One of the first initiatives from the coalition government was to start a conversation about fairness. “What is it?” they asked. “And what does it really mean?”
The question elicited a wide range of responses. This seemingly benign word became the touchpoint for longheld frustrations about what was and wasn’t fair in society. Complaints were leveled at individuals and groups whom it was thought took more from society than they gave in return. These were the ‘undeserving’, and it was considered unfair to help them ahead of others who, through no fault of their own, found themselves in need.
Why should our taxes go towards people who are unwilling to work and why should immigrants be given housing before people who were born in this country? Just two of a range of questions that framed as they were, made clear that those doing the asking were in no doubt about what ‘fair’ meant to them.
Cameron and his ministers helped the debate along by posing questions of their own. The more the debate delved into what fairness meant for some, the uglier it got with fairness being reframed in simplistic terms of the ‘deserving and undeserving poor’. The only question left was to decide who from among the poor deserved our help and who should be left to their own devices, whatever that might mean for them, their children and their families.
No surprise then at the apparent unseemly haste to label the rioters as mad and bad. Anything else would mean doing something beyond doling out punishment. As Cameron said,”Fairness means giving people what they deserve, and what they deserve depends on how they behave.”
Cameron described the riots as ‘criminality, pure and simple’. No room for doubt there. Theresa May posited ‘gangs’ as her prevailing theory for the cause with others joining in. The lowest point was achieved by the historian David Starkey who on Newsnight and with no evidence to back it up, went one step further, blaming the riots on gang culture in the black community. So what would Starkey and Cameron make of the recent report showing a clear link between deprivation and the riots?
Whether they like it or not, deprivation is a key factor in what happened in August and deprivation is often if not always born of inequality; what some might call unfairness. We’re a good way off from establishing conclusively what happened and why, during those five nights in August. The causes and consequences of the riots will take a while to unfold, but what we now know, thanks to the government’s own statistics, is that deprivation, inequality and unfairness are at the heart of the biggest episode of unrest in a generation.