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.

Irresponsible politicking after the riots

And so, after the confused and impotent response to last month’s riots, came the supposedly more considered policy statements from the party leaders.

Prime minister David Cameron – rather forgetting the ‘yes we can’ rhetoric of the big society – returned to his pre-election theme of mending Broken Britain. There were a number of proposals, or rather re-statements, on welfare, policing, human rights, and the national citizens service. But the real headline grabber was his promise to intervene in those ‘troubled families’ (120,000 of them to be precise) apparently tearing their communities apart. Like opposition leader Ed Miliband, he cited the three-headed monster of ‘greed, irresponsibility and entitlement’, otherwise known as bankers, MPs and journalists (though not necessarily in that order), as somehow implicated.

While the notion that the ‘slow-motion moral collapse’ of those inner-city communities had anything to do with these least-esteemed of professions is just daft, Cameron at least gave the impression that he understands the gravity of the problem. Which is more than can be said for the newly complacent former prime minister Tony Blair, who characterised such talk of moral crisis as ‘high falutin wail’. Commentators have reminded us of Blair’s own proclivity for hijacking rare tragedies and turning them into moral panics for political gain. Most infamously, Jamie Bulger’s juvenile killers were turned into the anti-icons of youthful amorality, and shamelessly hijacked as an opportunity to remove the legal presumption of doli incapax. That Blair now regards such stuff as ‘good politics but bad policy’ only confirms the wilful cynicism of the man.

But all of this misses something important, Blair’s comments were otherwise entirely in keeping with Cameron’s. His government’s policy of intervening ‘literally family by family and at an early stage, even before any criminality had occurred’ is being followed slavishly by the coalition. The same wrong-headed assumptions about the failures of parents, and the legitimacy of state-meddling in families, just in case the kids become criminals, goes on unchallenged. Blaming the parents – especially the estate-dwelling tracksuit-wearing ones with their ‘multiple problems’ – has cross-party backing. But this is precisely the dependency-inviting, autonomy-grabbing approach that has so eroded the sense of responsibility that Cameron claims he wants to restore to communities.

Iain Duncan Smith, another early intervention crusader, thinks the riots are but a glimpse of a bleak future. We’re in the ‘last-chance saloon’, he says. But he is wrong to seek a showdown, alongside fellow gunslinger Theresa May, with the gangs that he claims coordinated those nights of nihilism. The gangs are more a property of the fevered imaginations of officialdom than they are the steets of London, Birmingham or Manchester. The problem is bigger than that. Which is why deputy prime minister Nick Clegg‘s community ‘payback’ scheme for convicted rioters, and communities and victims panel, will have little impact. Listening to ‘victims’ to find out what the hell happened in those frenzied few days in August 2011 is not just a pointless gesture. It underlines the cluelessness and rioter-like detachment of the ‘authorities’ from the society the rest of us live in.

A riot of ill-informed commentary and impotent authority

You’ll be pleased to hear that I won’t be posting my views on the pros and cons of Payment By Results (PBR) in the social care sector. I’ll leave that for a quiet news day. Now that Cameron and Milliband have given their diagnoses – and Clegg has been acting improbably tough today – I have some belated comments of my own to make on recent events in London, Manchester and Birmingham. I will just say one thing, for those with an interest in social care. Oliver Letwin at that KPMG talk agreed that people using personal budgets are best placed to drive innovation in the sector. It is patronising to suggest that they lack mental capacity or need to be protected from their own decisions, simply because they use social care. I asked Letwin another question.

Surely the Open Public Services White Paper isn’t that radical. There is a good deal of continuity with over a decade’s worth of ‘modernisation’ under New Labour, isn’t there? He acknowledged it was in a ‘line of evolution’ with Blairite thinking on public services, and that the rhetoric bore a strong resemblance to that used by his predecessors. They too were all about promoting choice and empowering people. At least that’s what they said. But the coalition are much ‘more consistent’ and committed to ‘making it happen’ across public services. Whether you believe that or not, the fact remains that things have changed. It is not the case that the Tories have reverted to type as the headlines screamed following his speech. Far from it. The policies pursued by the coalition are remarkably similar to those pursued under the preceding New Labour governments.

And this is where I segue into the the riot of ill-informed commentary that has been doing such a bad job of getting to grips with something else that is quite new. For all the competing arguments used to explain the riots – and an opportunism from the likes of Ken Livingstone and Harriet Harman that was more than a match for the looters – it is this idea that nothing has really changed that predominates. Its the same old Tories doing the same old damage to the social fabric, they say. Which is the sort of thinking that gives trying to make sense of the rioters actions a bad name. Such a resorting to tired cliches is, after all, as pointless as the riots themselves. There is, nevertheless, an explanation to be had.

Two things can be said with some certainty. The riots of August 2011 were not a re-run of the riots of the 1980s. Though you wouldn’t think so given the censorious reaction to the usually insightful David Starkey, they had nothing to do with race this time around. Having said that, they did have something to do with the politics of multiculturalism – an ideological response to those earlier ‘race riots’ that has arguably contributed to today’s. Certainly, as Toby Young argues, moral relativism has a lot to answer for. And the second thing? The rioters weren’t reacting against state repression or police brutality, or anything else much. Quite the opposite. The impotence of the authorities – if we can still call them that – was exposed for all to see. As Mick Hume argues, the theatrical ‘fightback’ staged for the cameras, with raids on housing estates and the round-the-clock court sittings, didn’t make them look any more effectual.

So what other excuses have there been? The cuts, poverty and inequality, or a combination there-of have been cited ad nauseum. But as economic commentator Daniel Ben-Ami argues, these are long-standing features of capitalist societies, and people don’t ordinarily riot as a consequence. As for those who cite the evils of consumerism as somehow to blame, this is just an unhelpful ‘attack on aspiration’. In a similar vein, Brendan O’Neill, is irritated by those who seem to blame ‘neoliberalism’ and 80s-style greed for anything and everything, and now the riots:

… it is not Thatcher’s alleged cultivation of individualism and competition that nurtured the riots, but rather the welfare state’s decommissioning of those things, its silent war on working people’s social networks and self-respect.

Of course, there is also a problem with blaming the welfare state. Conservatives have been doing that for some time without lending any insights to the discussion. This post-war institution has, after all, been with us for 60-odd years – and has brought benefits (quite literally) as well as costs. However, as the sociologist Frank Furedi explains:

… in Britain the provision of welfare has mutated into a culture that encourages people to regard their circumstances as not a temporary phase but as a way of life. So the problem is not the provision of social benefits but the normalisation of welfare dependency as the defining feature of people’s life.

Which brings me back to where I started. The Tories have changed and not necessarily for the better. For all the talk of welfare reform and the ‘big society’, they are at least as implicated in the therapeutic-bent of today’s welfare policy as New Labour. As I discuss here. The culture of dependency was made tangible by the crisis afflicting the police, the proverbial red rag to a bull. But the crisis runs much deeper. Adult authority in general has collapsed. According to criminologist, Stuart Waiton:

From the top of society down there is a tendency to flatter, patronise and counsel the young as therapeutic, self-esteem focused techniques replace clear social and moral authority.

Dennis Hayes, co-author of The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education, likens the riots to childish tantrums. Which wouldn’t have been so bad if they were stamped out rather than indulged. There were exceptions though. As Hayes argues, shopkeepers protecting their livelihoods and their neighbourhoods showed:

small signs of the possibility of a society where personal and collective responsibility begins to grow without the nanny state and its therapeutic institutions

Tessy Britton, author of Hand Made, is also encouraged by the sense of community to which the riots inadvertently gave rise:

The citizen-led clean-ups that happened across the effected areas in the days that followed the riots, lifted our spirits and gave us back a bit of hope that society hadn’t quite unravelled in the way much of the press seemed happy to promote.

And yet it would be naive to ignore the warning signs. As O’Neill makes clear, the reaction to Enfield’s vigilante ‘fascists’ puts official enthusiasm for this sort of thing in doubt. It seems that the powers-that-be are less than comfortable with community-building when the community starts building itself. But perhaps more importantly, as Furedi argues, there is a reluctance even to acknowledge the profundity of the ‘urban implosion‘ that the riots brought to the surface. And perhaps, after all, this is where the dysfunctional politics of social unrest and social care, respectively, might shed some light on the biggest problem of all. The politicians have, for some time, maintained a rhetorical commitment to putting people ‘in control’. But this is impossible while there is suspicion of the exercise of authority. Without it we are unable to truly take control of our lives and of the communities in which we live. Whether its a feeble culture of policing, or social worker aversion to ‘vulnerable’ adults making decisions about their own care – its time we put failing adult authority in the dock.