David Cameron’s speech attacked the riots as the culmination of a “slow-motion moral collapse”. He complained that “social problems that have been festering for decades have exploded in our face”. But the prime minister supplied no evidence that the riots marked a long-term decline in behaviour – perhaps because the available data point in the opposite direction.
According to the 2010-11 edition of the British Crime Survey, the most authoritative measure of criminal trends in the UK, the riots are anything but the climax of a crime wave. The survey found the rate of lawbreaking “now remains around the lowest level ever reported”.
Most members of the public believe that criminal behaviour is on the rise but the number of crimes recorded in 2010-11 was half the rate at its peak in 1995. Last year, according to this measure, there were 10m fewer criminal incidents than there had been 15 years earlier.
Mr Cameron dwelt on the “criminal disease” of gangs but gave no evidence that the recent unrest was any worse than the bouts of fighting and vandalism that took place in the 20th century involving mods and rockers or football hooligans.
In a speech in which he sought to explain the underlying causes of the riots, he was clear that existing government programmes would resolve them. An important part of his prescription was welfare reform and efforts to turn around failing schools – already part of the coalition’s agenda.
A senior Conservative summarised the speech as “a very long, drawn-out way of saying ‘we told you so’. We’re doubling down on public sector reform. We’re making the case for marriage. The riots make the case for what we’re doing. They vindicate what we’ve been doing since 2005.”
Mr Cameron raised the stakes on another of his reforms, pledging “a stronger police presence – pounding the beat, deterring crime, ready to re-group and crack down at the first sign of trouble”. Amid police budget cuts of one-fifth and the possibility of further outbreaks of rioting, it was a high-risk claim.
Neil O’Brien, director of Policy Exchange, a centre-right think-tank, said that it would be a “hard slog” to deliver police reform to make the required savings. But he added: “After a decade in which the police had a 40 per cent real terms increase in their budget, but the detection rate stagnated, there is no question that the police have scope to become more efficient.”
Mr Cameron made the bold pledge that, within this parliament, he would “turn around the lives of the 120,000 most troubled families in the country”. But he gave no criteria by which the families would be selected, nor did he define how success would be measured.
Ian Mulheirn, director of the Social Market Foundation, a think-tank, said: “It is not clear whether this is a reprioritisation of existing spending or a pledge of new spending. If it is the former, then it will be controversial. If it is the latter, it will be expensive.”
Marriage and family were a strong theme, with Mr Cameron musing that many of the rioters perhaps “come from one of the neighbourhoods where it’s standard for children to have a mum and not a dad”. His comments were swiftly followed by calls from the Tory right to bring forward proposals on a marriage tax break now being considered by the coalition.
Even here, though, there is scant evidence of its effectiveness. Tim Leunig, chief economist at Centre Forum, a think-tank, and an academic at the London School of Economics, said: “There is no evidence that a transferable allowance would increase the number of people who get married, nor increase the longevity and stability of marriages that already exist.”
The riots may have shaken Britain, but the political equation remains the same as it was before the unrest. The coalition’s fate depends on its ability to deliver public sector reform and economic growth while closing a double-digit deficit.
Get alerts on UK politics & policy when a new story is published