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.

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