Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

26 November 2011

The meaning of the English riots and the meaninglessness of ‘England’

The riots that erupted in several English cities in August of this year seem to have become very much yesterday’s news, particularly as all eyes are now focused on the unfolding nightmare of the euro meltdown. Every now and then, the riots make it back on to the headlines as reports come out, such as when it was revealed a couple of weeks ago that shopkeepers who’d put in requests for the promised financial assistance from the state to make good the damage caused by looters had hardly received a penny – indicative of how the whole thing has slipped into oblivion.

If you do a Google search on ‘English riots’, you might be surprised how little variety and quantity of articles come up: quite a lot concentrated around the actual time of the riots, towards the beginning of August; but then, after that, you get little more than the occasional opinion article attempting to single out the ultimate cause or meaning of the riots – e.g. the pope linking them to ‘moral relativism’ in September; the Campaign for Social Justice deliberating in October on what ‘sparked off’ the riots; or the ‘Scottish violence reduction unit co-director’, no less, linking them to greed rather than anger in the pages of the Guardian this month.

You get a greater range of results if you search instead under ‘UK riots’ or ‘British riots’: more on the implications for policy, the courts and the law, the economy and business, and Britain’s international reputation and the Olympics. This in itself would tend to suggest that the political and media establishment is more concerned about the riots as a potential challenge to the effective management of the British state, to law and order, and to business as usual than as a symptom of serious problems within English society that the state has a duty to engage with. There is a disconnect between the terms of reference and spheres of activity of the UK state and those sections of English society that did erupt into violence in August. And perhaps one of the main reasons for that explosion was the existence of that disconnect in the first place.

This week, David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, where the riots started and were probably more violent than anywhere else, has been publicising his new book: ‘Out Of the Ashes: Britain After the Riots’. This seeks to analyse the causes of the riots and propose some policy changes that might help address them. As the name suggests, Mr Lammy shares the Labour Party’s reluctance to say the word ‘England’: substituting ‘Britain’ for England, even though the riots were restricted to England and so should properly be regarded as an English issue. I’ve just been listening to Mr Lammy on BBC Radio 4’s ‘This Week’ programme, and he again erroneously referred to the riots as having taken place in cities across ‘Britain’.

Mr Lammy also believes that there is a limit to what the state can do to directly address the sorts of social problem that manifested themselves in the rioting. The MP points to the ineffectiveness of the Blair governments’ obsession with trying to legislate social problems out of existence; and he points to how Gordon Brown’s response to the break-down of inner city communities was his Tax Credits scheme, which would have looked like irrelevant “madness” to many of his constituencies. Mr Lammy’s view is that the ‘root causes’ of the riots are greed and selfishness. These result from economic and social liberalism and individualism, the latter developing from the 1980s onwards, the former going back to the social and moral revolution of the 60s. One major issue, for Lammy, is fatherless families, with many young men from all ethnic backgrounds lacking the moral example and personal discipline that the presence of a caring and responsible father can provide. So Lammy proposes remedies such as personal mentors to try to give such rootless youngsters more direction and self-belief.

I in fact agree with much of what David Lammy says. But does it go far enough? Can radical change towards a greater policy focus on family, community values and personal responsibility really take effect without political will, and without a wholesale realignment of the British state’s engagement – or lack of it – in English social policy? The break-down in families, communities and morality in many parts of English society may not be something that the state is best equipped to deal with, but it is a matter for the nation: specifically, the English nation. The problem is that the British state is unwilling and unable to take up its responsibilities as a government for the English nation, and confines itself to ‘British’ policy areas for which it has a more genuine democratic remit: law and order, economics, social security and international affairs.

By contrast, the British state has become increasingly both uninterested and disinterested in – disengaged from – social policy areas where its responsibilities are limited to England: education, health care, social services, families and communities, housing, economic development, and even policing. However, these are precisely the areas where an integrated policy response – co-ordinated with UK-level policy areas such as employment and benefits – is required to address the problems that manifested themselves in the riots: the poor educational experiences and employment prospects of many of those involved; the social and personal break-down that Lammy is focused on; the absence of decent, affordable housing, resulting in sink estates where youngsters are exposed to drug abuse, gangs and petty crime; and policing being often more about victimising and containing certain social groups rather than working as part of an integrated approach to taking youngsters away from crime and back into sustainable education, employment and communities.

Instead of regarding and responding to the riots as a national [English] phenomenon that requires a concerted and co-ordinated national policy response, the British state is in fact intent on transferring all of these policy areas and the social problems that pertain to them to the private realm: increasingly privatised, individualised, personalised and localised management, focus and provision of education, health care, social and community services, housing and policing; no national-level co-ordination around minimum-acceptable standards for shared, national public services and amenities based around a vision for what kind of country we want [England] to be. The attempt to isolate the locus and causes of the English riots, and of their possible solution, down to the individual and community level is another symptom of this inability and unwillingness to embrace a broader, national vision: it’s left to individuals in isolation and ‘society’ in the abstract to heal themselves of the ills of selfish individualism and materialistic greed, rather than the nation as a whole trying to work together to create a better society where young people have something to offer and a stake in a future.

So the English riots arose in large measure from a vacuum: the absence of a nation – England – which English youngsters believe will offer them a future, an identity and a purpose in life. And any attempt to pinpoint the causes of the riot will itself be vacuous if they do not acknowledge, and thereby perpetuate, this absence of a meaningful England. Instead, all such prescriptions will embody the same vacuity of policy vision, understanding and discourse whereby the state transfers English social problems to a private realm beyond its direct sphere of action.

Sure, the riots reveal deep social, psychological, moral and indeed spiritual disorder and chaos within English society. They show that, for many English people – most of them young – life has little meaning, beauty or value. But we won’t get close to understanding the meaning of that meaninglessness until we retrieve its specifically English character from the meaninglessness and intractability to which we have confined it by expelling ‘England’ from the realm of British politics, discourse and collective responsibility.

Many of our English youngsters experience their lives as meaningless. Giving them faith in their own country – England – is a critical part of the meaning we must help them find.

English parliament

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