What is the greatest division in England today? Is it the famous North-South Divide? Is it the gap between the haves and the have-nots? How about England’s world-famous class system? Or the division between rioters and non-rioters?
My answer is that it’s none of those things and, at the same time, all of them. But the biggest division in England today, and one which subsumes the others, is that between England and Britain, and between the English and the British.
Who are the English? Well, the rioting English – and let’s not pretend, as the British establishment has tried to, that these were UK riots – live mostly in what we shall call the ‘inner shitties’: shit, gang-infested areas and housing estates; attending shit schools that leave them ignorant and under-equipped for the modern work market; often in shit jobs on the minimum wage, if they’ve got work at all; and living in crappy social and physical environments where survival, and getting what you can get whenever and however you can get it, is just the norm.
Not all of the English live in the inner shitties, of course. Let’s not forget about the ‘country-shite’, where most of the low-paid, unskilled work is now carried out by Eastern European migrants; where housing costs are so prohibitive that families working in the country can no longer afford to live there; and where the situation has become so desperate for many farmers that they have the highest suicide rate of any section of the English population. But the riots were urban and weren’t about the country(side) – although they were about the country (England).
Where do the British live? Well, they were on their expensive foreign holidays when the trouble broke out. The English go on foreign trips, too, of course, though less now than they used to a few years ago, the Spanish Costa being the destination of choice. The British, by contrast, are a bit more selective and cosmopolitan in their holiday destinations: France and Tuscany, rather than Spain; and if you must do the Med, then at least make it somewhere a bit more exclusive than the major Spanish and Greek resorts – I don’t know, like Corfu, for instance, favoured by our wealthy chancellor.
When back in Britain, the British tend to live in the better areas that generally were not directly affected by the riots, with the exception of Ealing – though that’s near to the ganglands of Hanwell: Kensington and Chelsea, for instance; or Muswell Hill, where the TV producers and executives congregate, rather than neighbouring, ransacked Wood Green and Tottenham. From their comfortable islands of prosperity, it’s easy for the British to project the riots as a symptom of others’ failed morality, as these are depths of behaviour to which they’d like to think they’d never stoop and will probably never have to. From a safe distance, the British can generously characterise the violence and criminality as the expression of ‘sick’ parts of ‘our society’, for which they’ll set about prescribing remedies, including more ‘robust’ policing, and law and order measures that will keep the rioting English away from their doorsteps: a sort of ‘kettling’ and ghettoising on a grand scale.
In an excoriating attack yesterday on the hypocrisy of the British establishment in relation to the riots, the columnist Peter Oborne recounted the story of a posh dinner party he’d attended in West London, where the guests were talking of the ‘north-south divide’. He took them to mean the divisions between the north and south of England but eventually realised they were flippantly referring to the areas north and south of Kensington High Street. For him, this was an example of how the wealthy economic and political elite of Britain increasingly live in their own bubble, detached from the poverty and deprivation in many parts of England and their own cities, and feeling little sense of real ‘responsibility’ (Cameron’s favourite word) either for causing England’s social problems or for doing anything meaningful about them.
In fact, if there’s one thing the riots appeared to demonstrate, it was that there is much less of a north-south divide than is often acknowledged – in England, that is, as opposed to the divide between Britain and England. The riots, as a popular, on-the-ground phenomenon, spread like wildfire from the south of England to the north but did not spread across England’s northern and western borders: clearly, an England-wide and English-national phenomenon, with young English people throughout the country expressing solidarity with each other, of however crazed and destructive a kind, and wreaking mayhem for the same reasons.
And what were those reasons? Can ‘mindless’ violence, as the British termed it, have a rational cause; or can senseless destruction have a meaning? It’s too easy to jump to conclusions and provide ready-made explanations that often tell us more about the person offering the analysis than the events they’re trying to explain away. Isn’t the point, precisely, that actions that appear meaningless, to the British at least, express the fact that, for many English people, their lives themselves are without meaning?
Well, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, rather than being devoid of meaning, the lives of many urban English people have come to be seen – by themselves as much as by the British – as stripped of any intrinsic value. The only things that have any value for them are valuable things: merchandise that can be bought and sold for a high price. And if the rioters’ humanity has been debased by a life of humiliating relative poverty and feeling personally under-valued, then it is not so surprising that they in turn strip out the shops in their neighbourhoods that are the repository of the valuable items they think will give them a surrogate worth they don’t hold in themselves, and that they’ll leave those shops gutted: visual metaphors for the impoverishment of their own hearts and souls.
Feeling devoid of value also means lacking a narrative. Many commentators have spoken of the terrifying fact that the rioters appeared to feel they had nothing to lose in their brazen confrontation with the forces of law and order, and their wanton acts of violence. Feeling you have nothing to lose means you have no hope in a better future: no narrative about your life that gives you a reasonable expectation of making progress and gaining some of the good things in life – education; a fulfilling career; a home; a decent family life; a reasonable standard of living. It’s these things, these terribly ordinary, mundane things, that many of the rioters feel they have no prospect of as well as no past experience of. This is what life has become for many urban English: rubbish schools; crap jobs or no jobs, and little dignity in work; crap housing, as decent homes have been priced way beyond the purse of the poorer sections of society; broken families; and declining living standards. It’s enough to provoke a riot! Oh yes, it just did.
The British, by contrast, can afford to send their children to good schools; or, if they can’t or won’t send them to private schools, they can afford to move to the areas where the top-performing publicly funded schools are located, thus pricing working-class people out of the housing market. The British have an expectation, indeed a sense of entitlement, to decent careers in the professions, business and the public sector. They can afford to give their children a better start in life, more expensive things (the latest laptops, smartphones, designer goods), and enjoyable and educational experiences. And if they can’t always actually be there with the children because they’re working long hours or their marriage has broken up, then they can at least afford better child care and material compensations for the children. And as the pressures on middle-class incomes mount, the pressures to get around the problems through little dodges such as tax evasion, expenses claims, back-handers and bankers’ bonuses also increase. But as ‘we’re all in it together’, this starts to become morally acceptable, even normal.
Now clearly, it’s simplistic to make out that all the ‘winners’ in English society are British while all the ‘losers’ are English. Many middle- and upper-middle-class people in England think of themselves as English and view their country as England. However, the narrative, or even meta-narrative, they tell for their lives – past and future – is much more likely to be British. That is, the account they give of themselves, and the meaning they give to their lives and identity, are far more likely to involve seeing themselves as included and playing a positive role in ‘British society’ and a ‘British nation’, and hence ultimately as being British.
Why is this so? Because ‘Britain’ represents the established political and economic order in England, and those who feel they have a stake in that order, and have made a success of their lives by adapting to it, are more likely to identify with it and give it their allegiance. The British narrative is of a country called Britain – or its carelessly bandied synonym ‘the UK’ – where it’s possible to be successful by playing the game: making sure you can get into the right schools, the right universities, the property ladder in the right areas, the right careers in the most promising economic sectors, and picking the right partner in life to be the mother or father of your children, and support each other’s career goals. And British politicians cater to that market – that demographic – rightly concluding they will be unelectable if they don’t help create conditions in which this British ethos and this British dream can prosper; because it’s mainly the British voters on whom election results depend and who, in England at least, bother to turn out to vote because they believe they have a stake in the result.
So the British narrative is one of success, where success and social inclusion is defined mainly in economic terms: being a successful agent in the market economy – indeed, in the market society. By contrast, the English narrative is one of failure: a story of break-down – economic, social and moral. Or rather, the English narrative is one that is set in the past tense only: one that can only look back at what we had, or believe we had, in the past; not one that looks forward to any future. It’s a narrative of exclusion, precisely because the discourse of inclusion in the successful society is British. Indeed, the British identity can be said to be ‘inclusive’, in the multi-cultural sense, mainly because immigrants who do prosper in England rightly conclude that they owe their success to Britain: to the British economic and political order. What immigrant would want to be proud to be English when the English have been systematically stripped of pride in their own nation?
Perhaps, then, rather than saying that England is a ‘tale of two countries’, as I suggested in my title, it would be more accurate to say that England is a country of two tales: two narratives that mutually exclude each other – the British narrative of success and meaning, which systematically denies any positive English story, relegating the English to the scrap heaps of history and of their own burning cities.
But at the same time, the British and the English are the two sides of the same coin: the acquisitive greed of the rioting English is but the naked face of the materialist, individualistic greed of the British, with their debased currency of economic success at all cost. The madness we saw on English streets is but a reflection of the madness of a Britain that has sold out to selfish materialism, and the success and entitlement culture.
In short, the madness of our English streets is the bedlam you get when the lunatics have taken over the asylum.