Twenty-nine years ago, Margaret Thatcher stood on the steps of Downing Street and quoted the words of St Francis of Assisi: ‘Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.’
We know what happened next. There’s a lot of nostalgia for the music of the 1980s, but the social context was one of mass unemployment, the miners’ strike, the poll tax.
It was the decade in which house prices shot through the roof and Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney was the icon of the age – before it all came crashing down.
They say history repeats itself: it has to, because we never listen. So fast forward to David Cameron’s speech in Glasgow this week: ‘…our mission is to repair our broken society – to heal the wounds of poverty, crime, social disorder and deprivation that are steadily making this country a grim and joyless place to live for far too many people’. Not as pithy as St Francis, but the genre is the same.
And what happens next? Mr Cameron will fix society by taking a lead on moral responsibility (don’t mention Ray Lewis), ‘freedom to exclude’ for head teachers, and a ‘presumption to prison’ for youths carrying knives.
If we’re in the business of working for sustainable communities, we should be engaging with this debate because David Cameron is making some important statements. Funnily enough, they’re not that dissimilar to ones we’ve heard over the last decade from Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.
What’s different is the scale of the means being employed to achieve the Cameron vision of social justice. More people in prison, more excluded from school, more draconian rules for benefit claimants.
And more homilies from politicians on morality, as if they were not the ‘broken society’ writ large.
And there’s the rub. These fixes do not work because the fixers are flawed too, and always have been.
Every system of social control has its catalogue of abuses, and every system without social control is powerless to prevent abuse. Our visions for society must be worked out in a world that is complex, fluid and largely unresponsive to the pontifications of politicians.
That makes life tougher, because we have to take responsibility ourselves, and can’t simply exclude and imprison our way to a safer, more confident society.
And part of that responsibility must be to challenge illusions of quick fixes.
Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine