Up and down the country, sorry England, sentences are being dished out like smarties. Sentences that on the face of it appear to betray a knee jerk response to a phenomenon that has at least unsettled and at worst shocked us all.
As a party we are committed to evidence based practice, now, more than ever, we need to demonstrate that this is what distinguishes us from our Tory partners. The likes of Phillips and Dorries may, rather like Cameron and May, want to absolve their class from any responsibility by dumping it in part on those immoral nasty liberals, but let's consider the facts. We have had decades of totally illiberal political leadership! Thatcher - liberal? Major - liberal? Blair - liberal? Brown - liberal? Cameron.........ah yes, claimed to be a liberal once, but prick him and does he not bleed pure illiberality?!
So this morning, as the dust of the last turbulent week (is it only a week?) settles - we have the unedifying spectacle of a prime minister, clearly out of his depth, calling for.......you've guessed it ZERO TOLERANCE. Oh and then we have that novel idea, being touted in the Express that the real answer is NATIONAL SERVICE (that'll sort them out, give'em some discipline in their lives........er......I joined voluntarily and look at me!). So let's look at what happens after people come out of the armed services - disproportionately homeless, disproportionately street drinkers, disproportionately suffering from mental health conditions. Now if our prime minister's argument is to be extended to its logical conclusion, given that our "feral youth" are the products of dysfunctional parents and a sick society, presumably there are some of our service personnel who are the product of our dysfunctional and sick armed forces??? But, maybe they're right, much better to train our "feral youths" to beat up and kill foreigners in Afghanistan Iraq or Libya than let them loose over here.
Having spent the best part of my life working with and for young people (and scarily that is now a very long time!) I have lived through many moral panics. The last week is no different. And frankly isn't that different from moral panics about youth throughout the ages. Even Socrates described the youth of his day as having contempt for authority, being disrespectful to their elders, tyrannising their teachers. But, what is different in every case is the environment in which such behaviour takes place - the values which people accept or reject - the messages our young people are getting from the society in which they either participate or feel disaffected from. And given this government's belief in "nudge" theory and behavioural economics, it seems extraordinary if they do not consider this as part of what must be a proper inquiry into what happened.
So it seems to me that what this country desperately needs is a truly liberal response to what are clearly complex problems. I may have been a little reticent in expressing my anxieties about the coalition, but surely this is a golden opportunity for us to stand up and challenge so much of this knee-jerk rhetoric? Most of us agree that short sentences don't work, and many Liberal Democrats (including myself) are ambassadors for Make Justice Work, the campaign which highlights the wastefulness of short term sentences and promotes more intensive community sentencing. We also agree with using restorative justice as an alternative to custodial sentences, surely given what as happened and the evidence of how effective this approach is, our leadership should be making this point? Being faced with the consequences of your criminal behaviour can be not only far more difficult for a young person to cope with, but also is far more likely to get them to reform their ways.
At the moment there is talk of some 3000 arrests and no doubt there will be many more, like Cameron and Johnson in their youth, who will escape justice. Do we honestly believe ALL of these rioters were criminals? Or is it more logical to conclude that there was a hardened criminal element but that many more, particularly young people, were drawn in by the mob mentality? Those young people more than any will be far more likely to respond positively with being confronted with the enormity of the consequences of their behaviour. What's that saying about acting in haste and repenting at leisure? (both young people and politicians). Don't we know that our prisons are universities of crime?
What we need now is true political leadership, a recognition that if we truly are "all in this together" we all have to take some blame for what has happened as well as some responsibility for finding solutions. There are a good few things I disagree with Nick Clegg on (!) and we have had many arguments about, however, my primary reason for supporting his leadership was that I knew him to be a true liberal, I knew that on youth issues in general and youth justice in particular, he absolutely got the need to have a liberal approach. Nick Clegg, Simon Hughes, Lynne Featherstone (another two who absolutely gets it!) and our parliamentary team have never had a better opportunity to show that leadership, to take that opportunity we allegedly joined the coalition to promote - an opportunity to ensure we try that which has never been tried in living memory - that truly liberal response.