Later today the great and the good in the House of Commons will discuss the riots the country has been subject to for the past 5 days. In some ways my heart sinks at the thought. The temptation to sink into the comfort of party politics and ideological prejudices I fear will be too difficult to resist.
That is not to say I have not heard some level headed comments by MP’s, but it does not take long before the ugliness creeps in as it could be seen with Baroness Warsi and Diane Abbott on Newsnight yesterday. The temptations to blame the Labour Government or to point out that riots seem to happen under the watch of the Conservative Party could not be resisted.
Then we have the likes of David Davies who was blaming the lack of control on the streets of Britain on the criticisms of the Police in the past. We apparently are not allowed to criticise the Police when they use Kettling, or when police officers accept money for information, or contribute to the deaths of innocent people like Mr Tomlinson. he obviously perceives this on the agenda of “its the fault of the left”.
What will undoubtedly come out of the commons debate will be the universal condemnation of the violence which I am sure we would all agree with. The feeling in the country that the people causing the mayhem, violence and looting need to be caught and severely punished. Law and Order and confidence in the Police needs to be restored.
It is also the case that we should support the Police in the way they have dealt with a situation that was unforeseen and difficult. I have no criticism in the way the riots were dealt with with the resources they have in a society where they police on the basis of consent and not coercion.
There are clearly 2 issues we need to address. One is to restore Law and Order and severely punish those who have acted in such a disgraceful manner bringing our communities to the brink of anarchy – The Second Issue however is far more complex and that is, what is the cause of the rioting and the fostering of values in a section of society that is abhorent to most people. However this is actually the wrong question. The real question is
What are the causes
I have already heard people come up with the simplistic “cause” approach – its poverty, or its the family, or its inequality, or most ridiculously its the cuts. These explanations are as simple as they are stupid.
Lets also be clear – looking for the deep rooted long term causes does NOT excuse the acts of violence and looting, but as Tony Blair eloquently put it, we need to deal with “crime and the causes of crime”. Unfortunately, as with so much Tony Blair said, he was great on rhetoric, and very poor on substance, he never did deal with the causes.
In my view the only way to come to a conclusion in what is happening to our society and why these values pervade a section of our society is for us all to step back and analyse deep seated traits of our society, to speak to people who actually engage with the people engaging in this behaviour and to throw off the shackles of our political prejudices and ideologies.
A full public enquiry needs to be undertaken and nothing should be off the table for discussion, this is the only way to come to a conclusion and to begin to address the causal issues in order to make our society as a whole a better place to live and to prevent this descent into sickening acts of depravity.
I have been racking my brain over the last few days to come up with reasons why people can act in the way they have in the rioting. Sometimes I can only come up with the questions and not the answers – other times I feel I have an understanding of how we have got to where we are – at others I am simply at a loss.
For what it is worth – these are my thoughts:
1) Looking at society and the way it has developed over the past 35 years, there is no doubt in my mind that we have become a more selfish and materialistic society. Money and materialism is the mantra of our society, it is our new religion. As a pithy remark – perhaps we could engage people to vote in the political process if we told them they would get a new pair of Adidas trainers at the polling station!
The instant gratification society we now live in is likely to cause problems in a time of austerity due to the way we encourage the idea that we can all have what we want when we want it.
When I was a child in the 1970’s, I was taught that you saved your money and bought items when you could afford them. Buying items “on the knock” or what we now refer to as “buying on credit” was frowned upon. You live within your means.
Our financial system however is built on credit, creating money that does not exist until it is paid back. We previously trusted financial institutions when they leant us money, but those very same institutions changed the rules and told people they could borrow far more than they could afford; that it was ok to have whatever we want NOW, and to worry about it later. This aided economic growth for 30 years, but has now thrown us into a stagnating state of austerity that we will probably endure for a decade or more.
This is what happens when you “live for today” and don’t care about tomorrow. Is it any wonder that those who are on the fringes of our society think they are entitled to whatever they want when they want it?
2) Are some of the rioters doing just what other so called “responsible” members of our society have been doing for years. Do we have any so called role models left?
We see MP’s who rip off the country’s tax payers on mass effectively steeling millions of pounds in expenses while telling the country they are subjecting themselves to wage restraint and building property empires while a housing crisis ensues in our communities.
Bankers who have brought the country’s finances to its knees, who are bailed out and effectively nationalised, where the risk is taken away – and yet they award themselves enormous bonuses for taking risks that do not exist.
Journalists and newspapers break the law at will and are not held to account for years even though it is openly admitted – all to obtain more money for their publications.
A celebrity culture that says you can earn money for notoriety and not for achieving something constructive.
Time and again those at the upper echelons of our society do not get what they deserve proving we do not live in a meritocracy but a nepotistic one, awarding failure and cutting off opportunities for others.
3) Family life – It is clear that the behaviour of a section of our society do not know the difference between right and wrong. Boundaries have been taken away and some families are completely dysfunctional. We need to be brave and ask why? Frank Field investigated this and wrote a paper handed to the government 8 months ago. It was kicked into the long grass by the government, but we need to investigate this further and not simply give a tax break to married couples which is as useless as handing them a chocolate tea pot.
4) Education – How can we as a society accept that 17% of 15 year olds are affectively illiterate. How can we not see the correlation between illiteracy and crime when 70% to 80% of those in prison cannot read and write. How can we accept a post code lottery on whether children go to a good or bad school. Giving people poor education is the equivalent of shutting the door of aspiration in their faces.
Why is it that teachers have their hands tied behind their backs in preparing the boundaries of behaviour for our young people and why are they not backed up by some of the parents? How can we change this culture?
5) Social mobility – Our society today has not been as unequal as it is today since the 1920’s. After WWII our society became more integrated, more equal in terms of wealth, wealthier and social mobility increased. In the past 30 years this trend has been reversed, is this a coincidence?
6) Law and Order – Michael Howard said “Prison Works” – 20 years later we have been told by Kenneth Clarke that “prison does not work”. In truth they are both wrong. Prison works when it protects the public from dangerous people. The public would like our justice system to provide sentencing that is equitable with their crimes.
When you have dangerous violent crimes being given light sentences; when you get people convicted of knife crime getting a few months in jail and serving less than a third of their sentence; when you get MP’s like Jim Devine sentenced to 16 months in prison for ripping off the tax payer and abusing the highest office in the land and yet is released after serving only a quarter of the sentence, is it any wonder people do not believe they will be either caught or punished?
I am all for more community sentencing and alternative forms of punishment and a focus on rehabilitation, BUT people need to know that people convicted of serious crimes are severely punished and that there are the prison places available for them.
7) Lack of Community – Our overwhelming pre-occupation with the individual and the lack of “belonging” seems to run throughout our society. I do not wish to make a political point, just a fact that we need to face up to, and that is that we devastated communities in the 1980’s, most of which have never recovered. I have lived in various areas of the country and until recently, I had not lived in a real “community” since I was a child in Birmingham. Political leaders like to give lip service to community, but I doubt if many actually know what it really means.
8) We accept unemployment is acceptable in our society – I am well aware of the poverty trap and welfare dependency, but we have a systemic problem that unemployment is accepted as a part of our system. Indeed it is a necessity in order to suppress wages and to encourage people to do the jobs the rest of us do not want to do. Should we now question this approach?
None of these possible causes on their own is a reason for an anti-culture in our society, but they all need to be investigated and considered. It is the combination of many factors that creates the society in which we live and if we want to prevent this “underclass” from growing larger in numbers and for this complete disregard for civilised values to stop, we need to have a good look at ourselves and how we can break this cycle.