08/17/2011 07:09 am ET Updated Oct 17, 2011


There has been a lot of talk about 'moral vacuums' in recent months. The staff of News International apparently functioned in one. So too, casting our minds back, did many MPs. And now we see - finally, horrifically confronted with what is an everyday reality for so many - that significant numbers of our young people are floating around in a moral vacuum as well. What, then, is to be done?

For David Cameron the answer has long been clear. He, like Iain Duncan Smith before him, is a Conservative Leader with an intuitive nostalgia for a time when morality was a public property. That doesn't mean he wants to flog gays or lock up single mothers, merely that he believes a common understanding of right and wrong is at the heart of a functioning, healthy society. It's that belief that gave us the Big Society, Broken Britain and, yes, the 'hug a hoodie' misquote. Cameron wants a Britain that is morally confident - that is liberal but also muscular. The sentiments he expressed about extremist, anti-social Islamists in his Munich speech are not so far from those he has mused on these past few days. The essence is the same; that our society must be prepared to judge a little more and forgive a little less when it comes to morality and values.

Nick Clegg, a liberal as well as a Liberal Democrat (they're not always the same thing) broadly agrees. He sees individual responsibility at the heart of the matter and he mourns its passing. It is no fluke that, alongside the more platitudinous phrases 'fairness' and 'freedom', 'responsibility' made it full-square and centre into the framing narrative of the Coalition. Yes, Clegg may be pulled in a more forgiving direction by his party but, at heart, he's happy to score the line between right and wrong.

But what of Ed Miliband? What of the Labour Party? Their response has been to demand yet another 'public inquiry' into the causes of the riots. Setting aside the riddle of whether there is, in fact, a question to which Ed Miliband doesn't believe the answer is a public inquiry, what does this tell us of his morality? Nothing. In fact, one might be so bold as to say that it leads us to the conclusion that Ed has joined greedy MPs, hacking journos and delinquent youths in that moral vacuum.

It may be easy to call for public inquiries at the drop of an ethical hat, but it isn't especially meaningful. It demurs decision-making and abdicates the responsibility, one that our politicians should feel, for articulating a strong and compelling portrait of society and its ills. If Miliband believes that inequality, tax-dodging or youth centre closures are the cause of these riots then he should say so - I would disagree vehemently but at least I could then respect his courage in his convictions. Instead, after mouthing some vagaries and talking earnestly to hand picked young people, Ed has decided and declared that he has no answers. He will have to forgive the public for agreeing with him on that at least.