The UK Riots: What Should Be Done?
It is easy, when confronted by the news that groups of mostly young people have been rioting in London and other parts of the country, to dismiss the people involved as feckless opportunists, intent on causing destruction to property and stealing goods from looted shops. It is easy, but simplistic. Likewise, it is too simplistic for those on the left who attribute the serious criminal damage, destruction and threat to life wreaked by the rioters as symptomatic only of government economic policy and welfare cuts, as if the people involved had no agency in the matter.
Many commentators and friends have done just this in the last few days. Many on both sides ignore or downplay the complexities of the issues. If you live in an area that suffers from lack of investment, lack of jobs and poor housing, it is certainly not logical to burn down shops, small businesses and homes. Yet, it is not “mindless”, a phrase that has already been used many times across the political spectrum. While the riots may be very difficult for the majority of us to comprehend, those who rioted and stole from shops knew what they were doing and chose to do it.
Yet to write this all off as a bunch of bad people doing bad things misses important aspects of why and how this could have happened. Interpretation is necessary- for human actions are not simply about what people do but instead why they do them and what meanings are signified by those actions. Trying to understand why people have taken particular actions is not the same as condoning those same actions.
Social life does not consist of simple cause-effect mechanisms. While social unrest is often sparked by local factors, it is unlikely to erupt unless there are underlying conditions and resentments that make it possible. If the death of Mark Duggan provided the spark that lit the tinder box, as Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, has suggested, then an examination of the tinder box rather than the spark may offer a better account of why these events occurred. In short, the rioting had little- if anything- to do with Duggan, certainly outside Tottenham.
These riots show that the UK has significant social problems relating to inequality, unemployment and alienation- a feeling among some young people that they are completely disconnected from the geographical area in which they reside. (The word "community" denotes some kind of shared belonging, hence it has not been used.) How else to explain the destruction of the streets and shops near where one lives?
Yet, the scale of these problems should not be overstated, nor should the involvement of youth. As David Lammy, MP for Tottenham and also born in the area, has pointed out, the majority of young men in Tottenham did not take part as they have been "brought up to show respect". Not only did the vast majority of people in the affected areas not take part in the violence, thousands of people banded together to help clean up by using the same social networking techniques that the rioters had used to cause destruction.
But how to resolve the underlying issues? An obvious starting point would be to reverse the planned budget cuts that the police are facing. It is inconceivable that 20 per cent can be saved without losing front line officers. Yet, policing only deals with symptoms rather than causes. In the longer term, this can only be resolved by restoring hope, reducing inequality and making possible social mobility across all of society. This means better education, affordable and available housing and job prospects for all. Yet this would take time and significant political will.
A long term resolution may be further threatened by the danger of an over punitive response. While those responsible for wrongdoing must be held to account, reactionary proposals, such as evictions from social housing, cuts to welfare for those who took part, or encouraging parents to beat their children, would be counterproductive. Sinister elements, such as the racist English Defence League, are also trying to racialise what happened in order to boost their destructive and divisive agenda.
Governments cannot legislate for good behaviour. Yet they can legislate for greater equality. Some commentators have pointed out that the acquisitive looters seeking maximum personal gain without any care for the consequences, were mimicking the behaviour of the most obnoxious parts of the financial services industry, the very industry whose recklessness has reduced the living standards of many people in the areas of rioting. Any talk about regulation of financial services is often dismissed as “red tape” or as something that would stifle the alleged creativity and entrepreneurship of bankers. Yet, rules are exactly what the banking industry- and much of the rest of our society- has long ignored. If voluntary codes of practice are inadequate, then mandatory standards become essential. We have seen this with MPs’ expenses.
Increasing the tax contribution of the rich and ensuring that banks operate accountably within a viable framework of rules- that they facilitate rather than dominate the economy- certainly make sense. Yet these measures alone would not resolve what ails us. Ultimately, responsibility resides with all of us; the responsibility not just to be an efficient worker or a good student, but to be a good citizen too. To recognise that our personal worth is not measured by what we possess, or by the size of our salaries or bank accounts. That we are not just atomised individuals but part of something wider; a community, a society.
Yet good words mean little if you cannot find a home to live in or afford to pay the rent. Talk of getting a job is meaningless if there are 54 people for every job vacancy, as in Haringey. Trying to gain experience is not possible for many when internships are unpaid. We need a society that is fair and responsible; that rewards success and values people rather than just property. A society that has low unemployment and high social mobility; that has an education system that seeks to build character and virtue, as Rowan Williams has suggested, rather than just churning out young people with paper qualifications.
We need robust conservations, debates and policies to help bring this about. But ultimately it is up to us as to what we value, what we prioritise and how we behave. Unless we make the right choices, policy will not translate into a better society.
15 August 2011
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