"Young people desperately need hope."
These were the words uttered to a gathering of Liberal Democrat Cllrs, candidates and activists by our Party's Leader, and the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg-in Oadby, near Leicester- late last week.
He was responding to the shocking and tragic events of the earlier part of the week; the riots and the looting and, briefly, the seeming loss of control on some of our streets in cities and towns across the country.
As I sat among the gathering there on that day, these words from Mr Clegg really struck me.
Though, as I've said on Twitter and elsewhere, there is no justification whatsoever for criminality (whatever the potential grievance you may have) there is little doubt that there are deep social problems and divisions in parts of our country that, having been ignored by 'The State' for so long, now must be addressed.
For too many people opportunity and, yes, hope are concepts alien to their lives. They feel, rightly or wrongly, that they've been let down by those in authority and are out of reach of the levers of making the most of their God-given potential. Out of work, seemingly failed by our education system, bored by the endless hours with little to do and constantly bombarded by media images of what it is to have a 'successful' life (the flash car and the best clothes labels, etc)-but without the apparent will to work for what they crave-is it any wonder that some of them turn to crime?
Now, let me state at this point, that there are plenty of people who come (or came) from a poor background, myself included, who would never dream of ever being involved in any kind of criminality. So, I repeat, whatever the social problems may be, there is no excuse for doing anything illegal. But, equally, let us look at how society refers to some of these people, the words that are used; scum, feral, rats, underclass, chavs. We seek to dehumanise people-to turn them into Devils-so we don't have to deal with the reality...that being that these people are as human as you and I are. That, somehow, whether through circumstance, ignorance or sheer force of will, they don't appear to live their lives under the same moral and legal code as the rest of us.
Now, there are two choices, two ways of looking at this. We can either (as, I accept, many people will choose to do) believe that there is no helping these people, we just need to lock them up and throw away the key. Good riddance to bad rubbish, some-of both left and right-will claim.
Well, I choose to take the other view. I say that, whilst these people must face the full force of the law, whilst going through that process - whether ending up in jail or doing a community sentence or being dealt with by the Youth Service - these people must be given every opportunity to be rehabilitated, to be given the advice and social, moral and practical tools needed for them to turn their lives around and become useful members of society-with all the benefits and responsibilites that brings with it.
So, let us not respond to this with knee-jerk, authoritarian reactions. Let us take a stance that many in my party would call 'tough liberalism.' This means, yes, the 'stick' of the law (and the need to have and show genuine remorse to victims) but it must also mean the 'carrot' of a second chance, of opportunity, and of help.
A generation is yearning for hope.
We must not abandon them.
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