So many questions arise when considering the riots that have engulfed Britain over the last four days… Who’s to blame? Why are they happening? What can be done? When will they stop?
I’ve witnessed a multitude of responses to these questions in the press, social media, conversations with friends, family and colleagues. One of the most common has centred around the condemnation of the rioters, who in the eyes of many are clearly the ones to blame. While on the face it this would seem like a common sense answer I would contend that this is an all to lazy response that ignores anything other than the immediate reality on the ground. And if we want to find answers to the questions about how to make sure this doesn’t happen again we need to look at the events in a broader context…
One of the features of modern Britain is our embrace of individualism, it pervades all elements of our culture. It centres around the idea of personal responsibility and self reliance within an environment that offers individual freedom. It extols the virtue of free choice and light touch regulation, it lies at the core of consumerism (the right to choose what we want to consume and how we want to consume it). Yet it is this pursuit of this agenda that lies at the very heart of the breakdown in society that has led to the riots.
Politically individualism is embodied by the Conservatives and it enshrined in two key principles they pursue relentlessly, both of which drive inequality:
- Free-markets – though “free” is used under advisement this principle centres around the idea of minimising regulation of the mechanisms employed to facilitate the sale and purchase of commodities. The idea being that this provides the most efficient way of allocating available resources. However, another key feature of this arrangement is the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few; as the old saying goes, money makes money… And the more you have the more you’ll make. The bi-product of someone making loads of money is that it is at someone else’s expense.
- Low flat rate taxes – low taxes mean a smaller government, this is desirable in the eyes of conservatives as it believes the individual is better placed to figure out how best to spend the money they have available. However, this ignores the fact that some services governments provide are there to level the playing field (e.g. social housing, healthcare, education, etc…). Flat rate taxes are supposedly fair as they apply the same level of taxation to all. However, if we reflect on the inherent unfairness of free-markets flat rate taxes only exacerbate the gap between the haves and have nots.
We can choose to reject either one or both of these ideas at the core of individualism, but if we continue to accept both the level of inequality will only continue to rise. And it is inequality that lies at the heart of the matter.
What evidence is available to support the view that inequality lies at the heart of the riots? Looking specifically at the prominence of rioting itself we can look to other developed nations and their position in terms of inequality there is startling evidence to support the contention that the riots should be expected in countries such as Britain. Take the USA (the most unequal country in the developed world) do you think this could happen there? Well, there are 10 riots recorded in the US in the last decade alone! What about Japan (one of the most equal societies in the developed world)? The last riot in Japan was in 1970 (ironically it was in protest at the US military presence and was put down by US military forces). More generally the impacts of inequality in society are set out pretty definitively in The Spirit Level (by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett), it shows the impact of inequality on society (NB Britain is one of the most unequal societies), as well analysing the underlying behaviours that inequality creates.
Accepting that the riots are a result of the gross inequality in Britain, there is still a question about whether or not the riots actually represent a form of protest. Many hold the view that the riots are simply a result of opportunism and group-think, refusing to countenance the possibility that there is any political basis for the rioting. If we look back to the 1980s to find the last time there were riots of a similar nature in Britain in Toxteth and Brixton many people including the media recognised they were at least in part political protest. So what differentiates these riots in the eyes of the world?
Clearly the nature of the riots is different, looting is wide spread, and there is little or no dialogue with the rioters. However, there are good reasons the mode of rioting is different, the participants in the Brixton and Toxteth riots were drawn from a much heterogeneous set who were able to articulate their grievances about unemployment and heavy handed police tactics. Today’s rioters do not seem willing or able to articulate a similar message, but should we therefore assume there is no reason for their actions beyond opportunism and thuggery? After all their reality is rather different. Remember most of the community in Toxteth had been skilled manual labourers from the docks and manufacturing who were part of an established community; whereas today’s rioters are the product of generations of long-term unemployed, living in atomised communities with only minimal education. As a result they are unable to articulate their anger other than the wanton destruction of property and conflict with the police. But despite the justifiable objection of wider society to the rioters means we must recognise their anger is authentic and justified.
So what is to be done?
If we are to follow the individualist’s agenda we find a dearth of solutions. Perhaps we could lock them all up as they refuse to follow societies norms? This doesn’t sound like a particularly practical or effective solution. It doesn’t address the underlying causes and the idea of prison as a deterrent doesn’t seem particularly credible given our ever increasing prison population. Other solutions available to individualists seem few and far between, although I’d be happy to hear from any readers with any ideas of this particular oeuvre.
The alternative… We could consider targeting deprived communities, providing funding for eduction and training, provide financial support community based groups (remember funding has been cut by more than 50% for most of these organisations). More radical solutions might include:
- Government sponsored set-up of new green industries in former industrial town and districts, creating jobs and a hub for communities to gravitate to; or
- A social housing programme to address the chronic shortage of housing for the disadvantaged (currently 16,053 households are on council house waiting lists in Haringey with only 740 new lettings becoming available per year).
But what of the cost? Well its a pretty simple equation, you can spend the money and avoid having your property damaged and enjoy feeling safer and more secure, or you can choose not to spend it and face an increasingly uncertain and insecure future. Perhaps the time has come to recognise that even our own interests are best served by some compassion and altruism for other?
I’ll leave you with a quote from someone who understood what’s happening better than most and a couple of recommendations for some reading on inequality…
‘When you cut facilities, slash jobs, abuse power, discriminate, drive people into deeper poverty and shoot people dead whilst refusing to provide answers or justice, the people will rise up and express their anger and frustration if you refuse to hear their cries. A riot is the language of the unheard.’
– Martin Luther King Jr.
Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists – Daniel Dorling
Chavs – The Demonisation of the Working Class – Owen Jones