It’s easy to pontificate about this week’s riots in England. Everyone’s got their pet theory about the causes and possible solutions, and about what to do with the rioters and looters themselves. Many of those expressing an opinion have little or no first-hand experience of the geographical areas of which they write or of the riots; although many writers have been directly affected by the mayhem. In my case, I do have a lot of direct knowledge of Tottenham – the part of London where it all ‘kicked off’ last Saturday. One of the iconic pictures of the riot, the blazing Carpet Right store that was razed to the ground, is very close to somewhere I have stayed and visited on many occasions. But I wasn’t there on Saturday night and am currently staying in a part of England – Cambridgeshire – that appears up to now to have been unaffected by the troubles.
One fact that is worth pointing out right from the start is that these are English riots, not ‘British’. Up to now, as far as I know, there have been no disturbances and looting in Scotland, Wales or – for once – Northern Ireland. It typically took the media quite a while to wake up to the fact that the riots were limited to England and so should be referred to as ‘England’s riots’, rather than ‘UK riots’. Yesterday, however, I noticed what appeared to be a distinct shift in editorial policy, and the major news broadcasters all seemed to be correctly describing the riots as ‘English’. Which is more than can be said for David Cameron who, in his speech in Downing Street yesterday, still seemed incapable of acknowledging the specifically English character of the riots. Cameron referred merely to “parts of Britain” that were “sick” and failed, yet again, to mention ‘England’ once.
It seems paradoxical that one should feel aggrieved that the specifically English nature of the riots is not being acknowledged by politicians insisting on terming them ‘British’, as the riots are not exactly something to be proud of as an Englishman. But the reason for being angry about this is the same as the reason for being annoyed when any English issue is not referred to as such: it’s because this is a means for politicians and media not to engage with the English dimension of the issue concerned, and hence to avoid taking or suggesting any position to the effect that, maybe, English problems need English solutions – politicians that are willing to provide national leadership for England and to be accountable to the English people in so doing.
In fact, to me, England’s riots seem to illustrate in dramatic fashion what can happen when an entire nation is suppressed and ignored: dropped from the discourse, consciousness and attention of those are supposed to be providing leadership for it and are supposedly elected to serve its people. For years and years, England has in effect been ‘trashed’ by the political, media and liberal classes: disregarded, despised, ignored and erased from politically correct conversation. When a nation becomes the object of the contempt of its own ruling class, and of its economically better-off classes, should we be surprised if those who bear the brunt of that contempt strike back?
Now, I’m not trying to justify the senseless violence and criminality of the riots, and still less suggest that they are the expression of legitimate political protest, which they clearly are not. But in a way, that is the whole point: the young people involved are deprived not only socio-economically (although not all of them, it seems, are under-privileged) but they are deprived of a political language and means of expression for their anger and hostility towards authority. So instead, the outlet for their aggression is trashing retail outlets: symbols of a political and economic system that has left them excluded, marginalised, and frequently unemployed and unemployable.
Again, it’s too easy to generalise and make excuses for the predominantly young people responsible for the violence. But equally, it’s easy to fall into the opposite error. The government and media are attempting to develop a narrative for the riots that makes out that they exhibit ‘pure criminality’ and ‘mindless thuggery’, as well as being the consequence of inadequate parenting, and a break-down in morality and personal ethics ‘in society’ – for which, read England. But this just reduces the whole issue to one of individual ‘responsibility’ – one of Cameron’s favourite words – and glosses over the collective, political, English dimension. Criminality and thuggery, clearly in evidence on England’s streets this week, doesn’t come from nowhere, and it certainly doesn’t just come from the moral break-down of individuals, families and communities. It also has political causes and, in a less obvious way, motivations; and it sure as heck is going to have political consequences.
What we’re going to see is the British political and media establishment rallying round and closing ranks, and propagating the view that there can be only British solutions to these English social problems. And those ‘British solutions’ are going to be ones that flow from the reserved powers and UK-level thinking of the British establishment, rather than expressing a direct engagement with and concern for English social problems as English. Hence, there will be a focus on policing, and law and order (UK Home Office), with draconian punishments for the wrongdoers (which to some extent they deserve) and more ‘robust’ policing methods, which, however, does nothing to address the underlying causes of the violence and is likely to make certain sections of the communities concerned (e.g. the black population) feel even more persecuted than they already do.
Then the discourse around moral responsibility and parenting, however relevant these issues are, is again at the general level at which ‘national’ (i.e. UK) leaders are supposed to provide a moral example – leaving aside the fact that politicians have, in very recent memory, failed to provide such a moral example to society by cheating on their expenses and effectively stealing goods to a much higher value than most of the looters. And all this pontificating about ‘responsibility’ by the British great and good is, to a large extent, an abnegation of their political responsibility to create conditions in society – i.e. England – in which young people feel they have a steak in a meaningful future and in economic activity, rather than having nothing to lose from stealing from those perceived to have benefited from an economy in which they are the losers, and smashing up their country.
And then the call for rioters to forfeit their benefits, which looks likely to be the first e-petition to reach the threshold of 100,000 signatures needed to qualify for a debate in Parliament, again addresses the situation purely at the British level, in that benefits are a UK reserved matter. But how is leaving newly criminalised, unemployed youngsters without any support from society going to encourage them to seek a better path in life? Surely, this is just going to make them feel even more desperate and embittered, and make them lash out even more against a society that has spurned them.
And this is, for me, the crux of the matter. The young people who have been involved in the violence, and whose voices have occasionally been allowed to be heard in the media, have often shown complete contempt and disregard for the police, for the legal system, for any figure of authority, and for the victims of their crimes, particularly the businesses they have wrecked, which they dismiss as the property of ‘rich’ people that had it coming to them. Where does such contempt and hatred come from? In part, at least, they arise from the disregard and indifference of which these English youngsters have been the object throughout their whole lives on the part of a system that has treated them and their country – England – with wholesale contempt. The scorn and indignation that is now being directed towards England’s rioters – justifiably so, in many respects – is co-terminous with the general contempt that the British establishment has for England per se: it’s not just England’s rioters that are at fault, but a violent and ‘sick’ England, which the rioters are seen as symbolising. And the British establishment is set on re-imposing its sway over those unruly English.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I want law and order to be re-established, and I want to be kept safe from gangs of out-of-control youngsters treating wanton destruction as a piece of adrenalin-filled fun rather like a cheap substitute for a trip to Alton Towers that they couldn’t afford. But I don’t think the way to deal with the problem in the long term is to continue to fail to develop social policies for England, and particularly English youngsters, that enable people to take pride in their country. At the most minimal level, these riots demonstrate that those involved do not have pride in their country; and their country, Mr Cameron, is England. The British establishment can’t go on pretending England doesn’t exist, and making social policy for England subordinate to UK-national and economic priorities, regardless of the social impact, without expecting a backlash.
Well, obviously, the UK government does have social policies for England (i.e. in areas such as education, health and communities where its responsibilities – that word again – are limited to England), even though it goes out of its way to avoid acknowledging that those policies are in fact specific to England. But, as I’ve argued previously, those policies flow from an ideology that is economic in its underlying philosophy: essentially, the belief that if the state withdraws from activities that have hitherto been the domain of the public sector, and makes those areas of society the responsibility of the free market, then services will be more appropriate to the needs of individuals and communities, and will be delivered more cost-efficiently and will generate economic growth. Whatever you think of such social-market economics or neo-liberalism, it is an ideology and an economic theory, not proven, empirical ‘fact’ as such; and, for the present government, England is the playground in which these theories are being put to the test. Or should that be a battleground?
The trouble is, market economics have been tested out in England for the past 30 years, and while they’ve made many English people very wealthy, they’ve created a whole class of English people that have lost out: who, for whatever reasons, have not engaged or been able to engage in the market economy that so often prefers to import cheap labour rather than paying English people a living wage and giving them decent working conditions that allow them to gain self-respect from work rather than feeling exploited and looked down upon. And that’s to say nothing of all the army of young unemployed and soon-to-be unemployed from whom benefits such as the Educational Maintenance Allowance and subsidised higher education (both retained in the UK’s devolved nations), let alone welfare benefits and subsidised social services such as youth clubs and leisure facilities, are being withdrawn in the interests of the UK economy and at the behest of ‘the markets’ in which UK plc lives in fear of having its credit rating adjusted downwards, as a consequence, in part, of its massive bail-out of the irresponsible and excessively wealthy financial-services markets themselves.
Really, is it any wonder that these disaffected and disenfranchised youths lash out in an ignorance that is in no small measure testament to an English education system that has failed to endow them with a sense of pride in England even while it tries to inculcate in them a Britishness that means nothing to them in tangible economic terms? If your country means nothing to you – indeed, if you don’t even know anything of your country, its proud history, traditions and culture – then it means nothing to you to trash it. And it means nothing to those youngsters because it is nothing to the British establishment that sees England even less than it sees the faces of those behooded youngsters rampaging through England’s streets.
Those young people – England’s future – are destroying England because they lack a positive political means and language with which to protest against a system that has let them down. And no British solution, imposed top-down from a British establishment that refuses to engage with English society and to seek to be a genuine government for England – a servant of the English people – is going to address this problem, because it will simply perpetuate it. We need an English government that cares about the English people, especially its dysfunctional youngsters, and which can address the problems from the bottom up. Our British obsession with the markets has created a society where economic success or failure is king, and indeed where education is mostly about equipping people to be successful agents in the market place, rather than fully rounded individuals that will care for and contribute to the communities, people and nation around them, as well as generating wealth through work. And where the losers feel they have nothing left to lose in destroying what the winners have gained, they will surely do so.
Only an English civic society can remedy England’s social ills. But English civic society is the last thing the British government is interested in bringing about and fostering. Its vision is the Big Society in which – essentially – communities are left to fend for themselves in a market free-for-all. Well, the market isn’t working for our young people right now and they’re lashing out against it.
If England is denied a civic future in which people of all ages and backgrounds feel they can work together for a better nation, then England will become an even more un-civic, indeed un-civil and uncivilised, place than it has been this week.