One of the complaints often heard about politicians is that they don’t really say what they think. Yet there is also a rush to condemn when MPs do say what they think, unless it fits the current conventional wisdom. So anyone suggesting the riots present anything other than a law and order issue, and that there are deeper issues which need to be debated and addressed, stands accused of excusing violence and criminality.
Tomorrow Parliament has to show that it is capable of speaking to, for and about the country in a way that commands real respect and authority. Clearly much of the focus will be on the leaders, and in particular the Prime Minister. But it will also be a day when backbenchers can and should get noticed, and they should say what they think.
Those who want to stand and blast the rioters and the looters, blame parents, blame welfare handouts, blame Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown and-or Cameron should be allowed to do so. And those who believe that there are serious underlying social issues should be able to raise them without being accused of condoning violence.
Parliament has to be the place where free speech is valued and respected and the free flow of ideas is encouraged. If MPs feel their constituents feel anger and resentment that those who caused the global financial crisis are still running their banks and raking in their bonuses, while others lose benefits and public services, they should say so. If they feel that a young person who feels valued in and by the community is less likely to riot than one who does not, they should say so. If they feel cuts in youth services are a factor, they should say so. If they feel there is a growing gulf between a political, financial and media elite, and people really struggling to find work and pay their way in the world, they should say so. If they feel, as Boris Johnson does, that now is the worst possible time to be cutting police numbers, they should say so. If they feel local government has been strangled of real power and leadership, they should say so.
There has been something of a polarisation on the riots already, well summed up in a tweet last night which said the Right say lock them up, the Left ask why? There will be plenty of words of condemation of the violence and lawlessness, many words of support for the emergency services. But if that is all there is, it will be a wasted opportunity.
There is not a single MP who does not condemn the violence, who does not want to see order returning to the streets, criminals punished, and communities restored. On that there is universal agreement. But there also has to be disagreement tomorrow. The riots have not taken place in a vacuum. They have taken place in a society in which most of us, even a week ago, would never have predicted what has come to pass. If Parliament is to command the respect it should, it must tomorrow be the place that starts a serious debate as to why this has happened, what it says about what Britain has become, and what if any policy and cultural changes need to be advanced.