Michael Heseltine has personal wealth, and a lifestyle, that is far removed from the vast bulk of people living in Britain’s inner cities, let alone those who took part in the riots. He spends his working life flitting in the back of a car between a beautiful home in Belgravia, and an even more beautiful home in the English countryside, complete with a remarkable garden that is his true pride and joy, dropping in and out of the Lords, his businesses, and the little office he has for the work he is doing on regional investment for the government.
So on one level, he has all the qualifications needed for an ‘out of touch’ stamp to be plastered all over his forehead. But though a Tory to the root of every hair on his head, he is one of those rare Tories who not only feels a sense of responsibility for the deprived, but also thinks about how and why they live the lives they do. I genuinely feel that with David Cameron, George Osborne and some of the other well-heeled members of the Cabinet, they not only lack any understanding of the lives of millions of people they now govern for, but that they also lack the wherewithal to begin such understanding, and that they don’t make much effort to develop it.
When you are from their kind of backgrounds, living their kinds of lives, I think they need to make that effort. For much of his career, Heseltine has done so, and it shows. He is still a Tory rather than a genuine progressive, but he has thought deeply about the kind of issues that lead to the kind of riots we saw recently.
His article in The Times today is worth reading, not least by his fellow Tories. It is written subtly and politiely – as Margaret Thatcher knows, he was always good at code. But there is a clear warning to Cameron not to overdo the Broken Britain stuff, and a clear plea for the current government to do more to address the deprivation that inevitably has a role in social disorder. But above all, it is a plea to turn the localism slogan into policies that live up to it.
Much in his article is an echo of that written by Tony Blair at the weekend, in that he sees the problem as one caused by a minority of dysfctional families cut off from mainstream values and mores, that these families are exceptions not norms. They share too a belief in the importance of tackling the underlying issues area by area, street by street, if need be family by family.
It cannot be done by will alone. It cannot be done by Whitehall and Westminster alone. It needs, as Heseltine says, localism to be converted from slogan to practice. He also rightly notes – in relation to what he calls the mistake of the abolition of Regional Development Authorities – that in some areas decisions taken by the government run counter to their stated objectives.
So much of this is about leadership. He concludes his article with a reference to the report he wrote on the riots thirty years ago. ‘My report noted that problems festered in the inner cities because there were no local leaders to take charge. The problem is the same today.’
For all their talk of localism, the government are taking power and resources away from local government when, as Heseltine says, they should be going in the opposite direction. I know Cameron has a lot going on at the moment. But I hope he finds time to get behind the paywall and read it.