Following the riots, the various sides dig in behind the traditional battle lines of explanation, with one side blaming a breakdown of morality and the other pointing to income inequality. However, evidence suggests that these factors are not alternative explanations: they reinforce each other.
Turning to morality first. David Cameron has blamed “Criminality, pure and simple”, On this morning’s Today programme Nick Clegg referred to a “smash and grab” and “get what you can” culture and the Spectator’s Melissa Kite referred to an “acquisitive” morality of “greed”.
It doesn’t take too much thinking to identify some role models of ‘get what you can’ morality. They include those in the financial services industry who have been seen to collect huge salaries, bonuses and pension payments while others suffered from the recession they helped cause.
They include benefit cheats who enable the demonisation of genuine claimants. They include executives whose multi-million pound performance payments appear entirely unrelated to performance and whose companies expect the taxpayer to subsidise their underpaid staff through state benefits.
They include loan sharks who prosper from others’ misery. They include MPs committing fraud in the expenses scandal. They include well-known companies doing all they can to avoid paying tax.
With the exception of some MPs and benefit cheats, most of these have not been seen to be punished for their sins.
To turn to inequality, we should first recognise that inequality is not the same as poverty. Although worrying numbers do live in poverty, inequality causes damage to society as a whole, not just those in poverty: inequality pulls the strata of society so far from each other that society begins to break apart.
Inequality causes social exclusion, not only because some cannot afford to participate in ‘normal’ society but because there is also social exclusion at the top: the former head of the CBI has said that executives “risk being treated as aliens” because “their pay is so out of step”.
Research suggests that there is a causal relationship between levels of inequality (not levels of poverty) and levels of violence (as measured in homicides).
Further research shows that levels of community trust and cohesion are lower where inequality is higher. This suggests that smash and grab morality, which neither respects nor recognises community obligation, is more common in a more unequal society.
But what can be done, if individual immorality and social inequality reinforce each other? I have three recommendations:
1) We all need to recognise is that “inequality is not inevitable, concerted policy efforts can be used to decrease it as Equality Trust research has found.
2) Policies to reduce undeserved top incomes: the review of Fair Pay currently being considered by the Government, and Vince Cabl’s’ reviews of executive pay, could be a good start.
Coupled with policies to raise undeservedly low incomes, such as promoting Living Wages (advocated by Ed Miliband and others) would help.
3) Policy makers and commentators need to recognise that we are all in this together – that smash and grab morality cannot be tolerated, at any level of society.