Riots without a cause?

First published in Huffington Post

Despite what Ed Miliband thinks, August’s riots were not the poor equivalent of what Cameron and Boris Johnson got up to at the Bullingdon Club. Cameron has struggled to live up to the old Tory image.

Though he has made much of a ‘slow-motion moral collapse’, a ‘broken society’ and how some people just aren’t taking responsibility, in the absence of a compelling moral case of its own the government has fallen back on behavioural pseudo-science. The sort of interventions into our behaviours and lifestyles, into our communities and the way we raise our children; that further extend the role of the state in people’s lives, exacerbating the problem of dependency that is so demoralising for those on the receiving end. And, in my view, that created the conditions for the riots in the first place.

The post-riots policy review is all about revising ‘the signals that government sends about the kind of behaviours that are encouraged and rewarded’. But who is to blame? The former government’s ‘Respect Tsar’, Louise Casey, is now effectively the Riots Tsar, with a brief that covers ‘problem families, school truancy, antisocial behaviour and gangs’. She is to produce the obligatory Action Plan this month, hopefully explaining what all of this has to do with the riots. Perhaps the review of so-called ‘gang culture’ by Theresa May and Iain Duncan Smith, or Nick Clegg’s panel on the riots, will find the culprit. Maybe its those 120,000 apparently ‘troubled families’, or the 100,000 children identified as ‘falling through the cracks’ and destined for Clegg’s summer schools?

Julia Unwin at Joseph Rowntree Foundation argues that while it might be tempting to blame ‘poverty, bad housing, poor life chances or weak parenting’, the ‘overwhelming majority of people living in poverty had nothing to do with these events’. While Unwin nevertheless ends up citing the usual suspects of the recession, alienation, a lack of social mobility and the evils of what it brings should you be so lucky, it is indeed apparent that there was something else going on in August (a something that will no doubt remain under the surface for some time to come). It wasn’t gangs or social media either. The former were shown to have played an insignificant part in the violence, and a quarter of rioters were ‘unknown to the police‘ – and Facebook and Twitter were used as much to organise the ‘clean-ups’ as they were to network the looting.

Patrick Vernon of Afiya Trust plays the race card. He claims that black communities were depicted during the riots as ‘mad, bad and dangerous’ in a kind of ‘retro racism’. This is about as off-beam and misjudged as David Starkey’s infamous comments on Newsnight. Starkey’s argument that the riots demonstrated that ‘the whites have become black’ was a little blunt to say the least. But the important point is that, like Vernon, he was not especially insightful. The censorious reaction to what he said – and the same goes for the overblown response to those recent comments made bySepp Blatter – demonstrates that while race had little (if any) part to play in the riots, all it took for the intolerant advocates of toleration to go on the offensive, was the mere hint of provocation.

This makes Vernon’s call for a ‘non-judgmental perspective in understanding and exploring the causes and potential consequences of the riots’ rather ironic. Especially as he goes on to pre-judge the work of the panel by trying to establish the causes of the riots with a shopping list of ‘big issues’ of which race relations is one. And yet, as well as a corrosive culture of dependency, it seems to me that also behind the riots, and the reason why the panel will ultimately fail, is a culture of non-judgmentalism when it comes to the truly big issues. While right-thinking types are all too keen to strangle debate in the name of equality or protecting the vulnerable, there is an almost palpable reluctance to talk about morality, authority, and notions of right and wrong. All of which no doubt makes me sound very right-wing but it shouldn’t.

Even if you remain unconvinced, and you think the rioters had some genuine grievance rooted in material disadvantage, may I refer you to the wiser of the ex-Oasis brothers, Noel Gallagher. He got the riots right when so many commentators got it so very wrong. Also speaking on Newsnight, but making more sense than Starkey or anybody else for that matter, he said: “it’s hardly the French Revolution was it … it wasn’t politically motivated, it wasn’t particularly against anything … it was all for tellies and all that”. “There’s many reasons for those riots” he acknowledged “but there is no excuse”. I think we should take Noel’s advice and stop making excuses.

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