As London and the country take stock of the scale and unprecedented nature of the violence unleashed this week, we would all do well to avoid unnecessarily politicising the debate and instead take a look at the root causes. Only then will we be able to examine and address the long term malaise that has been eating away at our society for decades.
What the hell is happening to our country? seems to be the ubiquitous cry going out across London and other major English cities right now, as the embers of the last few days unprecedented rioting and looting begin to cool and the courts work round the clock bringing the foot soldiers of ‘Broken Britain’ to justice. But there is no singular or simple answer to this question and nor should we seek to find one however appealing it may be to our interpretation of the world. The answers cannot solely be found by an examination of the past either. No matter how many parallels one draws to the riots of the early 80′s there are just too many stark and glowing differences to view them as the same phenomena with the same causes. The sporadic, opportunistic and consumerist nature of these recent acts are just some of the hallmarks of these latest riots that set them apart from the previous riots, which had a more overtly political feel to them.
The arguments concerning the causes fall on a scale, which is tacitly political. On one side is the view that this is mindless thuggery and yobbery and the result of today’s youth growing up undisciplined and in a consequence free environment (the Tory / Coalition Government mantra, probably more reflective of public mood). On the other end of the spectrum is the view that this is an inevitable and direct consequence of spending cuts and government policies that allow the rich to continue getting richer and the poor to get poorer, thus exacerbating inequality and hindering social mobility to the point where something inevitably gives and there is a backlash (the Labour / left wing mantra, probably less popular). Both these arguments contain elements of the truth but the degree to which either side of the political divide refuses to give credence to the other is perhaps telling in itself of a creeping polarisation in our politics.
Economic hardship has always bred more extreme viewpoints and solutions, but they also seem to be breeding more extreme behaviour.
As Zoe Williams writing in the Guardian on Tuesday points out “just because there is no political agenda on the part of the rioters doesn’t mean the answer isn’t rooted in politics’. And so whilst I don’t hold with Ken Livingstone’s shameless electioneering and divisive politicking on television over the last week, casting spending cuts as directly responsible for the behaviour of violent thugs (whose opportunistic behaviour suggest avarice and a completely apolitical mindset), I do think that David Cameron’s simplistic explanations of this as simple criminality is lacking in any real insight as well. The fact is that these thugs don’t even differentiate between Tory and Labour, left and right, right and wrong, that they have no interest in politics, politicians and morality in general. They don’t stand for anything but themselves. Their choice of bounty is not indicative of those on the breadline either (how do you feed a family off a plasma television – unless you were to use it as some kind of table that is). These people are part of an underclass with absolutely no stake in society and therefore no connection to it or the communities that inhabit it either. They are nihilistic yes, but there is always causality to be considered when we examine social phenomena like this, and so we cannot sit back and take nihilism as an answer. Indeed, nihilism is a lack of an answer.
It has long been suggested that a country’s economic policies and levels of social mobility and wealth equality are potent drivers or infringements of its population’s ‘happiness’ (as measured by various scales and academic definitions). Cameron himself seemed to toy with the idea, proposing a £2m plan to measure the nation’s happiness back in November. But it is this kind of futile and meaningless political spin doctoring that highlights just how opaque the bubble that separates the Westminster Village from the rest of the country has really become. Politicians may create policy and in this way they are the stewards and captains of our country but they are completely ineffective as barometers of public mood. Whether he likes it or not ‘Call me Dave’ is inevitably impeded in his attempts at reaching out and finding common ground with the working classes because of the huge social divide which his wealth, class and status all represent. And the more the gap increases between rich and poor the more this impediment beceoms an issue to politicians of all hues. The degree to which economic inequality rises is therefore directly proportional to the inability of the political establishment to communicate with the fringes of society. And the more this scale tips towards social injustice, the more dislocated and disaffected the underclass become. And, as with any group in society, the more dislocated the become, the more prone are those within it to criminal behaviour.
Everyone with an iota of compassion or empathy has been appalled by the scale of looting and violence seen across our country and I for one found it quite frightening at times to watch London burn live on the 24 hour news channels (an innovation not available during the riots of the 1980′s). But we must be careful to reign in our emotions and not allow politicians to cash in on public outrage. Nor should we try to excuse it or shift the blame on to those other than the idiotic perpetrators. They may be products of social dislocation but they cannot dislocate themselves from the consequences of their actions and the full force of the law.
We on the left of politics should be very wary of adopting an immovable position on this and getting dragged into punch and judy politics the comes along with it. To do so would be counter productive and feed straight back into the social malaise that we seek to lament. This is a wakeup call for sure, but we need to be wary of gut reactions and take stock to try and take in all the factors at play here.
I myself do not believe for one minute that this is the result of spending cuts; to take this view would be simplistic and ignorant of the gradual decay and inequality that has set in, a decay whose evolution has spanned several governments both blue and red, as far back as Thatcher infact. As such this stance cannot in and of itself be accused of being partisan, because it is critical of politics in this country in general. David Cameron may talk about broken Britain but it’s British politics that are broken, and have been for a long time. Yes this is criminality but all criminality is a product of the society within which it is cultivated. We would do well to have that in the back of our minds as we look in disgrace at those who are to blame for this. If we fail, then we may never learn the lessons from this and if we can’t learn lessons then we can’t fix what is really broken in this country.