The riots are, for now at least, over and so the search for reason begins.
But let us first talk about what it wasn’t. This was no cry for help from a social underclass with no other outlet for their frustrations. We now know that, along with the teenagers and the long-term unemployed were teachers, graphic designers and many, many graduates with good jobs.
Neither was this a response to the cutting of Educational Maintenance Allowances, or any other cuts come to that – including police cuts. Any Labour MP suggesting otherwise should have their comments immediately disowned by Ed Miliband and be made to sit on the naughty step.
It was coordinated violence and theft perpertrated by criminals against their own communities. All those caught should be tried and sentenced under the full force of law. If they lose their jobs and their homes, so be it – if you show complete disregard for your community then why should your community show regard for you?
That said, when we see teenagers, even pre-teens (the youngest person charged to date is 11-years old) stealing, setting fire to buildings, throwing bricks at the police it is clear something has gone very wrong indeed.
For me, it is the product of a myriad of reasons both political and social – starting in the Thatcher era (maybe before, but for people of my generation history pretty much begins with Thatcher) and continuing to present day – all of which have ripped the heart out of community cohesion.
Politically, there has been a prolonged and systemic attack on the value of community. Under Thatcher’s Government for sure, but an attack that continued, albeit less obviously, under Labour and has shown no signs of stopping with the coalition. Instead of communities, we talk of ‘hard-working families’ – leading to a sense that your responsibility starts and ends at your front door. This is fine when things are going well, but what about when you are struggling and need help and support? Too often we live in a tiny cocoon unaware of what is going on around us and unwilling to find out. When was the last time you checked in on your neighbour, just to see how they are?
At the the same time (and linked to the above) we have seen a delegation of responsibility from communities to the state. There is a reason that police didn’t used to have to focus on low-level anti-social behaviour – the community policed it themselves. I remember once, when I was a teenager, coming home to an angry looking father who had been told by a neighbour that I had been swearing in the street, hardly knife crime I grant you, but enough nonetheless for a stern rebuke and an active disincentive for me to be caught doing it again. This type of anecdote seems barely plausible in a modern society. In Clapham, a group of nearly 70 people stood outside a pub watching as teenagers looted shops along St Johns Road, some even wandering down the street, taking photos to post on twitter – looting became a spectator sport, rather than something to confront and admonish.
We live in a more transient society, particularly within our cities. Knowing you are probably not going to be in the same place for more than a year or two acts as a disincentive to get to know those living around you, which is fine except when you do choose to settle down you have forgotten how to. Not knowing your neighbours, the person who serves your coffee every morning or sells you your newspaper means a disengagement from the community around you. I know it sounds all very fluffy, but again I grew up in a place where you knew the people who owned and worked in local businesses. I went to school with their kids, given this, looting and arson was really not on the agenda.
In trying to build a more equal society, it feels at times we have actually built a more expectant one. A society where too many people feel entitled. And entitled to the wrong things – not high quality education, a world-class health service and a helping hand when things are tough but instead a well-paying job without putting the effort in to get it, the latest phone/TV/pair of trainers, respect without earning it. I am not going Tory here, but it is important to speak up when we have got things wrong, and this is one of those areas.
Finally, our establishment is broken. We have a political class that is not just untrusted (which is hardly a new phenomena) but increasingly disengaged and out-of-touch with the lives of their constituents. I am not against people going straight from University to work on the parliamentary estate before being parachuted into a seat, but when this becomes the primary route to becoming an MP we have a problem. Diversity is not just about race, gender, sexuality and disability. It is about class, profession and experience. But this is not just a political problem – trust in all areas of public life is at an all time low. The Police are seen as corrupt and, at times, inept; our Press is untrusted and in a fight for it’s life in a brave new digital world; and who would be a social worker or a senior manager in a local authority? Without respect and trust in those who work on our behalf and belief in the media who help hold them to account then how can people hold out hope for a better life?
Complex problems require long-term solutions brought about by high-quality debate from our country’s brightest people – something which I hope will start today with the recall of parliament (though I fear not). But we can all do our bit to help mend society – next time you see someone upset in the street, go and ask if they are OK; smile at strangers (and not just the attractive ones); look people in the eye; have your neighbours round for drinks, find out the name of your local shopkeeper; get involved in a local club or society – this is your community, don’t be a bystander.