WITNEY (Reuters) - Prime Minister David Cameron’s promise to fix Britain’s “broken society” prompted heckles from a teenage audience in his rural powerbase on Monday, underlining the deep divisions about what caused the country’s worst riots in decades.
In speech at a youth club in the picturesque town of Witney, Oxfordshire, Cameron blamed the trouble on a society where fathers abandon families, gangs flout the law and people refuse to take responsibility for their actions.
But the young audience was unimpressed, heckling the Conservative leader and pointing the finger at public spending cuts, inequality and higher university fees which they fear will widen the gap between society’s haves and have-nots.
“He is blaming everyone but himself,” said Jake Parkinson, 17, unemployed. “The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. I’d love to go to university, but it’s the money that is putting me off.”
Cameron, wearing a crisp white shirt and blue tie and sporting a suntan after a Tuscan holiday cut short by the rioting, stood in front of graffiti portraying two hooded and masked youths striking a gangster pose.
The cartoon-like characters fitted the stereotype of those who took part in four nights of rioting that triggered a bout of soul-searching about the state of British society.
There were whistles when Cameron entered the stuffy, cramped room and “chicken” noises at the end from teenagers who accused him of leaving early and being too scared to answer all of their questions.
Many in Witney said they thought the biggest threat to public order came from a government austerity drive that they say will inevitably lead to the closure of social services funded by the state or third parties, such as charities.
“He wants people to get in touch with their families, but for some people their families aren’t there and the youth centre is the only place where they can talk to people,” said Ryan Clayton, 15. “But he’s shutting all the youth centres.”
With its honey-coloured stone houses, antiques shops and historic church, Witney is a world away from the city streets where looters wrecked shops. Cameron represents the area in parliament and has a house nearby in the Cotswolds countryside.
In the town’s main street, unemployed father-of-two Martin Lawson Smith said the wide gap between the rich and poor had fuelled the discontent.
“I don’t think broken families and morals are the problem,” he said. “It’s more the inequality that there is in society.”
The debate over the many possible causes of the rioting has divided voters, political parties and media commentators.
In Tottenham, the north London neighbourhood where the riots began after police shot dead a suspect called Mark Duggan, there was some support for Cameron.
“I think he’s right,” said Nicola Pastore, 26, who lives next to a carpet shop gutted during the disorder. “At the beginning it had something to do with the funeral (of Duggan) but after that it was just people wanting to rob.”
Giuseppe Delgiudice, 48, painting the front door of a boarded up law firm beneath a flat destroyed by fire, said he backed stronger police powers and action to tackle gangs.
“It was too lenient at the beginning,” he said of the initial police response to the riots. “The first riot might have had an issue. But from Monday it was just looting.”
Others highlighted a lack of apprenticeships for young people, an over-generous system of state benefits and a breakdown of family values.
George Akolbire, 50, who moved to Britain 14 years ago from Ghana, said family discipline was a problem.
“It’s the government, the politicians who don’t allow the parents to sort out their children,” he said. “My father used to beat me. Here the government say ‘don’t touch your children,’ so you are scared of smacking them when they do something bad.”
Writing by Peter Griffiths; additional reporting by Michael Holden in London; Editing by Steve Addison