I didn’t expect to find myself agreeing with Peter Oborne, flagship right-wing Telegraph columnist and opinion-spouter, about the August Riots and what caused them (and who is to blame), but I do, and very strongly.
I have a dark feeling that Britain may respond to the August Riots by shifting to the right, by punishing the active criminals, the rioters, looters, arsonists, and thugs, who torched the streets last weekend, and ignore the social causes of the discontent, anger, and disenfranchisement that brought about the riots.
Let me make a distinction here, that I have gleaned from Bill Tupman; the shooting of Mark Duggan and the Tottenham-based unrest that followed is what occasioned the August Riots, was the spark to the powder keg. Years – 30 or more – of political policies that have encouraged greed and discouraged social responsibility (remember Thatcher’s infamous “there is no such thing as society; only individuals” quote), that have rewarded avarice, and that, in recent years, have failed to (adequately) punish expenses-fiddling politicians and risk-taking, economy-shattering bankers, and which have created a society where we celebrate, and reward with untold riches, attention-seeking celebrities and footballers, are the cause.
Don’t get me wrong; every single person who smashed a window, lit a fire, threw a punch, stole an item from a shop, is a criminal, and is responsible for their actions in the same way as I am responsible for my actions, and should be held accountable for them and be punished for them via due process of the law. I am not excusing this behaviour or condoning it; but if all we do, as a society, is punish the behaviour that we saw last weekend and earlier this week, and not seek to solve the problems that caused it, then all we are doing is leaving festering social wounds that will cause more violence in the future.
We live in a country where the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, is a self-confessed teenage arsonist (apologies for linking to a piece by Victoria Cohen – it was that or The Daily Mail); where the mayor of London and the Prime Minister belonged to Oxford University’s notoriously destructive Bullingdon Club, a circle of wealthy, privileged young men who routinely trashed restaurants during epic booze binges. (Sure, they paid for their destruction in cold hard cash at the end of their debauched evenings out, but money does not paper over the cracks of an absent morality. Or it shouldn’t.) These are the people who set the example for the rest of the country to follow. Privileged they may be, but they are still arsonists and rioters of a sort.
25 years on from Clegg burning down an academic’s life’s work, from Boris and Cameron rioting through restaurants, is it any surprise that the people they now govern over, having seen footballers, bankers, politicians, royals, and a host of other people who are meant to be our social elders and betters behaving without morality, taking what they want, when they want, with avarice and greed and wanton destruction, paying for their crimes not with remorse or penitence or punishment but with what is to them mere spare change, is it any surprise that the people who have the least in society, have acted in the same way, on a grand scale, all at once, as a violent reaction to this? If a politician wants what they can’t afford, they put it on expenses. If a banker wants what they can’t afford, they gamble someone else’s money for it. If the middle classes want what they can’t afford, they stick it on a credit card. If those who cannot garner credit want what they can’t afford, what do they do?
The Thatcher and Blair governments (with Murdoch’s help) have spent the best part of 30 years courting the interests of business over the interests of society. Social groups have been eroded, culture has fractured, and all the things that offered a sense of belonging and identity have been broken down into ever smaller and more fragile and less valued parts, from religious groups to trade unions to youth clubs and beyond. Contrary to the befuddled idiot David Starkey’s opinion, this is not about race, or even just about class – the fact that we’ve seen middle class students, teachers, and more culpable of rioting and looting proves that, by showing that idiots of all class can and do behave despicably (also, there were no riots in the North East or Cornwall, the most socially-deprived areas in the UK) – but it might just be, at least in part, about removing responsibility and belonging from people, and replacing it with greed at all costs. You could, and some people have and will, blame the cultural products, the music, the films, the video games, etc etc, but let’s remember Marx’s base & superstructure theory; the economic and political base of a culture informs and shapes the cultural product it creates. The two are intrinsically interlinked, symbiotic. You cannot blame one and not the other.
I’m not pretending to be some social or political expert; I don’t have answers to the questions I’m raising here, but if I, in my flat in Exeter, can see that punishment alone is not going to cure the ills that caused the August Riots, then surely the government can? But the problem there is that the government now is made up of people like Michael Gove, and David Cameron, and Boris Johnson, who don’t need research, and reason, and evidence, because they just know what is right, and what is wrong, and what causes problems, and who is to blame, because they are the ruling classes and the ruling classes are better than the rest of us. This week we also found out that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s community allotments can halve antisocial behaviour; if people have focus, and drive, and connection to the products of their labour, and positive interaction with other people in their community, then communities can and will grow and flourish. If people have nothing, they value nothing.