This article was first published on The Huffington Post in August 2011
My hometown has been battered this past week, eaten by its young in an apparently senseless, spontaneous, sustained attack that later spread to towns and cities across the country. Commentators have done what commentators do: fumbled for hasty analysis of cause and effect, and made judgements about issues they don’t always understand, at least on any visceral level. Some have been more considered than others; Nina Power’s piece in the Guardian was particularly thought provoking. Others have suggested that, with the fighting continuing and the cities still burning, now is not the right time to ask difficult questions.
Of course, the first priority for authorities should be to restore order to the street, and to punish those responsible for bringing distress and violence on others. The police have to be given the power to shut down this mess as quickly as possible. But — and this cannot be avoided — now is also the time to answer the difficult questions that have been put off in this country way too long, questions which, had they been pondered more seriously over the past decades, might have helped us avoid this national nightmare.
To everybody, the images of burning cars, of charging youths, of looting, of untold damage to lives and livelihoods — these images are shocking. But we should not pretend that they are particularly surprising. Violence and vandalism have been symptoms of economic hardship and social dislocation in this country before. And, since those riots in the 1980s, this country has become more cutthroat, not less; more disparate and disenfranchised, not less; more individualistic, not less. Last year, before the general election and the Rose Garden, even Nick Clegg raised the spectre of the possibility of riots in an age of austerity.
It’s ironic, if tragic, that Clegg’s prophecy has come back to haunt us because the fact of the matter is that so many of our political leaders are almost irredeemably out of touch with the urban young people of this country.
And that’s part of the problem. This week has demonstrated it perhaps more starkly than most. The honest leadership — not the regurgitation of an agreed political line, spun ad nauseam, but the honest leadership — of our politicians, so required during these times has been almost totally absent. Michal Gove and Harriet Harman’s spat on Newsnight last night was particularly indulgent. Petty arguing over who was “right” and who was “wrong”, over whether it was, to paraphrase, “Labour profligacy” or “Tory cuts” which caused this awful situation, at a time when the nation needs reassurance and poise, not childish squabbling, from their political leaders, demonstrated a different, though no less damaging, thoughtlessness and vandalism so castigated in the rioters.
So while this week’s destruction is of course unforgivable, it has to be said that anger is understandable; indeed, it’s imperative that our leaders understand it, and do more to eradicate the root causes. Because there is a palpable anger amongst the younger generation, some of which feels let down by the indulgence of our so-called ‘leaders’ across society.
I’m angry too. Not in a Harriet Harman or Michael Gove kind of way — a way that sees people’s lives through the prism of politics, rather than politics through the prism of people’s lives — but because our politicians have offered so little at a time of such need. I feel empathy for the young person who sits in a waiting room labelled a benefits thief while her corrupt MP fixes expenses and her distant banker goes all in on red with her home or job. And I’m angry for the businessman who may share his looter’s sense of hopelessness at this economic situation, as well as his policeman’s frustration that their hopelessness should be expressed in this way — but who, like the rioter, has no sense of belonging, no community or commonality in a disparate era through which to share it.
Politicians’ inept reactions to this crisis shouldn’t really surprise people, of course. How can David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, Theresa May and Boris Johnson possibly know what to say? None has any real knowledge or understanding of the experience of growing up on the edge in the cities; none can be described as remotely in touch with urban life, no matter where they reside. And it’s a deep problem, but only part of the wider malaise, that our political establishment doesn’t look or sound remotely like urban Britain.
But it’s not just the political classes that are letting the country down; it’s a large swathe of the traditional establishment. This week, as over many years, that establishment has failed to grasp with any seriousness the disillusionment that has taken hold in this country over a generation. How else can you explain the coordinated and way too-simplistic lines have been toed by the supposed pillars of our society, that this week’s vandalism has been “pure, simple acts of criminal behaviour” in the words of Assistant Chief Constable Garry Shewan of Greater Manchester police; “criminality, pure and simple” in the words of the Prime Minister? We all appreciate and demand the need for a swift and coordinated response echoing across the airwaves to reassure the country. But the severity of the situation requires more nuance than that alone from people in positions of power, if their authority is not to be challenged so gratuitously again.
This stuff does matter to our society, and profoundly. As I tweeted on Monday night, it’s hard to imagine that violence and rioting in such extremes could’ve happened without years, perhaps decades, of breakdown in trust in our establishment — the result of example after example of mishandling and corruption and a shirking of responsibility amongst political, media and City elites, year after year.
This is a deeper and broader problem simply than the financial, democratic and media crises. In many of the other most fundamental pillars of British life, too, we need the type of serious, grown up debate that Harman and Gove couldn’t muster last night. For too long, we’ve been too coy to ask why so many people — and it is a mistake to suggest it’s just young people or even just the working classes who have been rioting, as the appearance in front of a magistrate of a 31-year-old teacher shows—are so utterly and apparently irrevocably disconnected from society.
There are a number of questions that should be discussed, nationally, as a result of these riots. First is the role of family, and the need for all parents to take full responsibility for their children’s futures. Yes, there are too many fatherless families and too many absent parents — but surely we can bring ourselves to say that goes for parents whose preference and financial circumstances allow for nannies and boarding schools, as well as those who have to work two or more jobs to make ends meet.
Second, we need to ask more questions about education, and the mutual responsibility of our government to serve our young people, as well as vice versa. It can not be right, and it can not bode well for the future stability or fairness of the country, that in state schools, 39% of 16 to 19-year-olds say they don’t know anyone — not a single person—in a job they’d like to do themselves, a number which rises to 45% amongst those on free school meals. Those statistics alone tell us something powerful about ghettoised hopelessness and the need for a more radical social mobility plan.
With such staggering facts, it’s little wonder that Britain’s ‘disaffected youth’ so often turn to television, music, magazines and computer games for escape. Occasionally, those role models may inspire — think Plan B or Akala. But just as frequently, our disaffected young can look to inappropriate people: footballers, for example, who routinely take their employers hostage to make a fast buck, or whose behaviour in public and in private betrays a severe detachment from the real world. What do some of those public figures say to their followers about respecting adversity and people?
Third, there needs urgently to be a debate about identity, and what it means to be British, or a Londoner, or a Mancunian, in the post-recessionary age. Politicians and others will also need to address minefields of vested interests, and areas in which they are not comfortable, like the damage done to the British working classes by a national game that’s been allowed to chase profit unchecked, without any consideration for the consequences for the social fabric of the community or the nation; or a public square that’s been colonised by conglomerate profit over small business with roots.
Finally, these riots may also spark a discussion about a general and generational inequality that has contributed to this building lawlessness during the past thirty years. Because these riots are not really a new phenomenon; they are the symptom of a dislocation that’s been bubbling under the surface for many years. In the age of instant gratification, there are no quick answers. But the need for leaders to address the many complicated questions of our time has just become tangible — and the sense that even more fear and even more hopelessness may be around the corner should be incentive enough to act.
Along with the mess brought on cities this week — and alongside the present economic fragility, worryingly high youth unemployment, job insecurity and growing global uncertainty — these are the big issues we must begin to address in the very short term. Now is surely the time to ask questions about leadership, ethics, identity and togetherness in this country; about the role of our establishment in causing this current crisis but also about family and place; and about the type of country we want to build. Because, although it may be uncomfortable for the establishment on Fleet Street and in Westminster, as a young man who confronted mayor Boris Johnson said simply yesterday, “There’s a reason for everything”.
This article was first published on The Huffington Post in August 2011.