Friday 12 August 2011

Why politicians don't get the riots

Nick Clegg asked today why an 11-year-old would feel so alienated from their community that they could trash it.  He is asking the right questions, but he is one of the few politicians to do so

But the politicians have returned to Westminster yesterday, and the new political language which does not have ‘aspire to own tat’ at the heart of it has certainly not arrived yet.  In fact, much of the political positioning on the riots has been deeply depressing.

No, it is not about people who are so poor they are hungry – you can’t eat flat-screen TVs.

No, it is not about leniency – Britain relies more on prison for young people than most other countries in Europe (and why are we sending those convicted to prison?  To become real criminals?).

No, it isn’t about the cuts – the symbols of state authority were largely ignored compared to the lure of the superstores.

No, it isn’t about ‘broken Britain’ – the response of communities around the country, acting together to protect their high streets and to clean up the mess, is a sign that Britain is not broken. So is the shocked tones with which Le Monde announced that there were no water cannon on mainland Britain.

No, it isn’t about immigration. In fact, the Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson suggests that Latino immigration to the USA, with their strong sense of family and community, is one of the reasons crime is falling in the USA.

Why is it that the political Left rejects the idea that disorder is partly about the breakdown of family life? On the other hand, why is it that the political Right can’t see that family breakdown has been driven by high house prices, shift work and job insecurity?

Why is it that those who talk about the ‘culture of entitlement’ don’t see that this applies equally well to our banking elite, and their greedy record of extraction, as Compass suggested today?

The truth is that both Left and Right have a great deal to answer for creating this culture of entitlement, from the feral underclass to the feral elite – for abandoning their moral vision for society and replacing it with retailing.

Both have been responsible in the UK for the corrosion of community and family life by the wrong kind of economics.

We have to pretend for a while that foul fair and fair is foul, said John Maynard Keynes. It maybe that the riots mark the last gasp of this pretence – because foul is not useful after all if it leads to moral, spiritual and mental decay.

This is no time for glib solutions to what is a moral crisis as much as a practical one. But part of the solution is going to have to be rebuilding local relationships by reforming our public services.

We need services that are human scale and capable of reaching out into their surrounding communities and rebuilding reciprocal links. That is the co-production agenda.

It is the antidote to the factory schools and hospitals, and the inhuman technocratic institutions into whose tender mercies we now fling those communities which have bred the rioters and which have in turn been torn apart by them.

It isn’t just glitzy and inhuman materialism which has created the riot generation, it is inflexible and inhuman services.

Unfortunately, our political elite sees neither of these problems very clearly. It is up to us to articulate them in such a way that they do.


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