Nick Clegg’s speech to Liberal Democrat members on the riots

Nick Clegg spoke to party members yesterday (Saturday) in Liverpool and Manchester, discussing last week’s riots and their aftermath.

His speech featured the announcement that the Government is commissioning independent research into the riots, (including research into gang culture) and cautions against “overnight policy” and “instant announcements”.

Nick’s speech in full:

This has been a traumatic week.

Traumatic for the nation; for police forces around the country; and above all for the innocent victims who have lost their homes, their livelihoods and even, in the most tragic cases, their lives.

The images of burning buses, looted shops and wrecked homes will not fade quickly. But our country must not – and will not – be defined by the actions of lawless rioters, opportunistic thieves and the members of violent gangs.

So now the work of rebuilding begins. Of the homes, shops and streets that have been damaged. In many places the work has been started by communities that have voluntarily and spontaneously come together to reclaim and clean up their neighbourhoods.

The best of Britain clearing up after the worst.

But there is also the slower, more painstaking, less visible rebuilding – the rebuilding of the affected communities themselves, and of people’s lives. This is the work of years, not days.

Some long-standing social problems have been thrown into sharper relief: gang culture; failing families; a welfare system that traps too many in dependency.

The Government is already moving on all these fronts. Tougher action on knife crime; a radical welfare reform agenda; national citizens service; more investment in parenting; support for councils who want sanctions against those who wreck property. The last week gives these efforts even greater urgency.

So we will step up our efforts to deal with some of the long term problems at source. We will intervene more to deal with the hard core of the most problematic families, and we will, for the first time, provide early years education specifically targeted at two year-olds from the most disadvantaged families.

Intervening early saves a lot of heartache, crime and cost years down the line.

But right now the immediate need is to get to the bottom of what happened on our streets in the last week.

Nobody can credibly claim to know for sure, at this early stage, the precise reasons for the various acts of disorder, to have perfectly discerned the motives of the criminals on our streets.

We need to know who did what, and why they did it. We need to understand. I don’t mean ‘understand’ in the sense of being understanding, or offering even the hint of an excuse. I mean understand what happened, to get as much evidence as we can. Then we can respond, ruthlessly but thoughtfully.

That is why we are already commissioning independent research into the riots. Of course we don’t need research to tell us that much of this was pure criminality, but the more we can learn the better.

Why did some areas and people explode and others not? What can we learn from those neighbourhoods and young people who remained peaceful? After all, it is worth remembering that the rioters were the exception, not the rule.

We need to know what kind of people the rioters were, and why they did it. That is also why we are looking into gang culture, so that we can combat it more effectively. In policy-making as in war, it is important to know your enemy.

Our policy response will be guided by our values of freedom, fairness and responsibility. It will also be based soundly on evidence, not anecdote or prejudice. Kneejerk reactions are not always wrong – but they usually are.

Overnight courts and instant justice are an essential part of the response. But while of course we have had to act swiftly and decisively, we have resisted the temptation to engage in overnight policy or instant announcements.

For me, what was most striking about the disorder was that so many of those involved clearly felt like they had nothing to lose.

Nothing to lose from destroying property and stealing goods, from getting a criminal record, from deeply damaging their future prospects for a job or education.

For many of the rioters, it was as if their own future had little value. It was about what they could get, here and now, and hang the consequences – above all the consequences for their victims, but even for themselves.

Clearly the people on the streets this week have felt little stake in society, and no responsibility towards their own communities.

Let me be clear. There is no excuse for this behaviour. None. As a liberal, I see violence and disorder of this kind as an attack on liberty, on the freedom for individuals to live and trade in peace in their own communities.

I think the best defence against this kind of nihilistic behaviour is to ensure that everyone has a stake in society, and everyone feels a sense of responsibility towards their own community. That, in turn, means giving people the opportunities to get ahead so they feel they have a stake in their own future.

That is why this Government has decided to focus our social policies on social mobility, because having opportunity – real opportunity – gives people the drive, discipline and responsibility to do the right thing.

Putting more money into schools with disadvantaged youngsters, expanding apprenticeships, increasing the provision of early years education. None of these will be quick fixes. There are no quick fixes. But these are the kind of investments that we need to make now, to spread opportunity in the future.

And I want to be clear about one important point. While I passionately believe that it is the responsibility of government and broader society to ensure that every individual has real opportunities, I am equally clear that it is the responsibility of the individual themselves to take those opportunities up, and to play by the rules.

What guides us should be the following conviction: people who play by the rules should be the ones who thrive. Those who think they can break the rules and reap rewards need to know that their time is up. This applies, above all, to those who broke not only the laws of the land, but also the rules of common decency, with their behaviour this week.

But there’s a broader challenge here too. Too often, it looks as if people who break the rules can prosper. Tax evaders and benefit cheats; bankers who break the bank but feather their own nests; MPs who rob from the public purse.

At all times and in all parts of a society, we have to guard against the danger of a ‘smash and grab’ culture. A smash and grab culture in which, as the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it yesterday, the only commandment is ‘thou shalt not be found out’’.

There is a danger that the only thing that stops people obeying rules is the fear that they might get caught.

In crime research there is a well-known theory dubbed the ‘broken windows’ effect, where one broken window leads to more and more crime.

I think there is a similar danger of a ‘broken rule’ effect, with people who see rules being broken in one walk of life then being more likely to break them in another. Rule-breaking spreads through society like a virus.

There was a lot of copycat rioting this week, as people acted out in one city what they saw happening in another. But there is a deeper copycat effect at work here too: people copying what they see as a ‘take what you can, when you can’ attitude to life, to society and to each other.

So while we can and will ensure that justice is done this month, and that the rioters and looters are properly punished, we must make sure it is done every month, everywhere.

The ‘broken rule’ effect means that we have to take a zero tolerance approach to all rule-breaking, all of the time. Rules are for all of us.

Politicians usually say at times like these, ‘let’s learn the lessons’. But they rarely do. This time it can be different. The burning shame we feel at the disorder on our streets has to be combined with a thoughtful determination to understand it, and an unbending commitment to stop it from ever happening again.

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This entry was posted in News and Speeches.


  • Stuart Mitchell 14th Aug '11 - 12:12pm

    This is actually a very sensible speech by Clegg.

    I very much hope that one political response to the riots will be a rethink in Lib Dem ranks about the barmy proposals for elected police commissioners.

    It’s difficult to imagine a better way of poisoning police/community relations than having political police commisioners who will inevitably be seen as representing one section of the community (i.e. those who voted for them) in preference to the rest of the community. The police should be seen to represent all sections of their communities equally – the only exception being criminals, of course.

    Where areas are blighted by tensions between racial groups, the potential for trouble caused by political police commissioners ought to be very obvious to anyone.

    It’s a stupid and dangerous idea and I hope that Lib Dems will have a good long think about it in the light of what happened last week. (There is also the practical foolishness of spending huge amounts of money on divisive police elections when we clearly don’t have enough police available to keep order on the streets.)

  • Rabi Martins 14th Aug '11 - 1:32pm

    This is indeed a good speech from Nick Clegg DPM

    There are occaions when Nick could and should speak more as the leader of the Liberal Democrats. This was surely one such occasion I would have liked Nick to announce that he was going to set up a Lib Dem Commission to examine why Britain has such a high level of disaffection in certain sections of the community.
    I would also have like to see Nick distance himself from the notion that these riots were led by young people. As can be seem from the profile of those coming up before magistrates and judges this is patently not the case. Nor is it the case that they are all from unedcated, deprived, sink council estates.

    I think Geoff Payne is absolutely on the button
    We do indeed indeed live in an unequal society. This rot set in under Margaret Thatcher and flourished under Tony Blair. In opposition Liberal Democrats – including Nick Clegg – were relentless seeking ways to make our society more equal – more fair – more open

    Since getting into government alongside the Conservatives our voices have become very muted

  • Duwayne Brooks 14th Aug '11 - 2:22pm

    ‘…..looking into gang culture’

    This is not about gangs. How many non gang members were involed ?

    Do we have figures or we just blaming those who are easy to blame ?

    The media has already chosen its instigators this party should have the foresight to things differently.

  • Sandra Hartley 14th Aug '11 - 2:27pm

    Would someone at Lib Dem Voice be kind enough to ask Nick Clegg to settle some confusion please.
    You’re probably best placed to do so as you will have access to the leadership of the Lib Dems.

    Although it’s an old story it seems relevant in light of Lib Dem involvement in a government that seems to be setting up a form of show trials at the moment, and Clegg telling whoever will listen that people must be punished.

    Clegg admits to setting light to a rare collection of cactii and burning down two greenhouses when a teenager.
    His excuse was that he was drunk. He spoke to the Mail about it in 2009, amongst other things including his love life.

    In an interview with BBC Radio Nottingham as few days ago, he was asked about the ‘arson’ [as some might call it] incident. Clegg did not deny it, but said he had not been convicted and got rather huffy. [about 4 and a half minutes in and note he doesn’t rebuff the allegation]

    Victoria Coren wrote about it last year in the Guardian with a different spin, suggesting that Clegg may have been a bit of a fantasist who had deliberately exaggerate the story to increase his street cred.

    So which is it ? Could a Lib Dem please tell us the truth ?

    alleged Arsonist, fantasist, convicted or not ?

    At a time when the government are cheerleading rhetoric about retribution, surely the issue of whether our Deputy PM has behaved in such a way is important. If he wasn’t fantasising and the story is as he told the Daily Mail interviewer, and he didn’t face charges – then what does that tell us about his views on punishing looters and rioters now ?

  • David Evans 14th Aug '11 - 5:01pm

    “the Government is commissioning independent research into the riots”. How easy it is to subjugate liberal judgement to an adminitrator’s approach once you are in government!

    Nick, you were chosen by the party for your judgement. Any Sir Humphry can commission consultants!

  • @Sandra Hartley:

    Not to mention Osborne, Cameron and Boris’ “bit of fun” in their Bullingdon days of smashing up restaurants.

    But it’s not “looting” or “mindless violence” when those with money and power do it, is it?

  • The trials going on through the night reminded me of the French Revolution.

    It’s always ‘trapped’ by the benefit’s system. What about those of us who feel supported by the benefit’s system and who would be trapped without it? You don’t increase social mobility by impoverishing people. What about all those people they will make homeless as a result of the cuts to Housing Benefit? A weak, uninspiring and indistinctive message from Nick. I was hoping the Lib Dems would use this opportunity to distinguish themselves from the Conservatives. They continue to be just numbers bolstering the Tories.

    Here is a good article on the riots.

  • OK, it was a good speech. But has Cameron listened to a word of it?

  • Sandra Hartley 15th Aug '11 - 9:09am

    Yes, of course I know where show trials took place and when. What are you trying to imply ?
    That I must be a communist because I’m questioning Clegg and his newly found desire to punish, when his own criminal behaviour, if his own claims are true, seems to have gone unpunished ?
    His response on BBC Radio Nottingham was to bluster that he hadn’t been convicted, although he does not deny the fire starting claims. [How could he when he was happy to tell the Daily Mail all about it, as I’ve linked previously].

    And where did I say that those guilty of looting arson and murder should not be punished ?
    Of course they must be. But does severely punishing those who were foolishly opportunistic and had no part in the original rioting/arson/murders serve any real purpose ?

    What would Clegg be saying if the Lib Dems were not in government with the Tories, or Labour were still in power and presiding over the same orgy of knee jerkism that we’re seeing now ?

    My point is that Clegg is supporting the rhetoric of retribution, yet it is still far from clear whether he actually received punishment for his teenage misdeeds, or whether by dint of being a fortunate child of wealthy parents he escaped the courts.

    He has managed to get into the job of Deputy PM, therefore a request for clarification on whether or not he faced charges is in the public interest, at a time when sentencing policy and whether crime and vandalism is caused by bad parenting or wanton mindlessness are topics the government seeks to gain politically from.

  • Simon Shaw
    I think you are reacting in a rather “Daily Mailite” way here, ie you are picking out words, and not listening to the overall sense of what is being said. We know that “show trials” have been used in all sorts of unpleasant tyrannies in the past – no doubt being used in Syria and Iran at present. But just because we live in a “democracy” (do you for instance, as your words imply, believe that there is a firm division between “democracies” and “dictatorships”? If you do, you really are living in a simplistic world) doesn’t mean that we can’t also have trials used mainly for the purpose of making an example of people. I have now lost count of the times we have heard that “we need to reflect the reaction of people” to the “riots”. Irrespective of whether you believe that “the reaction of the people” is what is written in The Sun or the Mail etc, the law is supposed to be a process whereby deliberative justice, not that in response to televisual instant images, is delivered.

    And as for the issue of Nick Clegg, I think what Sandra was implying was that Nick was not being too discriminating about who he thought should be “punished’ and how severely. I think you need to respond to a charge of Daily Mailism, which, of course, has little to do with Liberal Democracy.

    And before you accuse me of some heinous crime, I believe that crime and the fear of crime are two of the greatest blocks to implementing a genuine liberal society, so of course I oppose them absolutely. But in this case, we need to ensure that the punishments for arson, murder, serious violence against people, and violent damage to premises are distinguished from opportunist stealing, and petty receiving of small amounts of stolen goods. I think we need to look at the sentences handed out to looters on the beach in Devon when the MSC Napoli grounded a couple of years ago, which was also opportunist looting. The public reaction may have been different then, but the type of offence – or opportunist stealing – was similar.

  • Brian Mckay 19th Aug '11 - 6:37am

    A suggestion to reinstate National Service for young people is an important step forward. To serve the nation and make a meaningful contribution and install a sense of pride. Military discipline for the majority who need a sense of purpose would help to break the recent lawless trend to criminality. Give the young a goal, A purpose in life to aim for. .Self discipline comes to those who have a desire to advance their aims and to make a worthwhile life. Many who roam the streets in a gang culture would benefit from the chance to serve the nation as soldiers. The recent events in many major cities is akin to anarchy. A complete breakdown to social order. The law of the jungle. Attitudes have to change, and a softly softly stance will achieve nothing. Get to grips with the situation and do something very positive!
    Treat these people like men, and they will act like men! Regards, B Mac.

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