UK: David Cameron’s Parliamentary Statement on the Riots

David Cameron’s “Statement on public disorder” from the extraordinary session of the British Parliament addressed both the events of the past days and what the government intends to do next, as well as some longer term plans. The Prime Minister’s statement came across as determined, forceful; indeed, he managed to strike the right tone, delivering “straight talk” to the Parliament and to the British public. In his intervention, Cameron made sure to define the riots as criminal acts, while at the same time acknowledging that, on a longer term, the deeper societal roots of these events need to be addressed. “Responsibility for crime always lies with the criminal. But crime has a context.” – Cameron said.

His statement was followed by a reply from Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour party, which was not a counter-attack (as it would usually happen, during Prime Minister’s Questions, but a similarly decisive condemnation of the recent acts of thuggery and mob-rule on the streets of England, complemented by a balanced inquiry into some of the proposed response policies.

This whole meeting of the Parliament, and the positions expressed by both leaders (of the majority coalition and of the opposition), are indeed a witness to why Britain is still a model democracy, notwithstanding its problems. What would have happened if the leader of the opposition would have taken the side of the rioters? Or if a significant number of members of Parliament, or perhaps even a less than significant one, would have done that? The entire leadership role of the political elite would have been undermined, and one thing that the people of Britain truly need at this moment, and one thing they did not receive from the police during these past few days, has been leadership.

This does point towards an element that is less talked about nowadays, because of all the (understandable) emphasis on democratic mechanisms: the vertical dimension of politics, namely that decisions need to be taken by certain people at a certain moment, and that deliberation can not go on forever. Americans have an expression for it: “the buck stops here.”

In many states around the world, states where democratic politics rest on shakier grounds, this might have been an occasion for certain politicians to gain political capital. Are not in fact the rioters members of the public as well, entitled to their grievances and opinions? Democracy, however, is not simply a mechanism of transforming polls (aggregating opinions) into policy. The loathing of democracy expressed by the ancient Greeks referred to such an understanding of it, especially given that what they had was direct democracy, not representative democracy.; for them, mob rule was an immediate potentiality, not an interpretation of political events.

Representative democracy has in fact an aristocratic element to it; decision makers, although elected, need to play fully their role as opinion- and policy-shapers. They need to be leaders.

On the other hand, the machinery of democratic politics will not work, or will not survive, unless it is grounded in a democratic culture that is structured around a few key values.  Hence the importance of the Constitution in the US, or, as we are seeing it now, of the organic constitution of the British tradition of democratic politics, of a “certain way of doing things” in Britain. Without such commonly assumed and cherished values, a political system that possesses only the trappings of a democracy (such as an elected government) but not its foundations, can not last. These key values of democracy, however, can be learned, just like any other values, and can become part of the very identity of the members of a given society. There is no society without hope, in this sense.

You can watch David Cameron’s statement and the following discussion on Parliament TV.


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