Comments leave one →
  1. Kevin Yorke permalink
    August 11, 2011 9:13 pm

    Although we have disagreed on many things Stephen, I have to say that I agree 100% with your views and opinions above. Well said.

  2. August 11, 2011 9:48 pm

    I have some issues with the second part of your post, Stephen, the bit where you criticise bankers and celebrities.

    Firstly, I don’t like blaming groups as a whole. I don’t know any member of either group personally, but I am sure there are several among them who are honest, hard-working people who mean well and do nothing wrong. True, they may have huge salaries and that is very unfair, but ultimately, that is how our society works and there is definitely nothing illegal immoral about it.

    Secondly, I don’t like putting the blame elsewhere. Celebrities are celebrities because they are celebrated by us, the people who live in this country, their lifestyles being implicitly and explicitly endorsed by us. Bankers make a lot of money because we want them to, because we want to get nice returns on our savings and investments. The behaviour of both groups, even of the more extravagant members of them, is part of our society and as a whole we should take blame for that.

    Thirdly, while I do agree that the aforementioned behaviour is a problem, linking it to the riots gives the wrong message, suggesting that the rioters’ actions are understandable. I think that is not the kind of message we ought to give.

    That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t look at the deeper causes of this and, ultimately, recognise that these people are part of our society, like bankers and celebrities are too. Putting this down to ‘these people are evil, lock them off and strip them off benefits forever’ as some suggest is just wrong. But I’m sure we agree on that!

  3. Dan permalink
    August 12, 2011 9:03 am

    Well put.

  4. rosemary permalink
    August 12, 2011 11:21 am

    “But at either end of the social scale we have people who do not seem to have a stake in wider society, or at least behave without regard for the effect it has on the rest of us. And they are the super rich as well as the dirt poor.”

    Just as disturbing are the people in between who don’t seem to know the difference between right and wrong.

  5. rosemary permalink
    August 12, 2011 11:26 am

    I thought Parliament redeemed itself after the trumped up emergency debates of last month. Presented with a real emergency, it rose to the occasion, united, and many sober and sincere words were spoken in the short time available.

  6. John permalink
    August 15, 2011 3:31 pm

    I have sent you an email in greater detail, but I’d like to ask you here, too: behind all these words, most of which I agree with, what are you actually going to do about it? Indeed, can you actually do anything about it? It seems to me as if the government is powerless in the face of a socio-economic sysyem based on commercialism, capitalism, consumerism, and individualism. How can you actually, substantially, practically do anything to impact on this system? And if the government can’t do anything about it, are we, the people, going to have to do something ourselves?

    Pardon my provocative rhetoric, but I am genuinely frustrated by the apparent impotence of a series of political leaders who can seemingly do nothing more but propagate the current system, as opposed to doing anything that seriously challenges it.

  7. Ruth BS2 permalink
    August 17, 2011 9:30 am

    Hi Stephen,

    Don’t forget the disparity between the treatment and punishment of the rich and poor. Where are the jail sentences for those high-level NOTW employees involved in the hacking scandal? Didn’t we see evidence that high-level employees of the Met itself (not to mention our own government) were involved in this and possibly other more sinister things which affect/ruin/make the opportunities that are given to individuals and groups. Questions about nepotism have been raised by your own party leader, then dismissed by Cameron as unimportant. There’s no question about it, the rich help out one another leaving the rest of us feeling disenfranchised and powerless.

    Then a man in Tottenham is shot dead by the Met. His family aren’t even informed. It then seems that there’s also been a police cover up as to the legality of the shooting. Have you seen the comments by Darcus Howe on the BBC? if you’d like to.

    The reasons why the riots spread (and I think they are riots – just look where they took place – the poorest cities in England hit hardest by the cuts YOUR coalition have made and that you are therefore complicit in) has been well covered on your previous post by Piers Brown amongst others. These are the issues you need to address if you want to prevent this happening again.

    Criminalising the rioters will, in many cases, simply further reduce their chances in life. Yes – those responsible for attacking people should be seriously penalised. However, giving a criminal record to a child who followed a crowd of their peers and stole a pair of trainers is unjust and unwise. Taking the benefits from families with so very little can only make the situation much, much worse.

    To see the editor of the Sun on Panorama describe school children as “scum” is both heart-breaking and terrifying. Although the language he used was less offensive, I felt the same implied sentiment in what Iain Duncan smith had to say, and in the response of the government in general.

    You and your party have a chance to stop this Draconian madness and help our country and the people in it. That is why people voted for you, that is what they want you to do and that is who you should represent. You can break up this coalition. You can stop this.

  8. August 17, 2011 8:19 pm

    Ruth – sorry, if you think the coalition Government has caused the outbreak of madness last week then I think you are deluding yourself. What has led to thousands of people taking part in a mass exercise of criminality can’t possibly be laid at the door of this government. I wouldn’t even blame the last government, under which most of them received their entire education. The causes are much more deep seated and those are the issues I am trying to address. But if you want to use what happened as an opportunity for government bashing then that’s your prerogative, just like Ken Livingstone or Harriet Harman who seem to be at odds with the more thoughtful approach of their leader.

    • John permalink
      August 17, 2011 8:48 pm

      Hi Stephen,

      In reply to your response to Ruth, there is the possible implication in your response that *all* successive govenrments in recent history have failed to tackle the predominant socio-economic system in which we live effectively. The question is, then, can politicians do anything about it? Do politicians *want* to do anything about it?

      This system, the economic system of capitalism and consumerism, is based on mindless consumption and amoral profiteering and leads to a fundamentally unequal distribution of wealth. This inequality causes deep envy, bitterness, and feelings of injustice, as well as anger in some (those who have not) and disregard in others (those who have). Indeed, the rich get richer and protect the current system in order to stay rich, while the poor get pooer, and grow more resentful.

      Now, in your trying to address “the issues”, I ask you again (see my comment above), what, if anything, can you as a politician actually *do^ to challenge and reign in this economic system, a system which is tearing down our moral fabric and also destroying the environment?

      Furthermore, if it becomes apparent that you can’t do anything about it, what does that mean? Are we, as members of society, going to have to do it ourselves. With levels of disillusionment and bitterness reaching dangerously high levels, this may become more of a reality, sooner than we think.

      In a great irony then, it seems to me that the government actually wants to protect this socio-economic system, in order to assure that the economy conintues to grow and thereby satisfying big, profit-only-orientated businesses and their stock-holders.

      I have no heard a single thing from any politician of any party that gives concrete measures that could be taken to tackle this issue.

      So, a question about real, *concrete* economic actions: The EU proposes a Robin-Hood tax on stockmarket transactions. How do you feel about this?

      • rosemary permalink
        August 17, 2011 9:23 pm

        It would obviously bear down much harder on the UK than a tax on cars or wine. Could just be the last straw for unenthusiastic UK membership.

    • Ruth BS2 permalink
      August 18, 2011 1:38 pm

      Hello Stephen,

      I am delighted you likened me to Ken Livingstone and Harriet Harman. When you describe Ed Milliband as “thoughtful” do you mean “self-interested” and “lacking in integrity”? I am indeed in opposition to a man I view as a career politician above all else. I noticed on that you are yet to rebel against this government on any issue whatsoever – choosing instead to abstain on the issues you previously claimed to be against. If you think that your constituents are going to believe that this is due anything other than self-interest, then I think you might be suffering from the delusion that you accused me of. My career advice to you would be to gain some integrity, make a name for yourself as a rebellious, principled back-bencher and you might find yourself a national hero and a seat on Have I Got News For You. Carry on as you are and your political career won’t see beyond the next general election. I, for one, will not be voting Lib-Dem again.

      Your Constituent

    • rosemary permalink
      August 18, 2011 3:06 pm

      Also, Stephen, you might now point out that the senior policemen have been cleared.

      However, the young people who join gangs are making rational decisions in the predicament they find themselves. No-one could be more fuddy duddy or law abiding than I, but when anarchy was staring us in the face last week, I knew it would be no use dialling 999. Instead, I weighed up which local mafia would give us the strongest protection. I have a strong affinity with several of the many nationalities involved, but I didn’t consider which I felt most at home with, but which would be the strongest.

      So the Prince of Wales is right. But he can’t in his position point out what the rest of us know, that the authorities have lost control of law and order, and that when that happens, the poorest neighbourhoods suffer first, and the most.

  9. August 17, 2011 9:33 pm

    John, this article and my other post last week on the riots is my attempt to diagnose some of the deep seated causes of what happened. I will write again soon on what I think should be done, by government and others. But elsewhere on this blog you will find other posts on educational attainment and health inequalities. I am in politics because I firmly believe that we have an unequal society and that something CAN and SHOULD be done about it. In the short term there should be more awareness of the positive alternatives for disaffected (young) people that already exist, provided by government, social enterprises and charities. In the medium and long term more must be done (and is actually planned by the coalition govt) to enhance early intervention programmes with struggling families, to develop the pupil premium and boost apprentice places.

    re your final question – I have consistently supported the Robin Hood tax concept, have met with campaigners in Bristol and Westminster and have spoken about it in the House of Commons. But I am sceptical about the EU proposal – it is a device for the EU itself to have a hypothecated source of tax, which I think is a step too far, even for an ardent Europhile like me!

    • John permalink
      August 17, 2011 10:07 pm

      Hi Stephen,

      re: positive alternatives, I shall be one of those people delivering such services (I’m a volunteer counsellor working with young adults and a senior support worker) and have seen first-hand how these services improve the quality of life, and the future, of yougn people. It waits to be seen was practical changes come about in the near future.

      But, I like what you *speak* of, especially apprenticeships, robinhood tax, and enhancing early interventions. Still, you’ll have to understand my skepticism in the face of rent events (student fees, rising unemployment, and cuts in community centre funding, even in the area of youth). We’ve all heard lots of promises in the past, which have been broken, and all we can see now is negative changes in our society. Until we see actual concrete change, these are all just words. For example, you might have supported a robinhood tax, but it is very unlikely to happen. So, what then? Nothing changes. And people are taking it into their own hands now, by at least switching over to cooperative banks and the like, but in general the system itself remains unchallenged.

      Personally, I feel your passion, Stephen, but I lack faith in the idea that your passion will result in concrete change for the better. Many people do. All I’m and many others are left with, then, is anger and frustration. And I’m one of the people contributing to society, but I don’t get rewarded. I work for free as a counsellor and get paid £8/hr (£12,000 a year) for supporting members of the community with mental health issues and challenging behaviour. Where’s the incentive or reward in that? On this rate of pay, I’ll never be able to afford a mortgage, let alone a pension. And yet people who are ripping off and seriously damaging society and the economy (i.e. bankers and corrupt politicians) get paid hundred of thousands of pounds a year, and massive bonuses. I contribute to society, and flounder economically, while others do massive economic damage, or literally break the law, and yet they flourish.

      At the moment, this fills me with zero respect for the social system in which I live. On the contrary, it fills me with disgust. And if I’m filled with disgust, I can imagine what others less well off than me, might feel.

      Again, I apologise for my emotive words, Stephen, but I really do despair at the political ineffectiveness that I’ve witnessed in modern times.

      In saying all this, if I can do anything to support you in your efforts to make positive political changes, I would love to help. And I mean that seriously. I’m already in the process of trying to bring my local community together into a trade-sharing based community, where we help each other out based on the skills and trades we’ve got. But, it’s a difficult task. People are reluctant. I’m also trying to setup an outreach supportive group for young adults based on empowerment through my counselling agency.

      • August 17, 2011 10:27 pm

        agree with much of what you say. It is certainly true that the distribution of rewards for work is unfair. I remain a capitalist rather than a socialist but hate some of the extreme manifestations of capitalism. It’s not all down to the rich and powerful – if you stopped people in the street and asked them about such income gaps they would agree it was unfair. But would they pay more tax? Would they pay the same to see a play at the Old Vic as a football match at Ashton Gate? Why should culture be free but sport expensive? What people say and how they behave are often different and that is why democratic politics is not the easy choices, black and white system that people often assume…

    • rosemary permalink
      August 21, 2011 9:52 pm

      In case they missed it, this is for the ardent Europhiles.

  10. John permalink
    August 17, 2011 10:40 pm

    @Stephen: it my be proposed that people would not have to oay higher taxes to compensate those in the part-state-funded care industry if they didn’t also have to pay for the mess bankers have made sue to the tenets of capitlaism, where anything goes as long as you can get away with it. Politicians have not stood up to the banking and big business. And the idea that you turn to the public’s view as a reason for such inequities in justice and finance is dissappointing. I don;t think it’s down to the rich and powerful – i believe it is down to polticians refusing to challenge big businesses. If businesses were encouraged to contribute more, people on the street would not have to pay more tax. Also, people might be more willing to value the care industry if they weren’t embedded in a system where politics serves big business first, the workers second. In such a system, people feel they need to take care of themselves, not others.

    I’ll be honest – I am not a capitalist. I’m afraid that capitalism, along with consumerism, has inevitably brought the values of selfishness and disregard with them… I believe if “discipline” is needed anywhere, it is needed in businesses that have no loyalty to the localities in which they work. If we threatened to raise taxes on big businesses, they’d threaten to leave. That lack values, and morals, and a committment to something more than profit.

    Thanks for your replies, Stephen. I’m sure I’ll see you on my doorstep in the future. I’m BS8. Goodnight for now.

    • rosemary permalink
      August 18, 2011 10:25 am

      Socialists must own up to the part they have played in bringing us to the state we are in.

      As to the growth of Financial Services and the salaries you dislike, that is a symptom of many decades of over-taxation as well as under-training and education. Lower the tax rates and the tax take increases. People don’t bother to enrich a bloated FSI through legitimate avoidance, but just pay the tax. They stick around too, with their money, and help to create employment for others, who in their turn pay tax, and find it worth their while to earn more, and stick around, with their money. It gets spent here, rather than in Zurich. Look at Jersey, and look at Hong Kong. Look at the UK, and look at Singapore. Look at Germany and look at Japan. Make the honest comparisons, without succumbing to the sins of envy and covetousness, and remember the bases from which they all started.

  11. rosemary permalink
    August 18, 2011 10:55 am

    Another obvious point in favour of keeping rich and successful people here, rather than driving them abroad, is that with low rates of taxation, philanthropy flourishes. Then neighbourhoods’ local loyalties and identities are strengthened, as well as poverty in all its manifestations tackled.

    • John permalink
      August 20, 2011 11:27 am

      Hi Ruth,

      I think my point is that big business is not interested in being loyal. During the boom years we actually saw the loss of apprenticeships. How can we expect to see them being introduced now, when company are focused on down-sizing? Philanthropy did not flourish during years of prosperity; it’s not in the make-up of capitalism (profit-only orientated way of being) to be philanthropic (contribution-orientated way of being).

      Even politicians, who claim to be contribution-focused, have been found to be so self-interested that they break the law, only to be given “a second chance”.

      In my view we need a total revolution in the way we think and work as a society, and few politicians seem to recognise this…

  12. rosemary permalink
    August 20, 2011 6:05 pm

    I agree, John. Business has learned to be detached and disloyal, and has grown big and non-national in the process. My point is that high taxation brought that about. Low taxation could reverse it. But changing the culture takes a long time, much longer than destroying it altogether..

    • John permalink
      August 20, 2011 6:44 pm

      Maybe you’re right that lower taxation would encourage big business to be more philanthropic, maybe not. Personally, I think you’re being a little naive. In my view, it would be business owners, managers, and shareholders that would benefit from lower taxation, not the workers, and certainly not those in the community who require support, such as the unemployed, the old, those with learning disabilities, and the young living in deprived areas. I would love to see some empirical, well-researched evidence either way, to support either of our views. But again, from observing the way businesses related to society in general during time of prosperity and lower taxataion (i.e. by continuing to distribite profits upwards to management, owners, and shareholder) I have little faith that this would change if taxation was lowered once more.

      • rosemary permalink
        August 20, 2011 8:32 pm

        As I say, it would take time to get back the responsibility businessmen showed to their workers and neighbourhoods in the 19th and early 20th century. Our parks, museums, schools, libraries, hospitals, theatres, music halls, art galleries, asylums, universities, colleges, institutes, almhouses – all came originally from private benefactions, not taxation. The architecture and craftsmanship was of the best, and no expense was spared. They reflected the diversity of localism. Compare them to the uniform contributions of the postwar welfare state, with its grim concrete and glass, its horrible walkways and underpasses, and think of what we have lost in the individuality and generosity of the private patron. Modern day corporate guilt is no substitute; it will, as I say, take time to reforge the links and loyalties between business and the community.

  13. rosemary permalink
    August 20, 2011 9:01 pm

    I’ve left out Muller and his orphanages – unforgivable in Bristol.

    • John permalink
      August 20, 2011 10:18 pm

      For what it’s worth, Ruth, I think you may have an unrealistic image of the late 19th century. Please show me some evidence that it was businesses who were making such contributions, and that these contributions were to the benefit of working class people. For example, are you aware that people with learning difficulties and mental health issues (even minor ones) were often institutionalised and treated medically and behaviourally (i.e. as if they were animals), for the benefit not of the patient, but of scientific knowledge and perhaps someday profit if a workable quick-fix treatment was to be found. This includied people who were minorities or considered inferior, such as homosexuals and women. And to be honest, despite the injustice still (for it was also present back then) of great division in the distribution of wealth, I would not wish to live 100 years ago, without an NHS, without social welfare back-up if I have an injury and cannot work, without a state pension if I have no children. Also, please enlighten me as to evidence you may have about *businesses* contributing to these institutions back then, and not relgious organisations, say, or private, individual benefactors, something which is very different from businesses per se.

      Please do this via email (see my address above) as I believe we are now hogging mr William’s blog. I won’t reply on this thread again, only via email. Thanks. And my apologies to Mr. Williams for going off track.

      To Mr. Williams, I would say that you have lost my vote. For what I gather form the above, it seems you don’t feel that capitalism is respsonsible for the way that people on the street think and feel. You don;t believe the system forms individuals, but, rather, the other way around. In this I feel you are wholly incorrect, for individuals within a system will often become that system even in spite of themselves willfully trying to achieve something contrary to that system. Group dynamics is just one simple example of this. It’s what happened in the riots, when people who would never have dreamt of stealing did so, because there was a major “game change,” if only for a brief while.

      As such, I cannot give my vote to someone who doesn’t recognise that within a system based on the persuit of profit alone we can only expect the social ruin we are seeing today in the UK, and through-out recent history across the world at large, where genuine contribution to society is not valued, and only personal success is applauded. After all, that is the rules of the game of capitalism.

      • August 20, 2011 11:43 pm

        John – perhaps I could ask you to re-read the actual article that provoked this discussion? The point I was trying to make was that the “persuit of profit alone” – as you put it, does indeed lead to social ruin…

  14. John permalink
    August 20, 2011 10:22 pm

    PS: I’ve just noticed I’ve been calling you Ruth instead of Rosemary. My aplogies. I misread a thread sequence above…

    • John permalink
      August 21, 2011 12:11 am

      Hi Stephen,

      Yes, you’re article did seem to suggest this, but it was your point in the comments, that the man on the street wouldn’t want to change that seemed to suggest to me that you think it’s the public, and not the economic system in which they live, that need to take responsibility for the way things are, that made me wonder at your approach. I mean, if governmentally, policies are designed to support free market capitalism, then I would rather expect a populace that becomes self-concerned. Indeed, I do not think 95% of society care about contributing to community, but rather just themselves and their own family. A small proportion of society actually get job that contribute to society directly, and when I say contribute, I mean taking care of the citizens beyond merely supplying and delivering material goods.Yes, there’s an arguement that we all contribute if we have a job, even a banker supplies mortgages. But, the banker also charges extortionate interest on that mortgage – its not to contribute, it’s for profit only. This applies to the people at sainsburys, BT, and Eon too. And the workers? They’re just trying to make enough money to leave. It’s not about contributing for them either.

      But, what about the small proportion. Care workers, support workers, social welfare officers, nurses, doctors, psychotherapists etc. For many of these people, they have to either work on voluntary basis, meaning getting no pay at all, or else getting minimum, or barely above minimum. Some few are well paid, like doctors, but heavuly overworked.

      So again, if society is run on the basis of overlooking those who do contribute, and rewarding those who do not, how can we blame the man on the street for thinking the way he does, namely – “I don;t want to pay more taxes. I might want to contribute, in terms of care working, but it’s not worth it. So, I’ll just crack on looking out for myself and my own family. That’s the way the world works”

      Can you see where I’m coming from, Stephen? I don’t know you policies very well at the moment, but I’d like to know more. For a start, I think we have different ideas about what is contributing to society and what isn’t.

      I am very glad indeed that you agree the persuit of profit alone leads to ruin. So, we need to make sure that we positively reinforce those who do contribute, by paying them accordingly. But, this is difficult when government funding on the organisation that deliver such services is so low, and when the management take such a greater cut of such funding. The people who work directly with the service users, often putting heart and soul into the job, are left with a meagre wage, unable to get a mortgage or a pension, and so often feel ‘why bother?’ Many end up in other jobs that do not contribute so much, and the service users find themselve with people who don’t really care as much, who are just there because they can’t do anything else. It’s a very sad situation, and I’d love to know what could be actually done about it… So far, I hear good intentions, but no possible, practical actions…

      Thanks for reading my comments, Stephen. That’s appreciated…

  15. rosemary permalink
    August 21, 2011 10:28 am

    Forgive me, John, for replying here, as I think the point is worth sharing. If the state confiscates half of what successful people earn, then private instincts of looking after one’s own will trump public spirit and generosity, and a more ruthless, rootless sort of person succeed. Just as rent control drove out decent and often resident landlords in the 1970s, leaving us with either Rachman types or large companies. Absenteeism doesn’t make for strong caring neighbourhoods, in either sphere, but that is what over regulation and taxation has produced, on a grand scale, throughout the Western world.

    I am well aware of the advances made in mental health. The Victorians did their best, with the knowledge they had, to protect the mentally ill, thinking at that time it was more humane to keep them in pleasant asylums in the country, away from the cruel public gaze they had endured in the 18th century city establishments. Their prisons, designed for one to a cell, not the 3 we have in them today, were also a great and humane advance on what was there before. Individual cases of cruelty, medical malpractice, and neglect are not unknown today, in all forms of care, even though we continue to think of better ways of treating our various human predicaments.

    If you want examples of the links between business and philanthropy in the past, I hardly know where to begin! Perhaps Leeds is a good city to study first, as it is comparatively compact, and you can walk easily and pleasantly, as they have got shot of their traffic.

    • John permalink
      August 21, 2011 2:15 pm

      To Stephen and Rosemary. This illustrates my view on the matter:

      Rosemary: I’m not sure if you’ve had any direct experience of what you call ‘pleasent asylums’. The pleasant one’s were reserved for the rich, for those who could afford them. For the rest, asylums were far, far from pleasant.

      But, maybe you have a point. I think what you’re trying to say is that we need to get businesses onboard in terms of contributing to society. However, I have less faith than you do, in the idea that cutting taxes will do this. To be sure, big businesses do everything the can to avoid paying taxes already, and UKUncut has been trying to remind us over the last year or so. It is this profit-only attitude of businesses that prevents me from thinking that tax breaks would be to societies benefit. I do not trust businesses in the same way you seem to do…

      Would just like to say at this point, that I am very much enjoying this conversation. That you both, Stephen and Rosemary, for engaging in it.

      • rosemary permalink
        August 21, 2011 7:27 pm

        Mental illness is what is unpleasant, wherever the patient is, and whoever is looking after them. It is a private hell from which there is no escape except recovery. I suppose you might say that little Prince John was put into one of the pleasant asylums, Barrow Court, very near to Barrow Guerney which was there for everyone else. And yes, I have decades of experience in this unhappy subject, and the same for prison life. We still haven’t solved the problem of how best to treat either group. The Victorians hoped that the country asylums would be safer, and more pleasant and healing than Bedlam. We can’t really say now whether it was better for the patients in practice, though we still recoil in horror at the folk memory of Bedlam. As with 20th century slum clearance: it is easy to see with hindsight what was wrong with moving people from tightknit urban communities into suburban council estates. But it was done from the best of motives, and the drawbacks not seen in advance.

        When patients were later moved “back into the community” – as a consequence of years of campaigning, not, as many people now say, to save tax payers’ money – more problems arose. But again, it was done from the best of motives, the government of the day being persuaded by the professionals, despite the extra cost, that it was the right thing to do. Do you think it was? [I expect you to say it was, but there wasn’t enough tax payers’ money secured for it in perpetuity – the answer to all our problems now, except the ticking time bomb of our national debt.]

        I don’t particularly trust business, though I prefer small local business to big international business. On the other hand, a company like PWC can be an enlightened and progressive employer, with the highest standards of probity. It can afford to be – because of the huge demand for tax avoidance on the one hand, and winding up all those bankruptcies from overtaxation and regulation on the other.

        I really don’t trust big government, as it can make great big mistakes. The less power people have, the less harm they can do, wittingly or unwittingly.

      • rosemary permalink
        August 21, 2011 8:15 pm

        PS John: the reason things like “more pleasant asylums” didn’t work out in practice as reformers had hoped, is that human agents are fallible. That, and the law of unintended consequences. In other words we should beware of blaming it all on the system. If man were not a fallen creature, any system would work well, because he would execute it as intended by those who had set it up.

      • rosemary permalink
        August 21, 2011 10:02 pm

        PPS John, I enjoyed your link and offer this from BBC radio 4 in return:

        The Advantages of Pessimism 12 Aug 2011
        Fri, 12 Aug 11

        11 mins
        Alain de Botton on why pessimism is the key to happiness. He argues that the best way to find contentment is to learn to be a bit more gloomy!
        Download 5MB (right click & “save target as”)

  16. Paul Bemmy Down permalink
    August 21, 2011 7:01 pm

    I doubt cutting taxes would lead to more philanthropy. I believe your either one who has a social conscience or your not. I’m always bemused why giving money to your local football team is considerred giving something back to the community, Still, everyone to their own as they say. I notice the amount given by the public for famine relief in East Africa is over £50million which shows some keep giving however tough times become, but I don’t know if thats classed as philanthropy. For a short while I worked, many years ago, for W.D.& H. O. Wills who gave Bristol the magnificent Wills Building. They looked after their staff like a family and were good to work for. It was somewhat “class”orientated with separate dining rooms for the factory workers, the staff, and the directors, so would be frowned upon today, but most of todays workers would like to have the same conditions as workers had there!

    • rosemary permalink
      August 21, 2011 7:58 pm

      You are right, Paul, about the little people: they keep on giving, however hard times get, if giving is what they do. I was thinking of the big absent ones, and how to get them back engaging with their own countries and communities in a responsible way, as the Willses did. Crest Nicholson may give a lot to charity for all I know, but it is not the same as visible local philanthropy and social responsibility, as demonstrated for instance by enhancing rather than blighting the townscape. As I said to John, it will take a long time to change the culture after decades of high taxation, state welfarism, bloated bureaucracy, and over-mighty multi nationals who have escaped it all. They used to say it took 3 generations to change engrained attitudes and behaviour – which is presumably why you are still doing the right thing, and not the irresponsible things you deplore!

  17. John permalink
    August 23, 2011 10:56 am


    Just came across this and thought of our difference of opinion. Tell me, how does the following article indicate that businesses are genuinely responsible, and not just out to use every opportunity they get to exploit the people in society, or what they see as “the consumer”?

    This company was given the chance to contribute to society but has clearly abused that opportunity in order to exploit girls from age 8.

    This is just one example of many. In my view, businesses are no concerned about contribution, but rather, profit. And why wouldn’t they, being as they are within a culture built on capitalism.

    • John permalink
      August 23, 2011 12:50 pm

      PS: I love De Botton’s approach. Have read him quite a bit, and have been inspire by his views…

    • rosemary permalink
      August 23, 2011 6:20 pm

      A good example of business not caring what people think. Not its potential customers, not the Mothers Union, not the PM.

      The 1960s generation got rid of stigma and taboo, thinking it oppressive and stifling. Before that, banks and businesses needed the good opinion of their communities, as well as their customers, in order to be respectable and not regarded as dodgy. If they were deemed to be dodgy they could be shut down, quite quietly. People didn’t have children as a rule until they were in a position to support them. And if children misbehaved after school, their grandmother would know, via someone else’s, before they had even got home.

      When stigma and taboo were thrown out, quite a few babies were too. The vulgar and promiscuous oversexualisation of our society and the refusal to protect our children from it, was not started by business, but by media people who thought they were being daring and left wing, annoying the Church and the Establishment. Business has been quite slow to catch up.

  18. John permalink
    August 23, 2011 12:49 pm


    I definitely understand what you are saying about the ‘fallen person [man or woman!]’. You are right, that systems are imperfect, because people are imperfect, and vice versa.

    But that doesn’t mean that it is individuals that need to change primarily, in order for the system to move forward. It may well be the case that the contrary would be more efficacious. More likely, it is a matter of both changes needing to be made individually, and systemically.

    So, I would offer this in response: I believe imperfect people made a mistake in setting up capitalism, or monetary profit, as the dominant force that would lead to economic health. (Notice, I don’t use the term economic ‘growth’.)

    Now, it is the nature of a system that it can gain a life of its own, in the way capitalism has done. Also, it is the nature of a system that it often changes and adapts much slower than the individuals within that system would be capable of if they weren’t embedded within that system. For example, (a rather arbitrary one, at that), the Catholic Church is notoriously slow in adapting to a more modernist culture, by, for example, refusing to accept women into the order, and by not recognising child abuse as a criminal offence, and it is dying a well deserved death as a result. However, individuals who can step out of that system, and think outside that system’s tenets, can survive as ‘modern catholics,’ even as their organisation crumbles. Of course, they survive apologetically, like the way a 30 year old adult apologises for their 80 year old grandfather’s out-dated, racist sense of humour.

    So, my point is this: A system can, and does, overwhelm individuals. This can happen historically, in the sense that systemic-norms can overpower individual attempts to push those norms forward. Women’s rights is a prime example, where so many individuals (men and women) are now at least superficially feminist in values, but we nevertheless still have mass misogyny within big organisations such as the church, big business, and the government. The system can also overwhelm individuals momentarily, such as in group dynamics, as I said above, when a temporary game change results in normally moral and law abiding individuals partaking in behaviour they would normal condemn.

    Systems, in a phrase, can be more powerful than people think, and they take great, concerted effort to change. We need to be individually responsible for our own actions, but we also need to be collectively responsible for the system, it’s principles and all, that we allow to continue to influence us and our children.

  19. rosemary permalink
    August 23, 2011 6:31 pm

    I don’t use the term capitalism myself, as I don’t think it is a system, like, for instance, communism – which has been thought up. Communism tried to stamp out trade, which it called capitalism. Trade is absolutely fundamental to human beings, and can’t be stamped out. Barter, rather than a monetary means of trading goods and services, isn’t very easy to administer, and doesn’t express people’s wishes so easily. So people use money. If you do away with money as a means of procuring goods and services, you won’t have a happier or more harmonious society, and it would be very difficult for old and frail people. Money, unfortunately, is also a commodity which can be traded, just like any other. Religion has tried to stamp that aspect of it out, but it has failed.

    • rosemary permalink
      August 23, 2011 6:37 pm

      On the RC church – it is anything but crumbling outside Europe. That is why the Pope is on a special mission in his pontificate to Europe. He gets a rough ride in Europe, even in Catholic Spain. Previous popes didn’t worry about Europe, concentrating instead on South America and Africa. How times have changed!

      On child abuse and the RC Church. Different generations have different ways of dealing with scandals. Ours believes they are best out in the open. In the past they thought otherwise. That doesn’t mean they thought child abuse a good thing.

  20. rosemary permalink
    August 23, 2011 6:41 pm

    On feminism, the jury is still out as to whether women are better off having to do it all.

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