After the Riots … just fire-fighting?

I was invited to speak earlier today at the London Asian Fire Service Association conference The Riots – A Year On. This is what I had to say.

There is something to be said for the view – often held to be a conservative one – that society has broken down, or at the very least those communities affected in London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, broke down during last year’s riots. Those few days revealed that something quite serious had gone wrong, something rotten had been left to fester for too long.

We can ridicule the conservative for banging on about a moral decline that can be traced back to the Sixties. But what of those who hark back to the only slightly more recent Eighties as a supposed explanation. That’s when the rot set in say some of those on the left. I should probably say that I use the terms right, left; conservative and radical with abandon here. But they haven’t meant very much in a while.

Still are those supposedly radical (or is it left-liberal) commentators with their belief that mass looting and violent disregard for one’s own neighbourhood is some kind of statement about socioeconomic disadvantage, any closer to the truth? Or have they just swapped one excuse for another? Is the notion that we are more selfish and consumerist any more of an explanation than that society has become more permissive?

At least old-fashioned conservatives had a set of convictions that they stuck to regardless – even if all that is left is a conviction for convictions of rioters, or even virtual rioters. The absence of which is, in my view, one explanation we might entertain. Especially as the decline of the sorts of institutions about which they felt so strongly (e.g. the Church, the family) – not to forget those held dear by the left (i.e. the trade union movement) – has left a vacuum. The welfare state has extended its reach as they have collapsed, but as an institution it tends to engender relationships of dependency and entitlement.

In the absence of a clear left-right distinction, or institutions that might have a more positive role to play in the life of communities, the solutions tend to converge. So while the coalition were quick to blame problem families for the riots – a category created by New Labour remember – those who regard themselves as progressive were busy pitying and patronising them with talk of providing parents with ‘support’. The language may sound more liberal, but the result is much the same.

Parental determinism – the belief that parents are responsible for just about every social problem you care to name – is rife. They are made scapegoats on the one hand for society’s problems, and yet denied the opportunity to decide for themselves whether to smack their children or not, on the other. To his credit David Lammy MP for Tottenham made this very point after the riots even if he too in his book about the riots – Out of the Ashes – returns to New Labour type when it comes to proposing policy solutions.

Much the same can be said about the discussion of young people and the riots. Youth unemployment is a huge problem today. With over a million young people out of work in the UK, and there are over 5 million unemployed in the European Union – that’s more than 20% of the EU population – it is a problem that can hardly be underestimated. But that doesn’t mean it should be used as an excuse for the riots – not least because it was a phenomenon confined to Britain, actually it was very English – anymore than the Sixties, the Eighties or so-called problem families. However dire the situation may be and however clueless the political class might be when it comes to proposing solutions; this is not just an economic problem.

The stay-at-home generation where young people opt to stay at home with mum and dad rather than venture out into the big bad world is one troubling trend. The much-cited unemployability of young people is another. It is not just that times are hard. Times have been hard before but – to use a quote I thought I’d never use – there was a time when we might expect young people to ‘get on their bike’ whether it was to look for a job, or just experience life beyond their own – or at least their parents’ – doorstep. Instead today society seems beset by punctures or else insists on finding all sorts of excuses for leaving the metaphorical stabilisers on.

Which brings me to the rest of us – the grown-ups. From problematized parents to put-upon police officers, our authority and self-respect as adults has never been more in question. While the violent tantrums of youth are indulged and given unwarranted significance by their ventriloquist dummies in the left-leaning commentariat; those who should be holding the line – quite literally in the case of the police – are no longer able or its seems willing to. Whether its teachers unable to control their classes or police officers complaining about being called names by government ministers; traditional authority figures and the institutions they embody, are experiencing a profound crisis of confidence. While young people are infamously informed about their rights and have an unequalled sense of entitlement; adults are much diminished. They don’t know how to exercise what authority they might have, far less back each other up.

Given all this is it really such a surprise that those communities collapsed? It’s a wonder that it didn’t happen much sooner. Indeed so emptied out of authority are those that once exercised it that few dare to go much further than suggest we engage communities with this or that initiative. To boost people’s confidence or protect them from their own vulnerability. But this is no answer either. As before, the language may sound ‘supportive’ but it tends only to undermine. I spoke at an event last week about community engagement and came to the conclusion that sometimes it is better that we – by ‘we’ I mean the authorities, or those in the public, community or voluntary sectors who make-believe that they represent the community – don’t engage.

I think those of us who see it as our job to ‘do something’ about the riots should at the very least hesitate. If we get the analysis wrong, and in my view nearly every report and comment piece on the riots so far has, then to act on that wrongheaded analysis can only make things worse. We might do better to disengage from the community for a moment, and engage with the problem presented by last year’s riots in its own terms. What happened in those few short days of last summer was quite unprecedented. It had never happened before in quite that way. It wasn’t a rerun of the Eighties riots. It had no political content whatsoever. That was grafted on afterwards by commentators, researchers and politicians looking for a new hook for old arguments.

I think we should all, like doctors, take the Hippocratic Oath. For those of you that haven’t read it – I had to Google it myself – I am referring to the bit that says you should ‘first, do no harm’. Medical practitioners around the world are taught this important principle. According to Wikipedia: ‘It reminds the physician and other health care providers that they must consider the possible harm that any intervention might do’. This is not so much a reminder for us as a warning – and one we should take very seriously if we don’t want to undermine communities further – that those of us seeking to intervene in communities should think about the potential harm we might do by the very act of intervening.

I’ve already talked about how figures of authority, whether they work for the state or reside in communities, are routinely undermined these days. By constantly questioning the capacities of parents to bring up their own children; by giving credence to the highly dubious excuses of rioters; by insisting that communities can’t cope without us ‘supporting’ them, we inevitably do damage. The questioning and doubting alone make it very difficult for people to work things out for themselves. By constantly intervening – however well-intentioned our interventions might be – we implicitly, if not explicitly, infantilise the very adults who we expect to set an example to the young people, and they were mostly young people, who set out to destroy their communities. Darra’s report concludes by arguing that it is the responsibility of the authorities to put individuals, families and communities ‘back on their feet’.

No it isn’t. That is the responsibility of individuals, families and communities themselves. To say otherwise is not only patronising, it is also wrongheaded and liable to reinforce the dependency of young people who have picked up all too easily on the message that they’re owed something; or of the 120,000 so-called problem or ‘troubled’ families – or the Panel’s 500,000 ‘forgotten’ families – that are the lucky recipients of no end of supposedly supportive programmes; and of entire communities who are told that they need ‘building’ by us. We might flatter them and say we’ll involve them in this or that, but they’re dependency on our interventions is at least the start and usually the end of it.

I should probably admit to an interest here. Not as the old-fashioned ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ Tory some of you might take me for – that would be to forget what I said earlier about the old poles of left and right not meaning much anymore. No, I’m a community engager. That’s my job. I spend most of my time intervening in neighbourhoods on behalf of public and voluntary sector organisations; while, of course, reminding myself of the Hippocratic Oath. So I am sympathetic to those of you in the room who spend your time – when you’re not fighting fires – running various community initiatives. You, like me, are only trying to do what you think is best to avoid those ugly scenes of last summer from happening again. Or to make some sort of improvement to people’s lives. You might even kid yourself that you’re empowering people, or involving them or doing wonders for their self-esteem.

I just ask you to ask yourselves whether what you’re doing is really for the best, whether the community you are working with is really going to better off as a result? Is it going to stop the riots happening again, or is it going to contribute to the conditions that made them possible in the first place?  In other words, is it just going to be another in a long line of initiatives that far from building communities actually just chips away at their foundations? There is a lot of talk – not least in the Panel’s report – about building the ‘character’ of young people, and the resilience of communities. But these sorts of qualities – and they are very desirable qualities – can only emerge from within communities. They cannot be taught or built from without. That can only happen if we leave them alone a bit more, and intervene a lot less.

I will be speaking at the Battle of Ideas this month at the debate Pop-up Communities: here to stay?, part of the After the Riots strand at the Barbican.

In defence of hierarchical community

This is my contribution to Post-Riots, One Year On: Is there space for an individual response to community? at Union Chapel, Islington earlier this evening. The debate was inspired by Dixon Clark Court Symphony, a dual-site exhibition and collaborative project by Artist in Residence, Sarah Strang.

We were asked to say something about the ‘meaning of community today and how it can be meaningfully engaged with’. There is no end of projects tasked with engaging communities, but whether this is meaningful or not is a moot point. And what is meant by ‘community’ is something else again. I’ve spent the last couple of years or so running this sort of project myself. And at the risk of doing myself and lot of other people out of a job, on balance communities would probably be better off without us. If we stopped trying to engage communities, and instead disengaged, they might have a chance to breathe. There may be some good engagement projects out there. Like my own of course! But on the whole, whatever their good intentions, their impact on communities are likely to be a negative one.

To get an idea of what I mean, try Googling community engagement and see what you get. My top results included NICE guidance about ‘involving communities in decisions on health improvement that affect them’. This, for the lay person, means fostering anxiety about the alleged health impacts of decisions people make about how they live their lives, to ensure they are the ‘right’ ones as far as we think is healthy for them. Then there was the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on Community Engagement and Community Cohesion which recommends not just community engagement but ‘community engagement support’. This is to manage the supposed hostility that the white working class inevitably visits on vulnerable ‘new arrivals’. It’s hard to know what to object to more, the portrayal of the natives as Neanderthals or of immigrant communities as inherently vulnerable and helpless.

There is even a Centre for Community Engagement at the University of Sussex. Their ‘Citizenship Research’ focused on how ‘adult learning might play a part in developing the skills and attitudes people need to engage as citizens’. This isn’t just community engagement either. This is community engagers wanting to engage with ‘adult learners’ about how best to engage as citizens, in much the same way that children are taught citizenship at school. Which rather reminds me of Matthew Taylor of the RSAs desire to create more ‘active’ citizens. This, he thinks, is the job of the state via a bit of nudging and behaviour change.

Either way, whether we’re to be ‘active’ or ‘engaged’ citizens, you kind of get the sense that what is really meant is pliable. They want to build – while involving us in the decisions of course – communities of compliant citizens. The sort that don’t ask awkward questions, but do put the rubbish in the right bin, eat the right sorts of food, get enough exercise, turn out to vote regardless of what’s on offer, and hold the right sort of views about immigration. They want to create healthy communities of healthy citizens, cohesive communities of citizens that are always nice to each other, and sustainable communities of citizens living sustainably. But, as we all know, thankfully, real citizens and real communities just aren’t like this. We tend to have minds, and ideas, of our own.

The panel were also asked while the ‘idea of community is widely discussed in policy terms’, what of the ‘subjective experience of community’ which is ‘more nuanced and ambiguous’? ‘Is there space for an individual response to community?’ It seems to me, as I’ve already indicated, that a meaningful response to community is being crowded-out by a hyperactive and actually rather damaging state-led communities agenda. Consequently the individual experience of community is one that remains hidden or else processed in terms that fit with this official version of ‘community’. The instinct to intervene, both on the part of the state and the state-sponsored voluntary sector, is so great that it has co-opted even the initially permissive rhetoric of the Big Society. Such is the contempt in which ordinary people are held that our self-appointed defenders insist that we need their ‘support’ to even take part. Whatever the problems that communities face they are never truly regarded as capable of solving those problems themselves. The ‘enabling’ state is built on the notion that people are not capable of solving their own problems. Why else would we need enabling? And why else would we need the state?

This was perhaps most striking following the riots. An unprecedented and unexpected episode of violence directed mostly by young people against their own communities was first met with an impotent and panicked response by the authorities; and then – along with belated tough talk by politicians and over-the-top sentencing in the courts – by a reverting to the old familiar and wrongheaded social policy agenda that arguably played a part in creating the conditions for the riots in the first place. And as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred after all. The problem, we were told in all seriousness, was ‘problem families’ – apparently there are exactly 120,000 of them. They were ultimately to blame for the riots and could be expecting a multi-agency visit from the authorities.

But not only were parents told that the state knows best how to bring up their children – no doubt having done such a good job of looking after so-called looked after children. Those residents, who decided, in the absence of an effective police presence, to police their own streets, were also blamed. In fact it seemed that everybody and everything except the rioters were blamed for the riots. So while, we were told, it was nice to see them take to the streets with their brooms as part of the spontaneous riots clean-up, the allegedly-EDL supporting folk who took to the streets of Enfield were just vigilantes. While I have no sympathies with the EDL, indeed genuinely-EDL supporting saddoes took to my own streets of Walthamstow just a couple of weeks ago; in both cases they had every right to do so. And whatever their politics they were a more real expression of their community than anything imposed by community engagers from without.

The response of the authorities and illiberal commentators that we can’t allow people to just walk up and down their own streets like that, illustrates both the fearfulness of, and contempt for, real living communities and what people really think. The meaning of community is today so distorted by patronising assumptions about how both pathetic and potentially thug-like we all are, that it is hard for other takes on community to get a word in edgeways. Both an inability to project their own authority and an undermining of ours – both as parents, and as citizens concerned for the neighbourhoods we live in – is at the heart of both the difficulty with getting to grips with what community is all about, and with the reasons for and best ways of responding to what happened to those communities last year.

In my view this government’s and the previous government’s communities agenda tends to undermine communities rather than help them. The very language of community building and of supporting its ‘vulnerable’ members denies any space for more considered reflections and – I hesitate to use the word – engagement. This is because the obsession with community is a projection of the state’s own problems onto society.  The political class long for community because as a distant, cut-off elite they crave the sense of belonging they think it promises; making an unconscious analogy between their inability to connect with us, and the very real breakdown of some of our communities. They see the politics of community as a way of overcoming their own loneliness. After all, we can barely bring ourselves to vote for them, never mind join their parties or get worked up about their petty politics.

And I’m not just talking about the coalition. For all his ‘this government is out of touch’ rhetoric, Ed Miliband’s New Blue Labour is doubly cut-off both from the labour movement and from the working class communities in which it was, long ago, so firmly rooted. The liberal left – who I might add are neither liberal nor what I would regard as on the left in any historically meaningful sense – blame the 1980s (and Margaret Thatcher in particular) much as conservatives have long blamed the 1960s for the breakdown of community. They accuse those of us not willing to indulge the rioters’ excuses of being very right wing and blaming individuals instead of ‘the system’. The truth is that left liberals are forever individualising what are in fact social problems. Blaming greedy bankers and sleazy politicians for society’s problems may sound radical but makes no more sense than blaming The Pill or The Beatles.

Of course community, like the family, is not all good. Indeed, so anxious have we become in the absence or decline of the kinds of institutions that once helped us make sense of the world and each other, be it the Church or the TUC; and with no little encouragement from the supposedly ‘enabling’ state, we tend to think community’s problems are much worse than they really are. We refuse to believe that crime is falling and believe all to readily that ‘behind closed doors’ one of the neighbours is abusing their children while another is plotting a suicide attack.

We are so estranged from each other and so encouraged to think the worst, that the extension of the state’s remit and the erosion of our own is barely noticed. Which also makes communities increasingly unknowable not just for politicians, commentators and artists, but for those of us who loosely-speaking live in them. Our relationships with each other, no longer mediated by institutions in which we might invest our ever-diminishing trust – are increasingly reliant on weak and fleeting encounters, and prone to the kinds of individuated anxieties that weaken them further.

But while we should defend them as havens from officious intrusions; they shouldn’t be settled for, or regarded as in any way ideal. Not because they are hierarchical – which I’ll, finally, come to now – but because they can be parochial and inhibiting. We were asked ‘how hierarchical power structures within communities can provide and also fail to provide space in the public realm for individual and collective responses of both belonging and loneliness’. As I’ve tried to argue, it is not hierarchy but it’s erosion in our communities that we should be most worried about. The legitimate authority of parents in families, and by extension of adults in communities, is fundamental to their effective functioning. The undermining of these relationships, can only further the evacuation of authority from young people’s lives.

The riots and other social problems associated with communities today are in large part the consequence of too much engagement not too little. If community is to have any meaning worth engaging with, beyond that created for it by social policy wonks like me; then real living communities need to begin asserting their authority and rejecting the patronising assumptions that the communities agenda and the interventions it deems necessary are built on.


I was debating Changing our Behaviour: What is the role of government? recently with Peter John, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University College London and an adviser to the Behavioural Insights Team at the Cabinet Office.

As far as I’m concerned when it comes to our behaviour government doesn’t have a role. But, more to the point, why all the talk about ‘changing our behaviour’ in the first place? The very language is degrading. As I told the audience, you and I are not laboratory rats that exhibit this or that behaviour. We are citizens; we make up a civil society. We live in what is generally understood to be a liberal democracy. The role of government is to represent us. To come up with a set of ideas. To help to shape society for the better. To lead us out of economic crisis or maybe tackle the crippling problem of welfare dependency. Of course it has fallen short of such expectations. But that doesn’t mean it should tell us how to behave instead.

And yet the policing of people’s behaviour has come to fill a hole where politics used to be. The politics of left and right has given way to endless lectures about our right and wrong behaviours. Whether its public services creating better citizens, public health zealots telling us we need to change our lifestyles or no-less zealous environmental campaigners claiming that putting the right bit of rubbish in the right colour wheelie bin will save the planet …  we are forever being told to behave ourselves.

Even the shocking scenes of unruly youth setting fire to their own communities in last summer’s riots are understood through the prism of behaviour. Barely before the smoke had cleared these unprecedented events were being used as a pretext for intervening in the poor parenting and anti-social behaviour of an improbable sounding 120,000 ‘problem’ families. But surely this summer’s celebration of the seemingly superhuman sporting achievements we call the Olympics is immune to the demeaning interventions of the behaviour-changers? As my next blog for the Huffington Post will explain … far from it!