Breakdown Britain

Social breakdown and economic breakdown- what to do about Breakdown Britain

I was invited to a meeting to discuss anti social behaviour in my constituency yesterday, sharing a platform with a local GP, an Inspector of Police and a charity worker specialising in tackling the problems of disaffected youth. I said something along the following lines:

“ Most of you in this hall today are used to getting up at a reasonable hour in the morning, washing and dressing, shaving or putting on the make up, and going out to make your contribution to our community life. Some go to work, as teachers or police, some to sell us goods in the shops or to make us things in the factories. Some retired people go out to lead local community clubs and activities, to run our charities and voluntary organisations. You have a sense of purpose and wish to live within the law.

“I was asked by David Cameron to produce an analysis of how we could make things better for all who wish to make their own way in the world, and want to contribute to our economy or voluntary activities. That work is now being adapted to manage the crisis in our economy that the Credit Crunch and its aftermath represents.

“My colleague, Iain Duncan Smith was asked to produce a report into Breakdown Britain. His task was the more difficult one of recommending how we tackle the problems of that other Britain. It is peopled by those who have no reason to get up in the morning and smarten themselves up, by people who are depressed, angry, lonely or out of sorts with the world around them. That other Britain throngs with drug peddlers and drug users, with the unemployed and the mentally ill, with those who failed at school and fear they will fail at most other things. It is full of people who cannot accept the rules of how the rest of us live, who see them as at best an irrelevance and at worst a tyranny they must break. Our prisons are full of the sad and the mad as well as the bad.

“Iain not only harnessed the talents and ideas of the many to write his analysis and proscription. He also plunged himself into the world of social entrepreneurship to gain first hand experience of ways of stretching out a helping hand to those down on their luck and to those who think the best thing in life is to look for trouble in gangs or idle time away on street corners. If there is one overriding conclusion from Iain’s patient work, it is that there is no top down answer government can impose or buy. He concluded that in the broken communities of Britain many of the dispossessed young need adults who will take time to cross the street to help, inspire or comfort before it is too late and they need the penitentiary. He recommended relying more on a renaissance of social entrepreneurship, letting a thousand flowers bloom in the unpromising concrete fields of our inner cities.

“Here in Wokingham we are blessed with fewer of these problems than you would encounter thirty five miles down the road in parts of inner London. But no community is free from drug abuse, drop-outs, mental illness, violent crime and casual damage to property. Here we have seen violent and casual knife crime, and syringes in children’s play areas. My message today is that all of us adults have a part to play – some small, some larger – in putting more of this right. Families can inspire and discipline, motivate and reprove. Where they can they should be encouraged to do so. Where parents are too busy to offer the love and time it takes, or where the families have been ruptured and the adults are themselves prisoners of emotional poverty, other adults from the local community need to be around to help. It is not financial poverty that does most damage. Some poor families make up in love and concern what they lack in cash, and some rich families may shower goods on their children for lack of time to do what matters more, to take an interest.Some will help by running voluntary organisations, organising sports, and by setting up social enterprise companies and not for profit bodies. Others will make their contribution through their excellence as school teachers, vicars, policemen and women and care workers. There has been tension and difficulty in talking between the generations from time immemorial. That should not stop us seeking to improve the dialogue of the generations. We, the generation in power, need to tell those who follow us what we are trying to do and how we are seeking to do it. The generation that follows will judge us, write our epitaphs and decide what to keep and what to ditch. The coming generation needs to tell us what they want from their future and how they see what we are striving to do whilst there is still time to modify or complete it.

“If there were a few silver bullets that government could fire to solve the problem this government or its predecessor would have done so. There is no party dispute over the need to mend our fractured society, and what disputes there are over means amount to very little. The truth is political parties have come to recognise it is not primarily a problem for new legislation or better benefit rules. It is a problem for all of us, to offer some leadership and to offer some inspiration to young people before it is too late and they have settled into a life of crime and futility.”


  1. David Eyles
    July 5, 2008

    John, quite apart from the inspirational qualities of this speech and the previous one made at one of your local comprehensives, what interests me is the amount of time you actually spend engaging with your constituency.

    This is in stark contrast to the amount of time that our own MP, Jim Knight, spends in this constituency. I suppose that his excuse will be that he is a minister and so is rarely given the time by his civil servants to actually serve his constituents apart from the obligatory Friday evening surgeries.

    Is this luxury of being able to give time to your constituency a product of being an Opposition backbench MP, or is it still possible to serve in this way even if you become a minister in a new government?

    Reply: When I was a Minister I still kept up a good number of constituency engagements, as it is the main way an MP has of staying in touch.

  2. Neil Craig
    July 5, 2008

    I would invite comments from those countries which don't have a crime problem – Singapore comes to mind, though actually it comes to mind over almost any solved problem. Admittedly one of their answers would be the ratan cane which the EU would certainly stop, but they may well have other ideas too.

    The side effect of the sex offenders list, which I would argue has been more damaging than the original problem is that it has made it very difficult for "Some will help by running voluntary organisations, organising sports". That part of the voluntary sector which is not merely politically approved pressure groups demanding & getting government money is being strangled. The Scouts in particular. This is something where if big government can't be part of the solution it should at least stop being part of the problem.

  3. John
    July 5, 2008

    So it seems that most people including you still believe that education can get us out of the mess we are in. I don't think so. The criminal classes and the benefit fraudsters are not even going to try to reform. Let us now try the stick instead of the, now mouldy, carrot. Tough prisons where the prisoners cannot get any drugs. The death penalty for murderers where there is no shadow of doubt. Possibly corporal punishment. I seem to remember that the Isle of Man had virtually no crime when the birch was available. All prisoners to lose all human rights.
    It could be a trial period, say 50 years. to see how it works. After all the soft approach hasn't.

  4. Donitz
    July 5, 2008

    Its harsh but am I alone in thinking that many of our home grown population will never change. Is it their fault?

    The Socialist's bred a socially dependent clientele to keep themselves in power. They succeeded.

    Many East Europeans, many with little English, found accommodation, employment and did not resort to crime or blame anybody for their situation. They came, they saw, they worked.

    God bless the supporters of "white trash" and all that sail in her.

  5. Rose
    July 5, 2008

    You have described the situation we are in very well. After 60 years it would appear the welfare state is not the answer, and may even be part of the problem. Now councils have set up their own welfare states as well, diverting money from their traditional responsibilities – for keeping the public places safe, clean, and well-maintained – towards massive spending on social and racial engineering projects which only seem to suck in more trouble from all over the world. The result is public squalor and demoralisation beyond the most pessimistic forcasts of those who warned about these things in the past.

    It will be a task on an Augean scale, but IDS seems on the right lines and David C has done well to appoint him and you to think about how it may be done.

    As for the rest of us, I think we are due for one of those reactions which civilizations have from time to time when decline sets in, such as the Victorian moral revival which followed the decadence of the 18th century. We were brought up to sneer at that and call it hypocritical. Now we may be a little more sympathetic to their plight, and react in a similar way – but this time it will be more complicated as there are Moslems as well as Evangelical Christians to lead the way.

  6. adam
    July 5, 2008

    I do not believe the government is trying its best to solve these issues.

    The key issues as i see them, stop and search needs to be reduced, alcohol is not to blame the criminal is, knifes are not to blame the criminal is, drugs are not to blame the criminal is, society or poverty is not to blame the criminal is, annon witnesses in trials need to be banned.

    The few criminals who are caught need to be sent to jail for FAR longer than currently

  7. adam
    July 5, 2008

    Prisons need to be reformed.
    The people who go to prison i see no reason why they need to talk to each other, if they do, only as a treat once a week. They can talk to teachers, psychologists, guards and other visitors. Prisons shouldnt be universities of crime.

    Prisoners shouldnt be kept in cells, that is Victorian. They need proper warm rooms with lots of personal space and lots of books. I dont see the need for a TV.

  8. adam
    July 5, 2008

    They dont need keys to their rooms.
    I believe some of our prisons have swimming pools, i think they shouldnt. They are expensive and exercise would be better achieved through team sports which have many other benefits.

    Students who want to better themselves have to pay university fees and for their halls.
    I see few reasons why prisoners shouldnt pay for prison through a similar system.

    These are just some things i think gov. can do.

  9. odin
    July 5, 2008

    Dialogue? Yes, but combined with a zero tolerance approach plus an absolute stop of "political correctness".

  10. Frank Davis
    July 5, 2008

    Before you start trying trying to fix Breakdown Britain, you might ask yourself how you have yourself contributed to that breakdown.

    Both you and Iain Duncan Smith voted for the divisive, mean-spirited public smoking ban that has been destroying communities and driving pubs to bankruptcy over the past year (about 1,800 so far). Both of you put your names to a law which has allowed the marginalisation and state persecution of the quarter of the population who are smokers. Both of you no doubt swallowed the lie that passive smoking posed a health risk, when a little investigation would have shown that the majority of passive smoking studies have shown no significant risk at all.

    You write about people who are "depressed, angry, lonely or out of sorts with the world around them." What else have smokers been since banned from their pubs? And you created this situation. I mean you. You personally. In your capacity as MP when you voted for a complete smoking ban.

    And now here you both are, wondering how to fix the breakdown Britain you helped to create.

    You can read the comments from depressed and angry smokers on the blog of Kerry McCarthy MP, another MP who voted for this ban and thinks it's a 'great success'.

  11. Bazman
    July 5, 2008

    Any government to improve British society has to tackle the drug problem head on and upset pro and anti drug people. This is a far to big a nettle for any of them to grasp.
    Society will remain the same and it will be business as usual for the illegal drug industry.
    There has been a good strategy with gambling from both sides. ie bad for society in general, but business is business and the public do need their bread and circuses. Here's a tip. Whenever a politician makes a speech about gambling Replace the word 'Gambling' with 'Drugs' Works well!
    Often the reaction of Middle England to this mind bending problem is simplistic. It is easier and more convenient in London to obtain drugs than pizza, as your drug dealer is often local, friendly, and efficient. They do deliver! Talk to Crime Inc for details.
    What is the position of the Conservative party and you John as an MP on this industry and its effects on society?
    No! don't say that you will be out of a job!
    Reply: the Conseravtive appproach to drugs is well set out in Duncan Smith's Report.

  12. mikestallard
    July 5, 2008

    In the 18th century when the awful "Gin Lane" was painted with the woman carelessly dropping her baby over the wall, people were then like they are now. Hogarth painted what he saw just as the cartoonists in the Mail paint it today.
    What pulled it all together and, actually, prevented the French Revolution from taking hold was, of course, Methodism. Out of that massive movement came the nineteenth century and all that meant for mankind – Empire, Police, Civil Service that worked properly, Monarchy which you could look up to, even a fair Imperial judiciary.
    We need another Methodist type movement today.
    Well, it doesn't look as if there is going to be one – yet.
    Twin hopes lie with the Muslims who believe in God and who stimulate Christians into action and the break-away Anglicans who believe in the Bible.
    Religion gives a meaning to life, and work, and helping other people.

  13. Reverend David Hodgs
    July 5, 2008

    Year on year, generation on generation, social and economic inequality hardwires deprivation and disadvantage into our society. The inequality indicators for the UK have been going in the wrong direction for some years now. Social mobility is reducing. For me these phenomena are a direct result of neo-liberal social and economic policies – but I don't expect for one minute John to agree with that assertion.

    We know that higher levels of income inequality in societies go hand in hand with higher levels of unhappiness and ill-health. This can be demonstrated empirically. And yet reducing inequality is not even a priority of a Labour government, so captivated is it by the neo-liberal consensus and the small number – maybe half a million people in this country – who enjoy complete economic security.

    We have re-created our social and economic institutions in the image of the USA , having turned our backs on Europe, and now we are reaping the rewards of the same kinds of social breakdown all too familiar in US cities; where even some of those in work have to beg on the streets to pay their rents.

  14. Matthew Reynolds
    July 6, 2008

    Well done John ! Just as Lady Thatcher & co had a broken economy to repair in 1979 – now David Cameron has a broken society to fix . Just as we needed a Conservative government 29 years ago we need one now ! Both then & now we had a dying Labour governemnt riven with splits , in hock to the Unions and led by a PM never elected by the voters who had failed as Chancellor and who fumbled his only chance of winning a general election . Both Brown & Callaghan inherited a Labour government on the slide and they tried raising the basic personal allowance & cutting the basic rate of tax and it was too little to late . Callaghan was forced by his MP's to link the personal allowance to prices just as Brown was forced to add £600 to the starting threshold for tax . They both faced problems from the SNP . Just as Callaghan had frustrated In Place of Strife Brown caused difficulties over top-up fees & foundation hospitals . History is repeating itself as the economy & society where not in a good way in 1979 or 2008 with prices , unemployment , government debt and taxes being major issues as Labour rely on the unions to fight an election . Callaghan could have won in October 1978 as the full implications of Labour failure had yet to emerge just as Brown could have won in October 2007 and thus escaped the results of his Chancellorship just in time . Your post John tells me that history is repeating itself and that yet again a Labour government has failed on the economy while society is a less compassionate place after a failed socialist experiment . We need a Conservative government to do what Ronald Reagan did in 1981 – start cutting out much of the social spending that has not made us healthier or more free & prosperous either while lowering tax & regulatory burdens and taking the tough decisions to root out inflation ! State created poverty is just foolish & wrong – the Tories ought to take foundation hospitals , welfare reform and school choice policies in a far bolder direction than Labour .

  15. DiscoveredJoys
    July 6, 2008

    Unlike many I am quite happy with the length of sentences. What I would like to see however is a very rapid journey through the justice system…

    Instead of the repeated tellings off, cautions, ASBOs , suspended sentances, one last chance etc – none of which seem to deter the determined – I would like to see one formal warning, then a prison sentence for the second offence.

    For 'children' this might involve a month in an unpleasant cell, with a requirement to attend remedial education.

    For drunken people, the same treatement, except a requirment to undergo counselling and remedial health care.

    If there are not the places, then fit out some warehouses with cells constructed from wire mesh. It would do for a month or so.

    The whole point of the exercise is to instill the idea that bad behaviour *automatically* results in jail time which is unpleasant. It doesn't have to be long, it doesn't even have to become part of a criminal record for the first two offences, but it has to be certain and not deflected by a sob story.

  16. William B.
    July 6, 2008

    Iain Duncan Smith's task was, I believe, the most difficult of all the recent policy reviews because the reasons why people are in an "underclass" are so varied and complex.

    Something that always seems to both illustrate and accentuate the problem is the dreaded "sink estates" which concentrate the antisocial together (thereby giving themselves soul-mates with whom to misbehave) and depress the lives of the decent majority.

    Many of the most peaceful and friendly private housing developments of recent times have been built as a series of closes with short roads linking them so that every house and flat has a small number of immediate neighbours, even though the whole estate is vast. The sense of neighbourliness makes them very nice places to live.

    When money permits I would love to see ghastly concrete sink estates demolished and replaced by such developments, with the known antisocials spread as far and wide as possible within them. It won't solve all the problems but it would ameliorate what I consider to be a truly evil effect of socialist planned housing estates.

    (P.S. As a dedicated and highly skilled smoker of cigarettes and cigars I have noticed a number of blogs being targeted today by the fag ash brigade. The concept that the smoking ban could be a central aspect of the problem Mr Duncan Smith had to address gave me a good giggle.)

  17. Stuart Fairney
    July 6, 2008

    I cannot help but agree with the former head of the Kriegsmarine's point. A great many East Europeans found Britain a place where, with application, hard work and (dare I say it) no possibility of social security, they could and did flourish. This contrasts starkly with the "Jeremy Kyle" generation.

    Are you familiar with the social policies tried by former California Governor, Pete Wilson? Governor Wilson supported welfare reform to the extent that there was a limit on the amount of time you could spend on welfare, both in one stretch and in your lifetime, (I believe it was 2 years at a go, 5 years in your lifetime). The adoption of such policies would I suspect cure the problem of long term economic inactivity.

    Second, whilst the left always bleat about how we jail more people that any other European country, they neglect to mention how extraordinarily criminal and lawless Britain is. In fact we jail fewer people than any other European country, per crime committed, save for I think Sweden. Spain for example jail four times more people per crime committed than the UK. Britain and Sweden have the highest crime rates. If there is little prospect on incarceration, there is little deterrent against crime. And with jails that are full, there is a vile, compelling logic to underclass criminality ~ i.e. 80,000 prison places, 100,000 persistent offenders, ergo at any one time, 20,000 habitual criminals are breaking into your car.

    Thirdly, be it salary or social benefits, could not the first tranche of any young man’s income (who had decided to father children and then not support them) be sequestrated. I suspect this would have a greater impact on contraceptive responsibility than all the sex education in the world.

    Lastly, paid for by the cuts in welfare, could you not increase tax allowances so people escaped the so-called poverty trap really did benefit from working? The rest of us would rather enjoy it as well.

  18. Helen
    July 6, 2008


    the type of society you describe – where it is normal for ordinary people to assume that they have some responsibility for making their own communities safe and pleasant – is the type of society I thought I was going to live my adult life in when I was a child.

    What is so startling about your post is how absent this kind of expectation, once so common, has been from our political leadership in recent years.

    After ten years of a Labour government which thinks it alone is responsible for our wellbeing, the kind of society you describe seems like a distant dream. The self-motivated generosity of community-minded people was once firmly entrenched in my perception of what it is to be British. No longer.

    Now we live in a society where people face bureaucratic hurdles if they want to so much as lift a finger to help their own community, governed by people with a poisonous view of personal responsibility as nothing more than bourgeois pushiness, and who dissipate the energies of our state agencies by forcing them to hit meaningless targets instead of allowing common sense, discretion and humanity.

    I feel such a sense of despair. I thought I was going to live in a decent, sensible society. I honestly don’t know if or when I will ever feel like that again.

  19. Cliff
    July 6, 2008


    I couldn't agree more.
    Voluntary organisations struggle to get volunteers due to the police checks and general bureaucratic hurdles.
    We hear week after week of community events having to be cancelled due to petty minded officialdom, usually under the guise of 'Elf'n'Safety even though, many of these events have been running for over five decades without any problems.
    Councils putting unreasonable conditions on event organisers over insurances and the cost of policing etc. We have become the laughing stock of the world with many of our over zealous rules. Google Nanny Knows Best blog and have a read through that.

  20. John W Meadows
    July 6, 2008

    Surely step one must be to repeal the lefty legislation that is so much at the root of the problem.
    A taxation system that penalises marriage and a welfare system that tells people not to live together should be easy to fix.
    The extreme example of lefty stupidity must be free apartments for pregnant teenagers,in such a situation to remove the support of family and friends from the unfortunate young girl is total insanity.
    I would very much like to see the statistics as to how many of todays brutal,feral youths spent their early lives in apartments with no knowledge of a father or family,just a mother who in her loneliness turned to drink and drugs.
    Sadly it seems to be lefty policy that all should be dependent on government in some way or another,what a way to destroy what used to be a great country.

  21. duncan robertson
    July 7, 2008

    The best thing for being sad, is to learn something (something that has the potential, to significantly improve your net worth). That is the only thing that never fails

  22. John Moss
    July 7, 2008


    Having just spent some time entering the "marked register", (the copy of the electoral roll off which voters are crossed as they are issued with ballot papers at polling stations), from the May elections in London, I can also add that the eastern European immigrants also engage with civic society by voting!

    How depressing it was to see gaps fo 10, 20, sometimes 30 voters who didn't bother, then to be uplifted by a run of a dozen names, often the same surname suggesting family, sometimes just a whole household of different names, but solid engagement. That all the names ended "…ski" (I paraphrase), is informative.

    Populations change and move, but if you take responsibility away from people, as the Welfare state has done consistently for 60 years under Governments of all colours, then you breed an irresponsible society. I fear we are so far down that road the return path may be lost to us.

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