Sunday, August 14, 2011

UK Riots: Our wounded nation will not be healed by vengeful gestures

by Will Hutton

S. Paul note:  This article reflects those conditions in England which contributed to the riots last week.  We should take note of why the riots happened and how it could so very easily happen here in America. As Mr. Hutton so poigniantly states, "We are arriving at a major turning point in our national life. It is not enough to talk of being tough on crime and the causes of crime. We need an entire root-and-branch reshaping of our economy and society – where both rewards and punishments are judicious, proportional and deserved, and all within a revived and larger understanding of fairness"  We as Americans must all work to promote fairness and to reshape our own system not just to contain social unrest, but to holistically prevent it from happening culturally rather than militarily.

It was impossible not to feel horror, outrage and even fear at the images from England's streets last week. But the harbingers have been there for some time if anybody had cared to look. England's social and cultural ties that bind have been weakening and corroding for decades.

As a nation we are a lost tribe – disoriented, brooding and suspicious. There is no sense of collective purpose or shared destiny. It is a directionlessness intermingled with a destructive new conviction that a cornerstone of Englishness – a commitment to fairness – is being torched. Those at the top are in the forefront of the charge to grab what they can without any sense of their proportional and due dessert, or accompanying responsibility to the society of which they are part.

Of course there is no excuse for wanton criminality – as the prime minister, the archbishop of Canterbury and the leader of the opposition all said in a dutiful chorus and which was echoed afterwards by many of the repentant looters themselves in the magistrates' courts. But that does not help us much. We need to know why, and we need to get beyond invocations to better policing, tougher penalties and better parenting, however much they may be needed as part of the solution. The emergent consensus is that there was not even a higher political or social purpose behind what happened: it was mindless, feral youths and gangs – their members unparented – looting for the flat-screen TVs and trainers to which they wrongly felt entitled. It was an abysmal new social low.

Yet from the tweets and BlackBerry messages (BBM) it is clear that something more subtle and even more worrying was happening – and that there is a thread linking last week's destruction to other events that have recently hit our streets. It was only in April that there were arrests in Bristol as young squatters occupied a local store that Tesco wanted to turn into a Tesco Express – eight police officers were injured in the violent disturbances. And recall the shock at students running amok in their protests about tuition fees last autumn.

Then it seemed there was a thin carapace of legitimacy about the violence: opposition was explicable and violence at the margins of protest, while never to be condoned, can take place.

But there were also Clockwork Orange dimensions (Alex and his "droogs") alongside Lord of the Flies aspects (Jack Merridew's murderous boy tribe) to all these events. Our kids were summoned by tweet and BBM to have some evil fun (as some of the articulate looters have even described it), to break free from the dreariness of their lives and for a moment to rule the roost, cocking a snook at the "Feds" (the police). Anthony Burgess's and William Golding's warnings about the thinness of our social norms have proved ominously prescient. Now we discover that the wells of disaffection and readiness to make mayhem run much deeper than the unwanted side-effects of political protest.

This should not be a surprise. Of course Laura Johnson, from a £1m house in Orpington, or Alexis Bailey, a classroom assistant in a primary school, were apparently caught up with the disadvantaged looters. Just as baby-boomers, rich and poor alike, were part of a larger common life experience so are today's under 30s.

The Unicef report that in 2007 placed Britain bottom of 21 industrialised countries in the way it treated its children did not only single out child poverty as a cause of the problem – other factors included the factory-like education and training system, poor relationships with family and friends, the low subjective sense of wellbeing and the risks of everyday life.

Add to that picture private shopping centres that allow no public place for kids to gather, inadequate and now closing youth clubs, being routinely questioned by police just for being under 25, and being ordered to disperse, even if there are only two of them – all these impact on an entire age group. The dutiful, non-rioting young may work hard for their qualifications, degrees and apprenticeships. But they too could be forgiven for asking themselves: for what?

The country is economically stagnating. For anybody young and unlucky to be trapped in one of our sprawling sink estates through the bad luck of birth, what chance is there? Are their vanishing prospects in any sense deserved or fair? And the larger question that hangs over them all – where is Britain going?

Meanwhile, those at the top take as much as they can get away with. It is simply accepted that the highest rate of tax is without purpose because so many organise their affairs not to pay it – even famous knights such as Philip Green or Richard Branson, now reportedly considering moving part of his business to Switzerland. There is no word of disapproval from our financial and political elite; instead both enjoy knighthoods, and like the Murdochs, privileged access to the top.

We are arriving at a major turning point in our national life. It is not enough to talk of being tough on crime and the causes of crime. We need an entire root-and-branch reshaping of our economy and society – where both rewards and punishments are judicious, proportional and deserved, and all within a revived and larger understanding of fairness. We cannot let the brute bad luck of birth dictate destinies as lethally as they do in Britain. Nor can rewards be so gigantic for so little contribution or genuine innovation – or responsibilities be so widely evaded. We need a good capitalism and the good society that accompanies it. That is not where we are in August 2011.

Instead a triumphant, conservative right who dominate our national discourse – even while incredibly insisting that the country is in thrall to liberal dogma – believe that what has happened is validation of all it believes. There should be a crackdown that includes curfew and water cannon, say some from this perspective. Prison must be uncompromisingly tough with no early release or bail. A 100,000-strong e-petition is calling for convicted looters to lose their benefits.

All of this is understandable; already five people have died in the looting. There is a collective insistence that the looters should receive their comeuppance. Fairness – a doctrine that cuts across left and right – requires no less. But crucial tests must be passed. We should not hurt ourselves more than the looters have by moving to a vengeful police state and creating a new, more bitter class of dispossessed. Above all, we must do what works.

This requires a recognition that we examine our society in the round. It all connects. The wellbeing of the top and middle depends on the relative wellbeing and opportunities of those at the bottom. Societies cohere or they perish. England on this score fares astonishingly badly. Our social housing estates are, in Lynsey Hanley's words, vast people lockers. Once in, very few move out. A third of the bottom 10% of wage earners in 2001/2, reports the Work Foundation's Bottom 10 Million programme,were still there in 2008/9. Once unemployed, you are twice as likely to stay unemployed.

It is utterly demoralising, but those at the bottom are emotionally ill equipped to deal with a world of permanent knockbacks and refusals. As an American study has shown, by three-and-a-half a child of a welfare family has cumulatively heard many, many fewer words than a middle-class child – and a tenth of the words of encouragement.

Meanwhile, the better off have become ever better at "opportunity hoarding" – securing the places at the best schools (often by buying them)and, through their networks, securing the internships now so crucial for job offers. Is this fair? The luck of birth ever more determines life chances – the experience of many of those who went on the destructive rampage last week. They speak the truth when they say there is nothing for them. It is not an excuse: it is a social reality that requires redress.

But the prime minister and his government are sure of the diagnosis. Resisting an independent inquiry that might argue differently, the solution is a police-led crackdown, they say, reinforced by social security penalties on the criminality of a feral underclass – and we should all be grateful that David Cameron flew back from holiday to put some spine into what until then was a lily-livered response. The rest of Britain is in good health, they add. Moreover, it accepts the need for a massive roll-back of the state – including the police whose capability will allegedly be unaffected by a 20% reduction in police budgets – to retain a triple-A credit rating on our relatively low national debt.

Already the police leadership is challenging this narrative; vengeful policing as the arm of a politicised police state but with far fewer resources is doomed to make matters worse. But the rest of us should make common cause. What happened last week was enormous, and it requires a better thought-through response than Mr Cameron's. Of course the unprecedented rapidity and severity of the spending cuts – on everything from educational maintenance allowances to youth clubs and the police – have contributed to the malaise and must make matters worse. But they are not its cause, which runs deeper still.

Britain's credit rating – which the spending cuts are aimed to preserve – is a means, not an end. We need to understand what constitutes fairness: that we should receive our due dessert in proportion to our contribution – and society has a duty to mitigate the good and bad luck that comes its members' way through no merit or fault of their own. And then we need to act to create the capitalism and society that lives these values from the top to the bottom. It will be a Britain that has recovered its purpose; a prospect in which to believe – and one less likely to be disfigured by last week's riots.

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