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Carrots and Sticks

by The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby

Posted: 22 Feb 2012

Last month I spelled out some of the messages that might be contained not in the polite banners and arguments of the Occupy campers but in the violence and looting of the August riots. Those messages were contained in the violence, the anger and looting and, worst of all, in the destruction and mindless damage to property and the serious injuries to people.

It's easy to feel disapproval confronted by spectacles of that kind, easy to reckon that punishments need to be increasingly severe. By and large that's what happened: sentences were harsher and bail conditions more stringent than similar crimes would have merited. The evidence is there for all of us to see: we're now frighteningly close to a prison population that is up to capacity. What that does is make it less and less possible for prisons to perform any rehabilitation, so that they become warehouses to contain 'difficult' people.

So for young people, mostly without jobs or a sense of opportunity, increasing the size of the stick is the way we hope to produce compliance with good standards of behaviour. 'Sending a strong signal' was the order of the day, and the signal was that such behaviour will not be tolerated.

Yet the response to those who do not conform to acceptable standards is not always to wield a bigger stick. Those who precipitated the banking crisis, in particular, seem to need no such signal. A blazing furniture store in Croydon is of course a blatant - and serious - crime; but it needs to be recognised that the banking crisis of 2008 and since has inflicted damage on the lives of vulnerable people no less serious, and the devastation wrought upon the poorest is in fact far more widespread. How is it that we do not make this comparison?

A key reason, I think, is the visual prominence of what took place in August, compared with the hidden nature of what lay at the root of the banking crisis. As well as the visual contrast there is the contrast between the apparent simplicity of what took place on the streets - the fights, the fires, the grabbing of 'stuff' - and the arcane complexity of what went on in board-rooms and within the computers of those who made enormous sums of money out of financial instruments which even their creators did not understand.

But more than that is the fact that wrongdoing partakes of the class division that is endemic on British society. Those who sit quietly at their computers working out their imprudent greed are well-dressed and generally well-mannered, and their leisure pursuits are those of the middle and upper classes. They have degrees and live in prosperous areas of cities and suburbs. They may have 'gone too far', and then have to endure the wrath of those who feel that someone who was 'one of us' has betrayed our standards. But in general they will remain 'one of us', and their actions are too like those of their friends and neighbours to merit real disapproval. Their imprudence, incompetence or even dishonesty continued for the most part to be well rewarded for that very reason. They have lawyers and accountants who have the skill to keep their clients within the law.

Not so those on the streets, and it is easier to see - and to oversimplify - what lies at the roots of their actions. What we saw and the simple explanations that were given and the sentences that were handed down were all manifestations of the biases within the criminal justice system, the financial system and the class system.

And where has this left those who gained the largest bonuses and have the largest salaries? Pretty much where they were before. They have been able to persuade their friends who hold the levers of power that what they need if they are to improve their performance is not the threat of a big stick but the continued possibility of gaining large rewards.

As J K Galbraith put it simply but accurately: our society operates on the basis that if the rich are to be induced to be more productive they need to be given more money; if the poor are to be induced to be more productive they need to have their money taken away. Thus the contrast between what is said about the 'burden' of welfare payments and what is said about the need to 'celebrate success' when it is achieved by the highest earners.

The complexities and moral inconsistencies of our attitudes have been thrown into sharp relief by the events of 2008 and those of 2011 in their close connection with each other something very significant has been revealed. We continue to be told that if we cannot celebrate success we shall have no economy at all; but if we cannot give to the poorest a sense that their successes matter too we may have an economy but social harmony will disappear.

About this author

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is the former Bishop of Worcester. Following his role as part of the Interim Directing Team from 2012-2014, he continues as an adviser to St Paul's Institute.


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