The riots that caused five deaths and millions of dollars in damage in London and several other English cities earlier this month will prove a test for British Prime Minister David Cameron and his one-and-a-half-year-old Conservative-Liberal Democratic administration.

At the start of the summer, Cameron's economic policy was already on shaky ground. In mid-2010, his coalition government had enacted austerity measures aimed at eliminating Britain's budget deficit -- currently more than 150 billion pounds (roughly $248 billion) -- within five years. It introduced a plan to cut public spending by 81 billion pounds ($134 billion) over four years, leading to sharp reductions in welfare benefits and social services in Britain's poorest neighborhoods. The cuts affected social housing benefits, particularly in high-cost London, and policing, with an estimated reduction of 16,000 officers across the country. It is no surprise that most of August's riots took place in areas with high poverty, unemployment, and dependency on welfare, nor that the police struggled to respond to the violence.

The disorder might have derailed Cameron's economic policy for good. In addition to the immediate costs of the riots (damage, theft, and the shutting down of the leisure industry for several days), the resulting uncertainty will discourage investment, hindering the economic growth necessary to reduce the deficit. Meanwhile, Cameron cannot easily walk back from his program. If markets were to decide that the government lacks the resolve to follow through with the cuts, then a rise in debt-servicing costs would become a self-fulfilling prophecy, driving up the deficit and the risk of default.

The riots also laid bare the complex and increasingly tense relationship between Cameron's Conservative Party and the police force, particularly London's Metropolitan Police. Earlier this summer, a controversy over the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World hacking into private phones exposed the unseemly relationships among politicians, the police, and the media. Senior police officers had apparently accepted gifts from journalists employed by Murdoch's company, and Cameron had hired a former editor from News of the World as his press secretary. The commissioner of the London police force, Sir Paul Stephenson, resigned in mid-July because of personal ties to one former News of the World employee implicated in the scandal.

The riots erupted less than a month after the London police service was turned upside down by this scandal. Under a caretaker leadership and with a disillusioned and overstretched body of officers, the response to the riots was inadequate and confused. For perhaps the first time in recent British history, lawlessness reigned in the capital city, leading to a spiral of unchecked violence and looting.

Cameron criticized the force for "holding back" and failing to prevent the initial disorder in northern London from spreading countrywide. According to Cameron, the police interpreted the disturbances as a "public order issue, rather than essentially one of crime," implying that a tougher police response could have stemmed the escalation of violence. Police chiefs across the country expressed anger and frustration in off-the-record comments, and the head of the Police Federation pointed out that the number of officers that had been deployed on the streets of London toward the end of the violence -- 16,000 -- was the same number Cameron proposed eliminating as part of his austerity measures.

After the violence subsided, a YouGov poll for The Sunday Times showed strong support for the police force's performance during the riot but negative approval ratings for Cameron. Public confidence in the police is traditionally high in the United Kingdom, whereas trust in politicians has been low since 2009, when a scandal regarding the expenses of parliament members rocked the country. Cameron was perhaps unwise to pick a fight with the police in these circumstances, and the government is bound to be held responsible for the failure of the authorities to keep order.

Even more damaging for Cameron, the rioting put his own brand of modern conservativism on trial. The Conservative Party's instinctive response to a crisis of public order is to criminalize the rioters and enhance the repressive powers of the police, as the Thatcher government did in the 1980s. Cameron's reaction was no exception: In a speech the week after the unrest, he stated that the riots were not about race, government cuts, or poverty but about behavior. In other words, he blamed the rioting on rioters' lack of values and argued that the proper government response would be to punish crime more severely and stop incentivizing irresponsibility through the welfare system.

Such statements have not helped Cameron's standing with his Liberal Democratic coalition members. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat Party's leader, has warned the public against "knee-jerk" responses to the riots, such as evicting convicted rioters from public housing, which is something a Conservative Council in South London has proposed and Cameron has endorsed. For the past year and a half, the Liberal Democrats' and Conservatives' common ground on economic policy has obscured their very real philosophical differences. But the riots brought those differences to the fore. Cameron invited the courts to pass "exemplary sentences" to rioters, leading to some draconian punishments for minor opportunistic crimes (an engineering student received a six-month sentence for stealing a pack of bottled water from a looted shop). Senior Liberal Democrats publicly rebuked Cameron for interfering with the work of the judiciary and for the disproportionate sentences the courts handed out in some cases.

Although the coalition is not at immediate risk of collapse, the response to the riots underlined the very real philosophical differences between the parties, with the Liberals prepared to prioritize individual rights and social justice over law and order and retributive justice. Clegg's low-key, and at times embarrassed, reaction to the crisis confirmed that public order is a "wedge issue" for the coalition. However, the Liberal Democrats' poor showing in local polls last spring counsels against any attempt to call a new general election and bring down the government.

Holding the coalition together over the next few months will prove a difficult task, but it might be the least of Cameron's worries. The riots revealed a gaping hole in Cameron's own political vision and strategy. His bid for the Conservative leadership in the mid-2000s centered on "detoxifying" the Tory brand, downplaying the party's backward-looking rural English traditionalism and embracing the realities of modern urban Britain. As head of his party, he labored to reconcile the Conservatives to ethnic diversity and gender equality and expressed concern for the environment. He bicycled to work and toured the Arctic Circle to study the damage global warming had wrought on polar ice caps. He even made high-profile visits to urban minority neighborhoods blighted by crime and unemployment, appealing for a greater understanding of the difficulties children growing up in such places face. The improvement of the party's electoral prospects among Britain's centrist population offered him some protection from his internal opponents, but many Conservatives were nonetheless uncomfortable with Cameron's approach and clamored for a more conventional right-wing focus on tax cuts, law and order, and welfare reform.

After the financial collapse of 2008, Cameron changed tack. He seized the opportunity to lambast the ruling Labour Party for the recession, blaming Labour's reckless social spending for the crisis. The welfare state had failed to eliminate poverty, he said, instead bankrupting the nation and leaving a broken society. He urged the government to abandon centralized, statist policies and empower individuals and communities to address their own problems. This is what he christened the "Big Society," which formed the core of the Conservative manifesto during the 2010 general election. The Conservatives won that election but not by enough to form a government, so they allied with the Liberal Democrats, making Cameron the prime minister of Britain's first coalition government since World War II.

For its part, Labour roundly criticized Big Society, and experts in social services warned that it would leave poor communities exposed, particularly since the charities and community organizations Cameron hoped to promote were dependent on the very funding his government was planning to slash. To be sure, expecting civil society to make up for a shortfall in government provisions was always ambitious, if not naive. But the August riots exposed an even more serious flaw in his program. The ease with which Britain's social order could break down suggested that the problems facing poor urban neighborhoods were of an entirely different order than the Conservative leadership had believed.

Cameron's response to the riots, which has so far focused on vigorous policing, tough sentences in the courts, and punitive actions through the welfare system, marks a return to the instinctively statist approach to social problems that Big Society had promised to end. Fond hopes of voluntary groups emerging to provide support to the poor and unemployed as the welfare state withdrew now appear a recipe for social chaos.
Cameron's tough rhetoric will undoubtedly find favor from within his own party. But Liberal Democrat opposition now stands in the way of increasing police powers and imposing "zero tolerance" in marginalized communities. With the collapse of the Big Society idea, a coherent strategy to address Britain's social problems remains elusive.

In the absence of a constructive program of social reform, only the bitter medicine of the government's deficit reduction strategy remains. Promises to mend Britain's "broken society" are easier to make than fulfill. Even if Cameron is fortunate enough to avert further unrest, the menu for the remainder of his term remains an unappetizing mix of austerity and vague appeals for moral renewal. How attractive this will prove to Liberal Democrats and centrist voters is an open question.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now