The man on Sky was eloquent and succinct last night when he said that ‘his entire livelihood has been destroyed, without any apparent reason’. The man was the owner of a business in Croydon, which had been burned to the ground by a group of marauding thugs. Yesterday the growing civil rest became very worrying indeed; turning from a small and fairly contained violent protest supposedly around a specific issue in Tottenham to looting, arson and violence in a number of neighbourhoods all over London, Croydon and even as far as Birmingham.
The political reaction has been weak and disappointing from both parties. David Lammy was powerful on Sunday when he said that the riots there were ‘an attack on the whole of Tottenham’. David Cameron on the other hand issued a statement refusing to return from his holidays. Although ten minutes later the statement was retracted and the jet was fired up. Ed Miliband has been quiet, Ken Livingstone hasn’t missed an opportunity to make political gain from the riots, Boris Johnson is completely absent and quiet.
Commentators on each end of the political spectrum have been pushing their own agendas and narratives; socially liberal types on the left trotting out a never-ending list of poor excuses for the thuggish behaviour, conservatives not taking any interest at all in the real human and socioeconomic causes which led to the creation of this pressure cooker. What is in fact now needed is a mixture of the two approaches – clearly, and I can’t be clear enough on this, this violence needs to be squashed now, today, by whatever means we have at our disposal. But ignoring the socioeconomic and educational deficits behind this would be real folly.
On the surface there are a number of contributing factors: schools are out, the weather has been hot for weeks, kids are left to their own devices and there’s a glorification of a ‘thug’ lifestyle in the poorer parts of London. I know first hand, I lived through it and some of the people I spent time with as a teenager pursued crime and violence as a pastime. Seeing riots on the news at a time like this when they have nothing more productive to keep them busy will have encouraged them to go out and cause trouble. Parents aren’t at home like they once were during summer holidays, there is an enormous lack of things for teenagers to do and a shortage of good role models for disenchanted young men and women who’ve spent their lives in council estates.
There is little aspiration for these kids. Not from the school systems, their parents, communities or even from themselves. A life of crime and thuggery is an attraction. But that doesn’t in any way, shape or form defend their absolutely appalling and disgusting behaviour. Livelihoods have been destroyed. Whatever difficulties you may have had in your life, you are not excused from personal responsibility. This responsibility and structure must be a large part of the solution. I don’t call for a return to traditional military service but I guarantee that these riots wouldn’t be happening if we had some kind of obligatory service all summer which took kids out of their awful environments and taught them useful skills, pride, hope and aspiration.
There are deeper social and economic issues also. High unemployment is a real factor. Family breakdown can’t be ignored, even though we on the left find it difficult to face. I was raised by a single mother, I turned out okay (well, you be the judge!). I know children from two parent families who turn to lives of crime. Single mothers are absolute heroes, but we can’t deny the fact that 1 in 6 children spend as little as two hours or less with a male role model per week (if at all). Especially for males, this really does make a difference to life chances, avoidance of crime and behaviour as young men, as Barack Obama said in his book The Audacity of Hope.
The education system too has failed and led to more disenfranchised teenagers. School is where aspiration, hope and self-discipline are meant to be imparted in our kids. Inner-city schools are more likely today to be used as ‘damage control’ centres to keep kids off the streets, especially the ones from difficult backgrounds. Ghettoisation leads to thousands of kids never being exposed at school to different backgrounds. Classroom behaviour is a joke, and teachers are underpaid. Inner-city schools are failing thousands of kids with troubled backgrounds every year.
So there are a range of different issues leading to the riots we’re seeing. Have no doubt – the violence and looting all over London last night has nothing to do at all with the death of Mark Duggan in Tottenham. And even if it did, there is no excuse for such behaviour. We need to crack down sharply and put an end to this, by whatever means necessary. But once it’s over we need to have a real honest reflection on the state of our society today. There are real problems, many of which aren’t that hard to fix – there needs to be a call to arms to stakeholders like parents and teachers to give our kids better futures. Many problems of course need new structures, policies and funding; secondary education needs improving; kids need aspiration and hope; the economy needs to be sorted out.
Let’s not make political gain from a dire situation, let’s sit down and fix the real problems that led to this mess. If we don’t, we’re consigning yet another generation to the dustbin.