On my way home this evening the normally quiet pavements were thronged with people forced to walk; their buses unable to get in or out of Lewisham, where the town centre was locked down by riot police dealing the with the worst disturbances in the borough since the Anti-Nazi League faced down the fascist National Front in 1977.
Of course things have moved on since the dark days of the 1970s. Or have they? Home Secretary Theresa May returned early from her holiday to declare events a problem of ‘sheer criminality’. She didn’t bother to offer any context; presumably because she’s doesn’t think there’s anything more to it.
Context Not Soundbite
But context there is, and it couldn’t be more obvious: If the spark was the shooting by police of a man in Tottenham, the background, just as it was when Brixton went up in flames thirty years ago, is the worst economic crisis for decades. If Theresa May is right, and it is just a question of criminal behaviour, then why doesn’t it happen every time the police get excessively trigger-happy? Why didn’t Chelsea erupt when Barrister Mark Saunders was killed in hail of bullets fired by seven marksmen from the Met’s CO19?
In places like Tottenham, Lewisham and Hackney, there are thousands of young people who left school years ago, and have never had a job. Even if they hadn’t been failed by the education system, there would be no jobs for them. There haven’t been since structural unemployment became a permanent feature of western economies. It’s a wonder there haven’t been riots on this scale every summer since 1979. These sheer criminals would seem to have a pretty high tolerance for being treated as second class citizens.
“Get on Your Bike and Look for Work”
It’s surely no coincidence that Hackney, Haringey and Lambeth are the three London boroughs to have suffered most from the spending cuts forced through by the government under its austerity programme. But while the cuts may have brought things to breaking point, there’s a bigger question that needs to be asked. What kind of society arranges itself so that the only way to keep young people occupied is by spending tax payers money to build youth centres and swimming pools, so young adults have something to do?
People want and need jobs. Everyone needs a degree of economic security and some confidence that it will continue in the future. When growing numbers are denied these basic human rights, the social contract breaks down. People don’t riot when they perceive society to be reasonably fair; when they have access to viable economic opportunities; when they can earn a reasonable living for themselves and their families; and when, as a result, they develop a sense of self-worth and a belief that the rest of society is happy to count them as full and active members.
Beware of the Men with Nothing to Lose
The mainstream media, and most of the expert commentators to whom they give a platform, are already condemning the riots in the most superficial and blinkered fashion; determined not to understand the underlying causes. It’s not a question of whether the rioters are right or wrong; the current conflagration was inevitable given the condition that growing numbers of people, effectively excluded from both education and the economy, find themselves: with no hope, and with absolutely nothing to lose.
The dominant neo-classical model of economics offers no solution; in fact it has led us directly to the current crisis. A radical restructuring of the economy so that everyone has a genuine stake in the mechanisms by which wealth is generated, is crucial. Other solutions are no more than sticking plaster. If we are not prepared to countenance radical economic reform, then we look forward to riots becoming a regular feature on the social landscape.