Most of the explanation attempts at this dust-settling stage for the recent riots have been centred on deprivation and low opportunity from the left, and inherent lawlessness and ‘Broken Britain’ culture from the right. One side criticises the State for doing too little. The other for doing too much.
Whilst some of the users of these explanations are seeking to make political capital from them, most are genuine attempts to explain the chaos we’ve seen over the last week.
My contribution to the immediate reaction is that both of these sets of explanations have elements of truth. But also that both miss something crucial.
Because the #ukRiots hashtag seems to have overlooked one big thing. Barring some relatively very minor reported incidents, and a few pre-emptive arrests, Wales and Scotland have not seen this wildfire of law-breaking. These have been English riots; specifically inner-city English riots.
The thing that I think people on both sides of the spectrum are missing when apportioning blame or seeking explanations, is us. And I don’t mean the “us” that the right would blame: the individual. I mean “us” as a section of society.
Merthyr Tydfil is often cited as some sort of human wasteland. Much as that caricature is utterly untrue, it undoubtedly has deep socioeconomic issues. Unemployment is painfully high. For every 1 JobCentre vacancy in Merthyr there are 19.9 people on Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA). That is compared to a UK figure of 5.6 JSA claimants per JobCentre vacancy. Unemployment between the ages of 18 and 24 is 12.8% compared to the national figure of 6.9%. Young people in Merthyr also have fewer qualifications than the rest of the country. For example, only 38.2% have NVQ3 level or above compared to 51% nationally.
The statistics are eye-watering. And, in addition, the people also feel the problems.
When I was in Merthyr recently speaking to a local party member, he was worried that “…we’re coming onto the 3rd generation now, where the family has been unemployed.” He didn’t say that in the way The Sun would report it. Or in the way Iain Duncan-Smith would say it. He said it with genuine, heartfelt worry.
The thing is, these stats and these problems don’t differ too much in Haringey, Hackney or Lewisham. I would argue that puts a rather large question mark against the explanations of the left and right briefly summarised at the start.
So where does the explanation lie?
It is, as far as I know, largely unquantifiable, but communities like Merthyr tend to be closely knit. In my South Wales community, families live close. Even when the kids fly the nest, they often stay nearby. And those families know other local families. People know people. If I so much as kicked a football at a neighbour’s door when I was growing up, that neighbour would either give me a dressing-down or tell my Mum so she could give me one. Sometimes both. I also remember a specific incident when I attempted to try alcohol for the first time. As I sat in a park with my other, underage, friends in the teenage anticipation, my football coach walked passed. After a barrage of expletives, I was stripped of my sole bottle of alcopop and dropped from the next game.
It made me grow up with an attachment to my community and an understanding of my place and responsibility in it. I knew that the community mattered. That it was mine, but also that it was other people’s. And that endangering it in even the smallest way would land me in trouble. It’s the same attachment I felt people have in Merthyr. Dai, a local community activist I met, drove me around the town for over an hour. He showed me the different parts of the community, explained the problems, told me stories about people there and about the businesses and industries. It was a helpful exercise for me to get to know Merthyr. But it was way more helpful to understand the sense of attachment that people like Dai have to the place.
And I’d happily have my hypothesis challenged, but my guess is a similar theme of community prevails in East Ayrshire, where there are 30.8 JSA recipients per vacancy, attainment of NVQ3 and above is 46.4% and unemployment among 18-24 year olds is 12.1%. All those stats. But no riots.
Having lived in London for two years, I’ve seen a massive difference from my South Wales community. You feel the isolation. People don’t seem to just gather or speak. Again, this is all unquantifiable. But more people than I have said similar things. Think of the stories in passing you hear about spending half an hour face-to-armpit on the Tube. One thing that Welsh friends often say to me, in a tone of utter bemusement, is “nobody talks on the bus”.
This is about relationships. Ed Miliband has touched on this in the not-too-distant past. We need to renew our relationships in our communities. Atomisation of families, even atomisation of individual people, has led to a lack of belonging and a lack of attachment to the community. As an interview on TV with one of the rioters in Manchester showed, there is often no fear of consequence. But that consequence shouldn’t just be from the police. It should be from the neighbour, or the mother or the local community institutions and leaders. That understanding of personal responsibility and of personal accountability starts at street level.
This atomisation neither happened because of the State, nor is it curable by the State.
The scenes that have shocked us all represent a failure of numerous elements of society: our State, our politics, our markets. But we must also face up to the fact that they represent a failure of our own making. And only we can change that now. Scenes of riot clean-ups were heart-warming and encouraging, but unless they are the start of a real renewal of communities and relationships they will only momentarily mask the problem we have.