In the face of the disorder in English cities in recent days, the debate has revolved around questions of individual responsibility or wider issues of opportunity and parenting.
But there is a broader and more fundamental lesson in all this about freedom. The past week has shown the crucial importance of liberty for a decent society to function.
We have been given a frightening insight into what happens when the order and control that we normally take for granted breaks down. In its place come fear and a complete absence of liberty for ordinary citizens.
A friend of mine, in her twenties, described being stuck in her flat in Hackney for several nights this week while gangs roamed the streets outside as being trapped like an animal, unable to venture outside the door.
As I helped a small businessman friend of mine in Wolverhampton clear the glass from his ransacked and looted computer shop I saw the fear in his eyes that this could happen so easily.
On repeated evenings shops in our major cities have closed early, depriving traders of the freedom to trade. Decent people have fled city centres by 5pm, leaving them to a combination of the police and threatening gangs intent on trouble.
All of this has been the destruction of freedom and its replacement by fear. And when that freedom is absent normal life can’t function.
It is therefore essential that we restore order as soon as possible. For in restoring order, we restore freedom. Only once we have that can our shops and businesses get back to normal, can decent law-abiding citizens go back to enjoying our city centres in the evening, as well as during daytime hours and can young women feel free to venture from their flats at night.
Only once order is restored can businesspeople take rational decisions about rebuilding what has been destroyed.
Only when freedom is restored can people go to work and the trade can resume that generates the tax revenues to fund the schools, hospitals and other services that are at the centre of political debate.
Sometimes in political discourse, freedom and equality are posited as opposites, one traditionally owned by the right, the other by the left. We should never allow that to happen. The left should be clear that we stand for order and the liberty it guarantees. For without this order and liberty we cannot build the good society we seek.
There has been some discussion in recent years about the Labour government having posed a threat to liberty. It was never true and last week’s events have shown that it is not the laws passed by Labour in government which threaten liberty – it is the lawlessness we saw on our streets which terrified decent people, caused millions of pounds worth of damage and forced people to abandon public spaces.
We have seen a glimpse this week of what replaces freedom when order breaks down. Order and freedom are essential for opportunity to grow and progress to take place.
This article is also available on the Progress Online website. Posted on 12 August 2011.