An e-petition calling for rioters to lose their benefits has rapidly gained the 100,000 signatures needed for it to be passed to parliament (and last time I checked had over 200,000 signatures). Personally, I foresee problems with this not as a result of some sort of right to benefits, but purely because you are introducing a new punishment after the crime – a very dangerous precedent.
Nevertheless, here’s my take on why people are calling for these measures.
The perception is that there has been a huge expansion of “rights” in the country. Arguably there has been little expansion, it’s just that more people are aware of their rights. We’ve all heard the stories of children in the classroom who defy the teachers based on “I’ve got my rights”.
The European Convention on Human Rights is, regardless of your thoughts on it, and incredibly important piece of legislation. There’s a reason why any proposal to scrap the Human Rights Act is accompanied by a promise to replace it with a “Bill of Rights”.
Perhaps the solution is an association of responsibility, but the principle behind many rights is that they are unconditional. Even the most violent rioter is entitled to our hope that one day he might reform and become a valuable member of society. Subsequently any attempt to instil a sense of responsibility cannot really be enforced by law – it has to be something more subtle, and I would contend, based on pride.
What if the rioters had a greater sense of pride in their community and country, recognising that their actions reflect poorly on both the area and the entire country?
Great Britain is in a slightly odd position, since although we have one of the greatest democracies in the world (and the “Mother of all parliaments”), we have no formal constitution. There are certainly constitutional documents such as the Magna Carta and the Human Rights Act, but nothing on the scale of the American constitution.
So perhaps now is the time to look at formalising things – a written constitution comprising of the relevant legislation, setting out rights which comply with the ECHR, taught in schools as part of the values upheld in being “British”.
This isn’t part of some nationalistic or isolationist fantasy – we should celebrate being British and invite others to hold the same values. Nor is it something which will deal with all the causes of the riots. But the people guarding buildings against looters and amassing on the streets with brooms are more British than any rioter, and I wonder if it might be time to recognise this.