Tuesday, 16 August 2011

There is no clear lesson to learn from the riots - yet. But we’re all responsible.

< Insert terrifying picture of burning building here >

Yes, it’s a bit of a cliché. But it’s no joke. No mainstream politicians can escape some sort of responsibility for the rioting and civil unrest that ravaged England. Most are making noises about what should be done to ‘fix’ society; with David Cameron essentially repackaging many of the speeches he made when he first became leader of the Conservative Party with an angry tone of voice. This time, he’s added authoritarian zeal by calling for social networks to be closed down and has floated the idea of water cannons and rubber bullets. None of this illiberal nonsense seems bother Nick Clegg however, who in return has announced a ‘communities and victims panel’ which will fall tantalizingly short of the public inquiry that is really needed to get answers.

The impact of cuts cannot truly be felt yet and although it cannot be ruled out as a causal factor in helping create the riots, or doing enough to stem social disorder, the Labour party under Ed Miliband, to their credit are broadly right in their refusal to pinpoint the cause on anything in particular. That is sensible, clear-headed thinking at this stage. And although Miliband has instead called for a more wide-ranging, community-led inquiry into what went wrong, he cannot escape Labour’s failure to recognise the ties that bind in urban populations while it was in government, despite justified expenditure in inner cities through programmes such as SureStart and city academies. It may remain to be seen how much the public connects with his linking of the banking crisis, MPs’ expenses and the phone-hacking scandal and the apparent reaction of the ‘underclass’ to this irresponsibility, but it may well be a useful political narrative in the months to come.

Some people on the radical, Trotskyite left are convinced that looting is a political act in itself – and that what happened is somehow part of a wider workers’ movement. If that is true, then this class war that is horribly dysfunctional, when the communities that have suffered the most damage are pretty much characterised by the poorest parts of London: Tottenham, Brixton and Hackney, not to mention other areas of deprivation in the UK. It’s fairly perverse to support the wilful destruction of property of people who have nothing in the first place, whether that be homes or small businesses. A class analysis of the problem falls at the first hurdle.

That’s not to say that the left have nothing to say about the riots. But it needs to understand that an economic analysis is somewhat limited in its scope. We could blame Margaret Thatcher and the deliberate running down of certain British industries in the 1980s, but it wouldn’t fix our problems in 2011. Likewise, we shouldn’t discount traditional Conservative and right-of-centre politicians as completely wrong when they talk about families as the ‘building blocks of society’. A strong, family-type unit is crucial to a child’s upbringing, but strong families exist in many forms, whether that be a heterosexual, 2.4 children nuclear family or the sort with two daddies or one mummy. All of the above are preferable to brutal, murderous gangs which, as David Cameron has rightly identified, are no substitute for the caring, loving bonds of families and law-abiding, respectful communities.

So there are lessons for the left, as well as the right. And it seems irresponsibility by pretty much every section of society is to blame in some way or another. But the main parties are unwilling to lift up the rock to see what is actually happening underneath, evading the real answers as if nothing had happened. The causes of the riots are not ‘criminality pure and simple’: that is a woefully ignorant and inaccurate misreading of the mayhem which wreaked England’s streets last week. Opportunistic they may have been, but the riots cannot be defined on racial, economic, sociological or even criminal lines. In London, around half of those arrested in the first week after the riots were under 18, but among the balance were teachers, social workers, chefs and postal workers. No stereotypes there. So it is clear that whichever bit of society ‘broke’, it was by no means characterised by the unwaged and unemployed. Indeed, while we consider these facts, the most convincing analysis of the riots has come from people such as Peter Oborne and Camila Batmanghelidjh, who have at least introduced several interesting socio-political perspectives - as political commentator and social worker extraordinaire - into the debate.

We may have made some progress in our initial post-mortem of the riots. We might even agree that society – and that word is absolutely crucial - does need to teach responsibility at every level and cannot pretend the underlying problems of social decay don’t exist. Government plays a role in this process just like the rest of us, but it’s certainly not about single-parent families or ‘Left-Wing’ teaching in our schools. Similarly, it’s not purely about poverty or the cutting back local services.

We do need a moral code that at the same time is not ‘moralising’ but unites everyone, and which doesn’t play easily into the hands of ideologues whether they are political or religious. Sadly, going down that path could happen too easily. But blinding ourselves with an easy, readily available panacea doesn’t do the victims of last week’s unrest justice.

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