We do not live in a broken society

It is not only the glaziers and shop-fitters who will benefit from last week’s riots. Criminologists, sociologists and psychologists will be busy over the next few months as they try to provide answers to the violence that erupted across England. Some will blame “Broken Britain” and point to a collapse of the family, of moral values and respect. In fact I have just been listening to David Cameron blaming the riots on our “broken society”. Others will blame the cuts. Here are my initial thoughts.

Firstly, there is little doubt that the police lost control of the streets on the nights of 6th and 7th August. In Tottenham and Wood Green people were looting with impunity and the police were nowhere to be seen. Perhaps scarred by the Tomlinson affair and criticism of their aggressive tactics the police held back or were simply wrong-footed. Everything followed from this. News of an absent police force spread quickly and copycat looting spread throughout London, and to other parts of England over the next few days. Many young people were caught up in the excitement and the chance to acquire some new stuff. Some of the rioters were well off and in work, but overwhelmingly they came from poor areas and it is estimated that 70 percent of those charged to date have a previous conviction. So this was opportunistic shopping with violence, largely carried out by a criminal underclass or people swept up in the passion of the moment, without any clear social or philosophical cause. People in the Middle East may be rising up for freedom and democracy but people in Croydon and Manchester were rising up for a new TV or a pair of trainers.

Secondly, let’s get the numbers into perspective. Most incidents around the country involved only a few hundred people, with fast moving gangs rampaging through the streets. At most, I would guess that no more than 20,000 people were involved in the rioting and looting. This is a tiny minority of young people and an even smaller minority of the population. This is not some kind of mass uprising and to imply that it represents a fundamental societal problem is nonsense. Far right groups probably have a similar number of active supporters, but do we see that as a symptom of a sick society? I don’t think so.

The truth is that sporadic riots have been a feature of English life for centuries. In 1780, around 50,000 Londoners took part in the anti-Catholic “Gordon riots” – 285 people were killed by the army and 20 rioters were subsequently executed, although Lord Gordon, who had instigated the whole event, was let off. The riots damaged Britain’s reputation abroad: many countries saw British democracy as an inherently unstable and weak form of government. But Britain went on to become the greatest power in the world.

Today, many commentators will seek to explain the riots on some underlying sickness in our society. But to claim that we live in a “broken society” is an insult to the vast majority of hard-working decent people, many of whom have been helped by housing providers to seek work and improve their educational chances. It also ignores the massive progress that has taken place over the past two decades in education, improved community relations and, not least, relationships between the police and the communities they serve. Of course, there remains a core underclass, addicted to consumerism and a nihilistic culture and impervious to education and aspiration. Housing providers have been at the forefront of trying to deal with some of this group, providing community facilities and educational opportunities, but more needs to be done to bring these people on board.

If you want to look for wider causes, there is clearly a problem of inequality in this country, and if we are to talk about moral decay then you need to start at the top, with bankers and politicians, and Cameron was right to highlight this in his speech this morning. But I am doubtful that most of the rioters had these thoughts, or anger about the cuts, at the forefront of their minds as they went about their business last week. There is also a danger of a “kneejerk” reaction to the riots, spurred on by the tabloids and some politicians. Jailing someone for six months for stealing a few bottles of water is out of proportion, in my view. Similarly, evicting a family because one of its members has been convicted of looting is not right. Not only is it a double punishment, but why is social housing seen as some kind of perk that can be withdrawn, whereas education and healthcare are not?

But the riots also showed the good face of society. After the tragic events in Birmingham, the Muslim community – so often demonised by the tabloid press – has emerged as united, strong and dignified in the face of tragedy. Kurdish shopkeepers in Hackney and Sikhs in many parts of the country came together to defend their communities from criminality. Individual cases – such as the on-line campaign to help 89 year old Aaron Biber whose barber shop in Tottenham had been trashed, raised £25,000 and restored your faith in human kindness. The Malaysian student who was robbed as he lay injured in the street has also been overwhelmed with gifts and support. The riot clean up organised through Twitter attracted thousands of people with brooms and dustpans. If you want to see the Big Society in action this was it.


(This blog first appeared in Inside Housing on 15th August 2011)

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