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Saturday, 20 August 2011

Would the riots have happened if there was such a thing as society?

As some of you will know, I was in the Question Time audience last week for the special recording of the programme to discuss the London riots. I wasn't able to make a comment as so many people put their hands up (although I did get to ask my 5th choice question on whether there are any circumstances in which vigilante behaviour is acceptable - my answer to which is absolutely not, but it is understandable when the police seem unable or unwilling to do their job).

But the most important conversation I had in terms of my own ability to make sense of what had happened was with a man who had grown up in Liverpool and had been 18 during the Toxteth riots in 1981. He made an interesting point to me. "The whole focus of government policies since 1979 - and I include Labour governments as well as Conservative governments in this - has been to disentangle people from each other, to divide us, to give us no reason to feel part of society and our community, to make us literally climb over each other to 'win', with there being no reason not to act in our own self-interest. This country was rebuilt after the 2nd World War by making us want to work together, live together, even BE together. Then it all changed, and these riots are the results of whatever 'society' we are left with."

He couldn't have put it better - which is why I wrote down on a piece of paper everything he said. As I've said in a previous article (click here), nothing should be left off the table in our attempts to solve the root causes of these riots. But ultimately we may well need to have a fundamental reassessment of how we are governed and the macro-incentives (i.e. the reasons our economy gives for people to act in a certain way) that influence our behaviour.

I have written before on my blog about the extreme poverty that some children in this country are brought up in. I have written this month about a boy in my old school whose brother thought that the prison he was in for six months gave him a better life than at home. At the same time I have written about a hedge fund managing director who decided to buy a harrier jet with his spare money. Look at MTV and the "entertainment channels" and you can see programmes like "cribs" or reality shows featuring the children of the extremely rich. Get the Financial Times on Saturday and you get a magazine called "How to spend it" free with it. We genuinely need to think about whether it is OK and acceptable that there are such massive inequalities in our society, and in particular how they came about.

Some people, for instance, have got rich by lending money to people they knew couldn't pay it back. Some people have got rich by packaging up those loans that were never going to be paid back and selling it to other people. Some people stay rich by avoiding tax to such a massive extent that they pay a lower rate of tax than their cleaner. People have complained over the last few weeks over the rioters' just being happy to take from society without giving to it. Well, they aren't the only ones.

Another question people were asking was why the rioters were causing so much damage to their own community. They were smashing in and looting the shops on their own high street. They were setting fire to shops and home on their own streets. We need to consider why the rioters might feel in fact that they don't actually have a community.

Of course, the politicians don't set the greatest of examples. One of the reasons that they might find it so difficult to argue that it can be no excuse in court to say that the only reason someone looted a shop was because 'everyone else was doing it' is because that was the exact excuse so many MPs made during the expenses scandal. The fact is that wherever young people look today they can find examples of people taking from society as much as they can whilst seemingly giving much less.

There were many attempts to interview some of the youths taking part. Lines like "we're showing the rich that we can do what we want" suggested that the speaker felt that this country had allowed the rich to be an example to the them. Then there was "we're getting our taxes back". Now, leaving aside the possibility that most of those involved in the riots were not taxpayers, the inability to understand the purpose of taxes in terms of building society is also telling.  Is that because the 'society' that is being built and maintained by those taxes doesn't seem to include the speaker of those words?

The problem with all this is that I don't know an answer to it. Those who are ideologically rigid will have had their say already, but as I have said before, the answers will come from all angles. I know what I would like to do with our education system, but that's for another article.

What I do know is this: Something has to be done to make everyone in the UK feel part of each other's country. Something has to be done to change "us and them" into "we".

The fact is, we had 18 years of Conservative Party Policy followed by 10 years of New Labour,  followed by a financial crisis that has effectively made the tide go out to reveal the population of our country separated from each other in so many ways.

Those of us who study politics will know, as did the Liverpudlian whose thoughts I began this post with, that after the second world war we rebuilt Britain together, based upon a 'social democratic consensus' that helped a country still riven with class differences, to see itself as a society and community that worked together. 

Given we lack the money to solve this problem , we are really going to need to use our brains, because we could do with that consensus again. 

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