The consequences of throwing stones - and this time I really mean it


Apologies to Shane, Neil and Ian: you all commented on a post I wrote at Sydney airport on Wednesday afternoon which I then comprehensively rewrote when I got to Bangkok nine hours later. The original post was called ‘the consequences of throwing stones’ and contrasted the punishment being meted out to rioters and looters with the way those who behaved irresponsibly in the financial sector have got away Scot-free. I don’t sleep well on planes and at some point in the first leg of my journey back to London I decided the post was trite. But now, back in England, I find myself wanting to make the point more strongly. But this time in the form of an urgent challenge to the Prime Minister.

My conviction was renewed by two pieces on the BBC web-site. The first describes the sixteen month prison sentence for Thomas Downey, who helped himself to doughnuts from an already looted Krispy Kreme shop in Manchester. From his photograph and his record, Mr Downey is not, I think, the kind of person I would like to have as a friend or even sit next to on a bus. But, even so, banging him up for sixteen months for grabbing a box of doughnuts from a vandalised shop when he was drunk is surely unlikely to: (a) do him any good; (b) be a wise use of public money; or (c) appear to most people as a proportionate punishment.

The second story explores the profound and still unfolding consequences of the financial turmoil unleashed in the credit crunch. With stock markets crashing again yesterday (and it looks bad today) no one knows where all this will end, but we already know that hundreds of millions of people across the developed world will suffer hardship and insecurity and that many will never fully recover from the effects.

No one can argue that all this came about just because of the behaviour of bankers and speculators. I have been arguing since even before the crunch that the deeper cause lies in the fundamental and growing mismatch between public expectations of personal affluence and public services and what the state and market are able to provide in the absence of a strong civil society. But equally, there is no question that the finance sector bears substantial responsibility because of how it chose to make as much money as possible despite the risks and because it was a strong voice advocating the economic and policy framework which collapsed in 2008. Furthermore, there continue to be parts of the sector which not only make money out of adversity but also have an interest in adding to the turmoil (this is one reason why four European countries recently banned short selling).

I could stop here, simply highlighting the way rich and powerful people can cause great misery and get away with it and poor and hopeless people can be severely punished for minor misdemeanours, but we need to get past impotent rage. The contrast between what happened to Thomas Downey and the impunity of the bankers and speculators is at one level entirely rational. Downey was personally responsible for committing a crime, the finance guys are collectively responsible for making a killing in a system which has created, and is still exacerbating, a crisis. Some people do terrible things which aren’t against the law; other people do trivial things which are. The state can only punish the law breakers. It’s just the way things are.

But borne on the wind of turmoil and trouble can be heard the swirling murmur of contested moral equivalences. The Government is close to big finance and it made an explicit policy decision to put pressure on the judiciary to hand out longer sentences to all those involved in the riots, so it can’t simply shrug its shoulders if people find this imbalance of consequences ugly and unjust.

The Big Society is in part a way of addressing the limits of the state and market in meeting social need. And for this I have often commended it. But to have credibility, the Big Society must also be about a basic sense of justice, which is essential to social cohesion and morale. Fred Goodwin and thousands more like him are still rich and still making money out of decisions which have had a profoundly damaging impact on innocent people. Thomas Downey and hundreds like him, more guilty of stupidity and impulsive greed than malice, are starting prison sentences which could blight their lives. There may be nothing that can be done about this, but political leadership has sometimes to be about helping us understand why things seem unfair and describing ideas and principles which offer a better foundation for society.

A friend of my fifteen year old son got arrested after the rioting. He didn’t attack or hurt anyone physically but he was involved in the looting. It is clear that the consequences for him as a working class kid are going to be dire. My son said to me last night ’my mate was stupid and he knows it but he is going to lose everything. Why is it when rich people screw up they always seem to get away with it?’  As he spoke I sensed a deep and lasting impression is being made on him about the way things are and how unlikely it is that ‘the system’, as he sees it, will ever change. 

If David Cameron is to return to the promise of his early years as Tory leader and provide a vision which unites, heals and invigorates society then he needs to balance the punitive rhetoric of the last few days. He needs to say something which touches and unlocks this hardening sense of injustice and cynical resignation. He needs to do it powerfully and he needs to do it soon.

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